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Inclusion – An Attempt at Definition

Inclusion: What is it?

At long last, Inclusion is gaining popularity in mainstream American museology. But is Inclusion the latest party word? Will it be tossed about the field in the same manner as words such as “Multiculturalism,” and “Diversity?” My deepest hope is that Inclusion will not become the latest vogue word to add to our conference proposals and grant applications…but that it will be utilized, even wielded, to make a true difference in our museums. As an educator, I know that the main way to pre-empt the death of new terminology is to define it exhaustively and early. We must do this now, and here is how:

As a museum theorist, I am often asked what is Social Inclusion? This question, posed to me by a wide range of museum practitioners has gone largely unanswered by our professional organizations. Today, we answer that question.

Social Inclusion: (verb)

The process by which societies combat social exclusion.

(Atkinson & United Nations, 2010, p. 12)

There. We did it. Any Questions? I bet you have a few. So let’s take apart this definition and figure out how it applies to museums…

First, Social Inclusion is inexorably linked to Social Exclusion. We have conceptualized the idea of Social Inclusion solely in relation to Social Exclusion. In this perspective, Social Inclusion and Exclusion are “inseparable sides of the same coin.”(Rawal, 2008) If we can understand the origin of the term “Social Inclusion,” we will be better able to define it and apply it to our museums.

The exploration of the term Social Inclusion begins with a historical examination of the antithesis: Social Exclusion. Provocative in nature, Social Exclusion emerged in Western Europe during the 1970s. Social Exclusion became the title of numerous economic and social injustices, essentially naming the problem without offering practical solutions. Over the past four decades, Social Exclusion has come to represent a broad variety of problems not limited to poverty, and not localized to Western Europe. By the mid-1990s the term Social Exclusion/Inclusion had become an essential part of UK political rhetoric and in turn, museum association discussions. The adoption of the term Social Exclusion in the United States is much more recent, gaining particular notice post-2000, as seen in the definition by Sheila Kamerman.

Social Exclusion: A multidimensional concept, involving economic, social, political, cultural, and special aspects of disadvantage and deprivation, often described as the process by which individuals and groups are wholly or partly excluded from participation in their society, as a consequence of low income and constricted access to employment, social benefits and services, and to various aspects of cultural and community life.

(Kamerman, 2000)

Social Inclusion / Social Exclusion has been criticized for not sufficiently mitigating the ways in which systemic oppression functions in society (Levitas, 2003). Despite such criticism, it is my opinion that Social Inclusion was never intended to be a one-stop-solution to such societal structural ills. Rather, we must acknowledge, “a complicating factor is that exclusion does not refer to a bounded state but rather a process, which is no less important because it cannot be equated with a fixed quantum of a particular attribute.”(Vinson, Australia, & Department of Education, 2009, p. 5) This notion of Social Exclusion as process brings us to my next point…

Second, Social Inclusion is a process…a verb, an action.(Atkinson & United Nations, 2010) If we can focus on the active nature of the term Social Inclusion, we may avoid the pitfalls associated with other popular museology words. For example, when you consider the term “multiculturalism,” do you envision a process? Or a product? I suspect that most of us imagine a final product. As a profession and as individuals we must make an attempt to participate and facilitate the process of social inclusion.

What type of process is Social Inclusion?

It is a process by which we, as a society, mitigate or combat social exclusion. In what arenas do we apply Social Inclusion? We implement Social Inclusion in multiple arenas at once: Social, Cultural, Political, and Economic (Sandell, 1998).

What are the advantages of Social Inclusion? Why should we bother?

The primary advantage of Social Inclusion is that it extends the role of museums beyond traditional discussions of diversity and multiculturalism (Coleman, 2015). For example, in the traditional approaches of diversity and multiculturalism, museum professionals curate culture and assign value – often to celebrate difference. To read more about diversity as a hegemonic device, see Porchia Moore’s “The Danger of the D word” (Moore, 2014). https://incluseum.com/2014/01/20/the-danger-of-the-d-word-museums-and-diversity/

In contrast, the approach of Social Inclusion places the museum professional in the role of facilitator. In an application of Social Inclusion, museums actively support the self-curation of individuals and communities.

The second advantage of Social Inclusion is the awareness that this theory generates concerning marginalization and division within society. “Social inclusion, birthed from the presence of social exclusion, directs the attention of citizens to the social problems at hand” (Coleman, 2015, p. 230). Social Inclusion theory allows for the recognition that there is no one solution to the societal problems of division and marginalization. The multidimensional nature of exclusion, once revealed by Social Inclusion theory, may then be tackled by museums.

At this point, you may be sold on the idea of Social Inclusion for your museum…and you don’t know where to start- please feel free to contact me. In the meantime, I’d like to offer a small word of warning: our field has yet to truly define Social Inclusion. In fact, researchers remain hesitant to attempt a definition of Social Inclusion, stating that it is “both impossible and inappropriate to attempt to produce a blueprint for effective inclusion work. The concepts, language and contexts remain altogether too fluid, slippery and ambiguous.” (Dodd & Sandell, 2001, p. 5). In 2014, the American Alliance of Museums approved a definition of Inclusion,

“The act of including; a strategy to leverage diversity. Diversity always exists in social systems. Inclusion, on the other hand, must be created. In order to leverage diversity, an environment must be created where people feel supported, listened to and able to do their personal best” (“Diversity and Inclusion Policy,” 2014).

WE, the museum professional community should strive to create a better definition than the one offered by the American Alliance of Museums. We should empower each other to realize that Social Inclusion is “the process by which societies combat social exclusion.” We have a unique opportunity, at this moment in time, to bolster the role of museums in American society and say, “my museum will participate in a process that combats social exclusion.” To this end, I offer the following definition for our field:

Social Inclusion for Museums: (verb)

The process by which museums combat social exclusion through cultural, social, political, and economic means.


To learn more, please download our free eWorkbook, Inclusion: A Crash Course For the Museum Professional.



Atkinson, A. B., & United Nations. (2010). Analysing and measuring social inclusion in a global context. New York: United Nations.

Coleman, L.-E. (2015). Social Inclusion and the Gatekeeping Mechanisms of Curatorial Voice: Are Museums Ready to be Agents of Social Justice? In Progressive community action: critical theory and social justice in library and information science. Duluth: Library Juice Press.

Diversity and Inclusion Policy. (2014). Retrieved January 18, 2015, from http://www.aam-us.org/about-us/who-we-are/strategic-plan/diversity-and-inclusion-policy

Dodd, J., & Sandell, R. (2001). Including museums: Perspectives on museums, galleries    

and social inclusion. Leicester, UK: Reserach Centre for Museums and Galleries.

Kamerman, S. B. (2000). Social Policy Glossary. Retrieved March 11, 2017, from http://socialwork.columbia.edu/wp-content/uploads/2015/06/SOCIAL-POLICY-GLOSSARY.pdf

Moore, P. (2014). The Danger of the D Word, Museums and Diversity. Retrieved from https://incluseum.com/2014/01/20/the-danger-of-the-d-word-museums-and-diversity/

Rawal, N. (2008). Social Inclusion and Exclusion: A Review. Dhaulagiri Journal of Sociology and Anthropology, 2(0). https://doi.org/10.3126/dsaj.v2i0.1362

Sandell, R. (1998). Museums as Agents of Social Inclusion. Museum Management and Curatorship, 17(4), 401–418. https://doi.org/10.1080/09647779800401704

Vinson, T., Australia, & Department of Education, E., and Workplace Relations. (2009). Social inclusion: the origins, meaning, definition and economic implications of the concept social inclusion/exclusion : incorporating the core indicators developed by the European Union and other illustrative indicators that could identify and monitor social exclusion in Australia. Canberra: DEEWR.



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