Contributing creator Becky Fifield is the Affiliate Director for Assortment Administration for the Analysis Libraries of The New York Public Library. With over 30 years of assortment expertise, Becky holds an M.A. in Museum Research from The George Washington College, and is a Fellow of the American Institute of Conservation.


In museums and libraries, it has turn out to be commonplace to discuss with conservation, exhibition, and collections work as “behind-the-scenes.” This time period is used to point that there’s a world of actions occurring past the public-facing galleries. Advertising and marketing and Improvement colleagues usually use “behind-the-scenes” to generate pleasure across the perceived exclusiveness of member occasions and fundraising alternatives.

But utilizing behind-the-scenes to explain any facet of cultural heritage work is at odds with rising inclusion and engagement. Using the phrase behind-the-scenes immediately attracts a line and indicators to guests that museums and libraries — in addition to our problematic legacies —management decision-making and priority-setting from behind closed doorways, with out them. By persistently utilizing the phrase behind-the-scenes, we jeopardize the engagement we profess to hunt, indicating that our work is secret, unique, and opaque.

An 18th century print by Richard Brinsley Sheridan

Richard Brinsley Sheridan, “A Peep Behind the Curtain at Drury Lane,” by James Sayers, printed by Thomas Cornell, etching and aquatint, printed 14 January 1780, NPG D9542.

In line with the Oxford English Dictionary (OED), the phrase behind-the-scenes arose within the seventeenth century within the theater world to explain the commerce secrets and techniques that generate what the viewers experiences. OED definitions specify that behind-the-scenes signifies “out of sight of the viewers” “in secret, away from public view or scrutiny,” or “designating exercise going down away from public view.” By the mid-Nineteenth century, behind-the-scenes was used to explain organizational actions that have been secret and privileged. Museums have been early adopters. In 1928, The Metropolitan Museum of Artwork created a movie of employees in its numerous departments entitled “Behind-the-scenes: The Working Aspect of the Museum.”[1] The movie options the work of not simply curators and conservators, but additionally steel employees, signal letterers, and coal shovelers in a presentation of museum work that will be progressive on a contemporary museum web site.

Potential guests might first encounter behind-the-scenes on-line by way of web sites or promotional language that goals to coach about museum actions or promote occasions to have interaction with museum employees. A easy Google search in Spring 2020 for “behind-the-scenes,” “museum,” and “advertising” yielded a minimum of 115 outcomes, together with descriptions of excursions, blogs, and common museum work. One other seek for “behind-the-scenes” and “conservation” yielded 55 further examples. Fifty % of the search outcomes about conservation excursions, occasions, and blogs included language that denotes exclusivity, together with “personal,” “uncommon alternative,” “unseen,” “unique,” and “exposé.” Immediately, this language observe indicators that there are boundaries to taking part in dialog about assortment stewardship actions and with the employees who carry out them. The place inclusion has lacked in museum accumulating and engagement over the centuries, phrase selection may be crucial in facilitating preliminary relationships with new audiences.

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A Google search yielded over 50% of hits combining “museum” and “behind-the-scenes” additionally included language with a gatekeeping or exclusionary tone, reminiscent of uncommon, unique, and secret.

Main media, such because the British Broadcasting Company, Nationwide Geographic[2], and Nationwide Public Radio[3] have printed focus items on “hidden” collections. An award for an exhibition about conservation was lauded for “conservation perspective/behind-the-scenes.”[4] About an in-gallery conservation therapy engagement expertise, the lead conservator famous in The Washington Submit that “Individuals love these behind-the-scenes alternatives” although the expertise passed off in public.[5]

That is an period the place guests anticipate to know extra about our establishments. Social media is thick with snippets of expertise creating new pathways of connection. Guests wish to delve into and see themselves within the analysis we carry out, our engagement with the work of decolonization and repatriation obligations, the data we preserve, the loopy tales behind our historic buildings and the challenges we face to maintain them working, the reckoning with white supremacy and exploitation that constructed a lot of our organizations, and meaningfully, the voices of museum employees. Behind-the-scenes might also be employed by advertising employees to jazz up core institutional features they understand aren’t that thrilling or nicely understood by patrons (and advertising employees). In utilizing behind-the-scenes, we’re making our personal frank admissions that we expect our work wants set-dressing.

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Behind-the-scenes is usually used on web sites to advertise academic and outreach occasions.

Take into account these methods during which behind-the-scenes can do extra hurt than good.

Behind-the-scenes indicators exclusion.

Behind-the-scenes instantly attracts consideration to the bodily impediments audiences should overcome to have interaction with stewardship. Instantly, our audiences envision the partitions and closed doorways between bodily areas the place they’re allowed and people to which they aren’t admitted. As museum employees, we internalize these divisions in how we current the which means in our personal work. Once we complain that we will’t fundraise for assortment care, once we face complaints of collections locked away in “dusty storerooms”, when communities specific disconnect with cultural establishments, can we actually say that behind-the-scenes is a phrase we must be utilizing to drive engagement?

Behind-the-scenes indicators that differing worth units aren’t welcome as we search accountable and respectful stewardship.

Behind-the-scenes emphasizes constraints round patrons’ illustration and talent to have interaction with organizations that assume duty for caretaking of cultural heritage. It emphasizes who has management over stewardship, storage areas, and assortment care practices, together with insufficient cultural assortment care.

Behind-the-scenes indicators isolation from, and potential disregard of, different interconnected institutional features.

All institutional employees are key to mission achievement ultimately. Nevertheless, it will be troublesome to discover a Services, Well being & Security, Procurement, Payroll, or Human Assets division that describe their work as behind-the-scenes. In adopting behind-the-scenes to explain assortment features, can we unintentionally devalue the work of key institutional companions?

Museums more and more voice a dedication to valuing range and selling fairness. We have to be conscious that the language we use to explain our work helps these objectives. Take into consideration the way you describe your position: do you join your position along with your establishment’s core values, outreach objectives, mission assertion, and variety, fairness, and inclusion objectives? If the language we use to debate our work indicators boundaries to inclusion, we danger alienating viewers views essential for our organizations’ futures. Take into consideration who it’s possible you’ll must companion with inside your group and past to create inclusive messaging about museum features and programming.

Once I recommend that my friends cease utilizing behind-the-scenes, they usually ask: what do you recommend we are saying as a substitute?

Let’s have our work communicate for itself. Create wonderful messages with out behind-the scenes. Create alternatives of engagement that point out open doorways, trade, and openness. Assist colleagues in figuring out the difficulties related to the time period behind-the-scenes. If Advertising and marketing or Improvement seeks to emphasise glamor or exclusivity, evaluation outreach and engagement values in your establishment’s mission assertion or core values, and ask “does behind-the-scenes assist our objectives?”

Once we rejoice range, who’re we to say the place the scene might lie within the experiences of our guests? The place establishments and collections have been fostered within the public belief, all that our establishments are could also be of curiosity. Let’s keep away from creating unintentional boundaries when our missions are to have interaction and encourage. Let’s not outline our work as unseen; certainly, its outcomes, perseverance, and dedication are seen daily.

It’s time to retire behind-the-scenes.


The creator wish to thank Chris Norris, Director of Public Applications on the Yale Peabody Museum of Pure Historical past for his concepts and insightful feedback on this weblog publish.


[1] Behind the Scenes on the Museum,” British Broadcasting Company, final accessed September 28, 2022,

[2] Invoice Newcott, “A uncommon look contained in the Smithsonian’s secret storerooms,” Nationwide Geographic, November 23, 2021, final accessed September 28, 2022, past/article/a-rare-look-inside-the-smithsonians-secret-storerooms

[3] Harriet Baskas, “Hidden Treasures: Opening the ‘Public Vaults’,” Nationwide Public Radio, March 7, 2005, accessed September 28, 2022,

[4] “Excellence in Exhibition Awards,” American Alliance for Museums Nationwide Affiliation for Museum Exhibition, final accessed September 28, 2022,

[5] Peggy McGlone, “The painstaking job of creating a 200-year-old sculpture look nearly like new.” The Washington Submit. December 14, 2019.


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