Last week’s #museumsrespondtoferguson discussion was on inclusion policies and their implementation in recruitment practice (you can read the Storify story here). At one point, one of the hosts of the chat, Adrianne Russell, shared, ‘I can’t count how many times black visitors told me “I’m so glad to see you here”’, which just floored me. Other observations that contributors made apply to the UK, and my own experience in museums as well:
- ‘Sitting in museum cafe with almost all white patrons, almost all African American servers’
- ‘Many museums I interned for had a homogenous (white) staff.’
- ‘I’ve worked in predominantly white museums.’
And this is despite the UK’s fairly good track record with equality policies and standards. So what is going wrong?
The Twitter chat noted a few things, on which I’d like to expand and to which I’d like to add here:
The chat was focused on recruitment, but it did make me think about the impact of our offer to visitors as well. In addition to not finding yourself represented among museums staff, I think it is fair to say that in many instances, under-represented groups will also not find themselves represented in museum narratives. And where they are, these representations are usually through someone else’s prism. We need more studies here to show the real impact these practices have on visitors, but my assessment is that they can be as easily patronizing and exclusive as they may be inclusive . If this is indeed the case (as I think it is), then visiting a museum currently is unlikely to make under-represented groups feel like this is a place for them.
The point on representation makes outreach that much more important. This is not outreach of the educational kind; this is outreach where museum professionals participate for example in careers fairs, and chat to pupils from under-represented groups about the roles available in the sector. It would be helpful if the staff going there were from the community itself, and a certain added element of ‘representation’ may just have to become a part of the role of staff members from under-represented groups . Otherwise, if you send me, I may just inadvertently give the same message as what these pupils may be getting already: If you work in this sector, you get to work with more white folks like me. Hurrah! (or not).
This is not just a matter of dubious practice bordering on exploitation. It’s also a matter of exclusion, and this cannot be stressed enough: only those able to afford to gain unpaid experience are able to take up these internships. Make internships and experience a central stepping stone to get into the museums sector, and we’re excluding people before we’ve even invited them to apply.
Qualifications, Skills, and Knowledge
This didn’t come up in the chat, but in my own practice I’ve observed that particularly in the museums sector, we seem to have very odd notions of what qualifications, skills and knowledge are required for certain roles. I argue that it is sometimes the wrong qualifications and experience we’re looking for (see for example this post). Community involvement, community connectedness, facilitation and creativity are far more relevant to many community-facing roles than say, art history. And these may be exactly the qualifications that currently under-represented groups may have. If we’re asking for the wrong qualifications, we will get the wrong people, and we will continue to perpetuate under-representation amongst our staff.
Museums seem to have their usual ‘go-to’ channels to recruit staff. In the UK, that’s generally the Museum Association’s job section, and large newspapers (I’ve found all but one of all my jobs via large newspapers). The problem is that these are not necessarily the channels where really well-qualified people from groups other than the usual suspects may be looking for jobs. We’re properly entering the vicious cycle here that started with the points above. And yet, identifying alternative channels might just mean we find the perfect candidate amongst those under-represented groups we’d like to join our team.
A few of the chat contributors noted that there was a lack of support in the sector for in-job professional development. I can’t say that this is true for the UK as I have experienced it, from Local Authority museums to a national charity. However, with budget cuts going ever deeper, this may well become an issue here as well. It is certainly true that much can be achieved through professional development, although in order for these benefits to kick in, we first need to take down the barriers that prevent people from entering the sector in the first place. I honestly believe that change could be much more quickly achieved, if the sector recruited on different criteria, and then invested in people to get them up to speed on things it still considers important – such as knowledge of collections. Or even a teaching qualification, if you must.
And finally, the biggy: Our Own Underlying Prejudice
I’ve added this on just before I added this post, because as if on cue, I found this depressing experiment in my Facebook feed. I’ve tried to highlight the impact of our own personal flaws/issues/horizons in my last blog post, and I’ve noted it in other posts previously. But it’s not something I hear widely discussed. And I suppose that’s because it’s not making us ‘in power’ look too good. It’s darn uncomfortable. It suggests that despite our policies and inspirational vision papers, and despite our efforts to be good people, we may actually do stuff that under scrutiny turns out to be pretty appalling. But if those findings apply more widely – that an ‘ethnic’ name makes a person less likely to get invited for an inverview – then we better start examining honestly and systematically what our own subconscious prejudices might be.
 For a related post you may find this one interesting. The comment discussion on this post may also be of interest.
 I’m uncomfortably conscious of the fact that this is making the ‘under-represented’ attribute yet again a focus, when really all we want is for people to just be people, and treated as such. I honestly don’t know how to overcome that as yet. My good intentions as a white woman from Germany just probably won’t communicate to a black teenager from central London that really, s/he is exactly the person I want to see directing our museums in a few years’ time.