5 Tips on How to Visit a Museum with a Social Justice Lens

Visit the American Museum of Natural History in NYC with a critical eye

by Angela Ruggles

Visiting museums is an incredible way to explore local art, history, and culture on your travels or right at home. Museums can also become a great tool to reflect on issues of social justice and are a great vehicle to investigate your own biases. There are simple ways you can ignite conversations with your family and deepen your learning with each visit by asking yourself and your kids certain questions about how you view museums and the objects held within.

As a museum professional and educator of over 15 years, I am no stranger to critiquing the institution and questioning the status quo. However, when I (as a white woman) became a parent to first-generation Egyptian-Americans, I started to ask how my children fit into traditional narratives within museum spaces. I also began to see the opportunity the museum, with both faults and triumphs, could become a place to help facilitate discussions on race and racism within my own family. 

With preparation and reflection, museums can become a favorite place of learning for families of all kinds. You will also get to see some fantastic art and culture in the process.  

Here are five ways to help shift your perspective and learn together: 

1) Understand how museums began

Museums are rooted in colonialism. The first museums were known as Cabinets of Curiosities which contained artifacts collected during trips to places colonized by Europeans. This catalog of objects was a record of the strangeness and otherness of people and cultures far away. Cabinets of Curiosities gave way to more organized forms of collecting and displaying objects from around the world, still displaying the “other” as inferior to the European. Knowing the brief history of museums gives a more critical eye in viewing how art and objects are organized, spoken about, and displayed.

The American Museum of Natural History in New York City is an example of an unchanging approach to human cultures. It displays many global cultures, as unchanging and static, while excluding any display of European cultures. A traditional exhibition approach like this is rooted in a colonial mindset, holding European cultures as superior or as the “default” culture. Don’t skip those museums like the American Museum of Natural History, rather, use the visit  as a way to start to investigate biases within our public spaces and white culture.    

Museums also have the ability as an institution to reckon with their racist history, unlearn and change to reflect our diverse world of lived experience. Ethnographic Museums (museums about people and culture) around the world have taken to the challenge. Changes take many forms such as ensuring more diverse representation on museum teams and boards, deeper community consultation, and in some cases, repatriation of artifacts and human remains. 

When you visit an Ethnographic museum, here are some great questions to ask in your family discussions of what you observe.

Critical Questions to Reflect On:  

  • Who is represented here? Who is missing, and why? Are cultures represented differently than one another? 
  • Who is giving me the information? Is it a curator? Is it a voice or many voices from the community?  
  • Does this exhibit also showcase current culture and artworks? Or is it only displaying the past? 

Museums to Visit:

2) Seek out museums that are by and about locals

When traveling, it’s so tempting to visit well-known museums, however, many of those big museums do not really tell you much about the actual place you’re visiting. Additionally, because more established museums often have a harder time changing, you’ll be less likely to hear diverse community voices. When visiting a museum with a critical lens, you might start to notice an exhibit using the voice of the curators as experts on a culture, not their own, or descriptions of artworks and artifacts that do not include the human story.  

Add dimension to your trip and take time to seek out a smaller local museum or gallery that speaks to the history, art, or culture of the place you’re visiting. If you are in colonized North America, a great place to start is Tribal-run cultural centers. When thinking about social justice, understanding how Europeans colonized the Americas and the genocide and whitewashing that followed from an Indigenous viewpoint is an essential step in unlearning. This history will feel heavy, but listening to Indigenous voices and celebrating First Peoples is a great way to honor and learn about their existing rich cultures.   

Additionally, exploration of a place can happen outside of traditional museum walls. The Museum of Homelessness in London is a community-driven museum that amplifies the voices of those who have experienced being houseless. The museum itself is without a permanent building but has used different spaces throughout the city and the UK to help visitors explore place and space through a social justice lens.  

Museums that look at how a local place is shaped might not always be the first on travel guide lists, but they will offer a worthy shift in perspective. Whether exploring through the lens of refugees, the LGBTQ+ community, immigrants, those experiencing houselessness or BIPOC folx (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color), the way a place is defined and created is as diverse as those who live there.  

Critical Questions to Reflect On:  

  • What am I viewing? Who is telling this story?  
  • What other histories might be missing? 
  • Whose voices should I be hearing? 
  • Am I learning about the place that I am?  

 Museums to Visit: 

The National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC has a vision for “equity and social justice for the Native peoples of the Western Hemisphere through education, inspiration, and empowerment.”

3) Seek out BIPOC Voices 

After the murder of George Floyd, museums were called upon by the community to evaluate their racist practices. Many museums rose to make statements of equity and inclusion and promises of change. At the same time, they also struggled to justify that BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) employees were disproportionately affected by layoffs during the early part of the pandemic.  

Before this societal call, some museums reflected on their colonial and racist past by incorporating diverse voices within their exhibits and staff. Identify these museums by looking for exhibits featuring BIPOC artists in their voice or by visiting a museum known to have a diverse team and perspective.  

Museums exploring the history of Brown or Black immigrant or enslaved peoples are great places to think more about a place and diverse lived experiences. We often walk through our cities with little knowledge of who built them or what has changed and disappeared as places become gentrified. Listen to those voices and step back onto the streets with more awareness and wonder at the history around you. (Check out these place specific articles for more ideas, New York, U.S. South

Seeking out museums that amplify BIPOC voices is an act of social justice but take the time to listen when you are in those spaces. Listen to the stories being told, listen to your own biases that may arise, and start conversations with your family.  

Critical Questions to Reflect On:  

  • Whose artwork or history am I seeing? How is it interpreted? What lens am I viewing it through? What biases do I notice within myself?
  • Who works here at the museum? Who are the curators and education teams? What have they been doing to change? How are they speaking to the community? 

Museums to Visit: 

4) Prepare and explore deeper

History and art are great conversation starters. Use a museum exhibit as a starting point for deeper exploration on topics within social justice. Prepare for your visit with your children by learning more about what you will see. After your visit, keep talking and learning. 

For example, if a BIPOC artist is featured, look into ways to support their work outside the museum walls. If a moment or movement in history left you wondering more, research that topic together as a family when you get home. What you see in the context of a museum is even more significant outside of those walls. Look at what communities may have been missing and research their histories.  You can also look to museums that focus on social justice like The Museum of Tolerance in Los Angeles, CA to help guide your discussions and approach.  Be critical and ask questions. The more you have conversations with your children through a social justice lens, the easier it will become to delve in. 

Prepare for your Visit: 

  • What materials does the museum provide online? Reading some background information on the exhibitions can help you engage your child with the museum space.
  • Who are the curators? Within an exhibit, you won’t likely find the biography of the curator, take a look online prior, and look for BIPOC curators or those who put community consultation and collaboration at the forefront of their work.  
  • What is the museum’s equity and inclusion plan? If in North America, do they have a Native land acknowledgment? If these things are front and center, you can talk about how you might see them evident within the museum space.  

Critical Questions to Reflect On:  

  • What did I learn today that surprised me?
  • Who was missing? 
  • How can I know more? 
  • What biases did I see in the museum? Within myself? 

5) Advocate for change 

Museums aren’t just for travel. Your local museums are community resources that have an obligation, by definition, to serve the community. Ask what your local museums are doing to support your city’s diverse communities and incorporate their voices or needs. Many U.S. children visit a museum for the first time on a school trip. If a child doesn’t feel a sense of belonging or see themself in a museum space, they won’t ask to return. A sense of belonging can come in many forms: viewing artifacts or art that they recognize or can connect to, seeing faces of museum staff that look like them, or an engaging museum program that respects their thoughts and experiences.  

The Crystal Bridges Museums of Art is a blueprint for what equity and inclusion practice could become. Their short-term and long-term goals span the entire operation of the museum, including anti-racist training for staff and ongoing community consultation. In late 2020, 32% of museum leadership were people of color, though the board remained predominantly white. Change is possible. Museums don’t need a large budget to begin. Like each of us, they need to take steps to learn, unlearn, and take action and we can help them do that by advocating for change within the museums in our own communities.   

Museums are not neutral like they often claim to be, they are constructs of colonialism and will continue to perpetuate white supremacy unless the internal work is done. La Tanya Autry and Mike Murawski are museum professionals who launched the #MuseumsAreNotNeutral campaign. They did not coin the phrase, but they started a global initiative, which continues to challenge museums to become agents of social change. Museums are meant to be public spaces to celebrate our collective culture.  Places where we can come together to learn about diverse human experiences and advocate for a more equitable world.  Are your local museums doing their part?

Critical Questions to Reflect On:  

  • How is my local museum connecting with communities of color? 
  • Who is part of the leadership? Who is on the board?  
  • What stories are they telling? Whose art is on display? What programs or events do they hold to connect with diverse communities? How do they react to relevant social justice moments? 

Actions you can take:

  • Connect with and support groups already advocating for change in the museums (see helpful resources below).
  • Learn about museum controversies and the repatriation of artifacts stolen during colonization to their origins.  
  • Show up for museum community events that support underrepresented populations and listen.
  • Become a museum member and use your voice and privilege to advocate for equity.  
  • Continue the conversations with your children about social justice in museums.    

Helpful Resources: 


About the Author

Angela Ruggles is a museum professional, an archaeologist, a yoga instructor, a self taught artist, and a mama to twins. Throughout her multi-faceted career, nature and environment have been the keystone in her research and projects around the globe. She currently runsThe Nature Atelier, which offers artful ways to connect with community, explore the natural world, and nurture the heart. Her small business combines  her passion and knowledge of museum education, environment, art, and yoga with the hope that her work can help to build a more vibrant and sustainable future for her twins’ generation.



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