Ashmolean Museum visited USA with ICOM UK – British Council Travel Grant

Susan McCormack, Director of Public Engagement at the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford travelled to the USA in October 2018 with an ICOM UK – British Council Travel Grant. This is the report from Susan’s visit. 

The purpose of my research visit was to explore two possible mutually beneficial projects and partnerships.  The first involved research and practice in developing empathy through the visual arts.  The Ashmolean Museum has highlighted working with young people as a key audience strand.  Digital use has had a major impact on young people and empathy, and the Ashmolean is keen to partner with Minneapolis Institute of Art (Mia) to fully explore this.

MASS Action convening workshop

The second partnership that the Ashmolean and Mia were keen to explore concerned discussing the challenges of, and sharing best practice around, building capacity to create more equity in our organisations and to respond to issues reflecting our global and local communities.   Mia have developed a project called MASS Action (Museums as Sites for Social Action), a network of museum professionals committed to changing the museum field so that equity and inclusion are at the centre of what museums do.  Mia has expressed an interest in partnering with us to hold a MASS Action event in the UK which we hope to host in Oxford.  This would involve organisations from both North America and the UK.

On my first day I met with Karleen Gardener, Director of Learning Innovation at Mia who is leading on the Empathy project in partnership with Berkley.  They wish to establish a network of organisations that will work with them on research and the Ashmolean Museum is keen to be involved and will continue to explore possibilities.   I also got to look around both Mia and Walker Art Centre, organisations I had been wanting to visit for many years.  Mia’s new Africa Galleries were quite revelatory, with the Egypt and sub-Saharan collections shown together, incorporating multiple voices in the interpretation and acknowledging the maker even if it meant stating that the maker was unknown.

Commitments and Transformative Action

Other key Mia staff that I spent time with were Elisabeth Callihan and Anniessa Antar, as well as the conveners of MASS Action.  During my visit MASS Action hosted a convening workshop to develop a plan of action to address pressing issues in the museum field – inclusion, equity, and justice.  This is a workshop where all participants contribute to an active, co-constructed discussion on inclusion which covers gender, age, class, sexuality and disability.  I had not experienced a convening workshop before and the format could be quite confronting at times, but in a good way.  The convening workshop focused on the major challenges 21st century museums are facing in the post-colonial world.   The whole taxonomy of how collections are currently presented needs to be interrogated and dominant narratives challenged.  This will be difficult but fascinating work.

I was very inspired by the people and ideas I encountered.  The visit has helped shape the scope of ‘Ashmolean for All’ work over the coming 18 months and beyond.  I spoke with Niki Trivedi from the Art Institute of Chicago, who has created a reading group around a toolkit that MASS Action had developed.  I now plan to establish one here in Oxford to explore these issues with staff from across the organisation.  I also spoke with Aletheia Witttmanfrom from Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture and a co-founder of The Incluseum, an online space which advances new ways of being a museum through dialogue, community building and collaborative practice related to  inclusion in museums.  More challenging aspects were being clearly confronted by the extent of white privilege, the dominant narrative and my complicity within current museum practice.

Mia’s innovative strategy, Dynamic New Approach (DNA), has been adopted by all staff and it was reflected during my visit.  Key lessons from this visit were that the work of ensuring equity and inclusion requires institutional buy-in right across the organisation, especially with senior leadership and the Board.  Organisational change is critical to this work: 70% of the effort is internal and 30% external.  It is a profound and permanent cultural shift for an organisation and requires the engagement of all staff to ensure the museum is not seen as inauthentic or tokenistic. This work needs to become business as usual rather than seen as an ‘add-on’ project or programme.  Staff diversity must be a goal.  We plan to implement ideas gained from the visit and have established a Cultural Change Group and a Decolonisation Group to lead this work across the organisation.  Goals include shifting budgets and resources, and changing the permanent galleries to support this work.  We also need to ensure all staff receive the proper support and training to engage in this work and understand and acknowledge their bias.

50 Radical North American Practitioners

My advice would be when going on an international research trip is be prepared and be open.  It is important to have done as much research as possible beforehand to explore and understand the issues facing international organisations, so it doesn’t feel that we are just there to get the answers.  Equity and Inclusion work can be very emotional and challenging.  While being aware that each country has its own history and challenges in this area, we can definitely learn from each other.

The lessons learned from this visit has formed the core of the Ashmolean’s new Strategic Plan, ‘Ashmolean for All’.  This is a 360˚policy, affecting everything we do and how we do it.  Internally we have the challenge of consulting, training and supporting our staff and volunteers so that they feel informed and confident in this area.  This will be achieved by an ongoing programme of information sharing and dialogue leading to policy creation, departmental action plans, training and support.  Starting with an Equity and Inclusion awareness audit, we will review our current working practices, identify training and developmental needs leading to the creation of an action plan to support long-term, sustained cultural change.

We will establish regular sector best practice sessions for staff development; an ‘Ashmolean for All’ reading group based on the MASS Action Toolkit; and build connections with other professionals who are in the process of decolonising their institutions, for support and accountability.   We also would like for the University of Oxford’s Gardens Libraries and Museums to facilitate MASS Action in the UK involving the MASS Action Advisory Group and UK museum professionals

For audiences we will research the needs of local visitors and non-visitors; review and re-prioritise our public programme; review our existing partnerships and seek new partners to improve collaborative working (e.g. for co-curated displays, community panels and consultants); and pilot ‘Ashmolean for All’ projects.

In essence this visit clarified and provided evidence for our strategic planning over the next 5 years to ensure equity and inclusion are at the centre of our work, and opened up a network of like-minded museum professionals.  The visit enabled me to make contact with so many inspiring professionals who helped me hone my thinking in this area and, as a network, we will continue to share ideas and lessons.


‘Susan’s visit to Mia helped inform the Ashmolean’s new strategy ‘Ashmolean for All’, which seeks to increase, broaden and diversify the Museum’s audience while better serving them through increasing dialogue and challenging traditional taxonomies and modes of display and interpretation.   The visit came at an important time for building support networks in this area, exploring potential partnerships and benefits with a like-minded organisation, and helping us take an international view to widen the debate within the Ashmolean. We are grateful to the ICOM UK – British Council Travel Grant Scheme for making it happen.’ 

Xa Sturgis, Director, Ashmolean Museum