Handing over Power, or: Diversity in the Heritage Sector

At the start of November, the UK Art Fund published a report on diversity in the arts and heritage sectors. Specifically, the report reviews the impact of diversity initiatives on curatorial roles since 1998. However, it also makes important observations on how the current structure of museums may stand in the way of diversity – not just with regards to a diverse workforce but also with regards to their representation of diverse perspectives within collections and exhibitions.

On the impact of diversity initiatives, the report arrives at some sobering overall conclusions. Aimed at bringing more diverse people into curatorial roles, the initiatives are reported to have mostly provided ‘entry-level work-based training opportunities’ (56). The initiatives reviewed included such flagship programmes as the British Museums Associations’ Transformers, the Heritage Funds’ Skills for the Future and Arts Council England’s Change Makers [1].

The figures cited in the report for ethnic diversity within the British museums sector in 2021 appear to support the lack of actual progress on the issue of diversity. Museums in the portfolio of Arts Council England have only 6% of staff who identify as Black, Asian or Ethnically diverse (9). Another estimate based on data from the Office for National Statistics is even lower, at 2.7% (ibid).

For the review, the authors also undertook qualitative research with participants in the initiatives. They encountered dissatisfaction with what is perceived as ‘a lot of talk’ (16) without action, although change was said to be desperately needed. Interviewees also noted that this change required leadership which currently was missing (ibid).

This is a key point in my view and one which brings us to the topic of structures. As one interviewee is quoted as saying, ‘You have to be deeply embedded and committed to this work across everything. Not just make a statement in support of Black Lives Matter’ (18, my emphasis).

Interviewees found there was a glass ceiling to their advancement (16), and the report makes a point of noting how the sector values ‘long-established expertise’ by those already in post (14). There is a suggestion here that this approach further strengthens established White curatorial perspectives (26) when what is required is a more expansive understanding of curation and indeed the institution of the museum itself (ibid). People of diverse backgrounds can bring in the vision and voices to achieve just that (ibid).

However, for this to become possible they need to be part of the decision-making. As one interviewee said, ‘It’s about handing over power’ (29). And yet, although we’ve had numerous reports by now that have told us the same thing – we must share power – interviewees still spoke of the existence of a ‘gatekeeper syndrome’ (29) through which those in power excluded diverse voices.

This is something I really wish we would spend more time examining. We need more qualitative research with those currently in post. Instead of focusing on people with diverse backgrounds, forcing them to explain why they should be given an opportunity to contribute, we need to shift the focus on the ‘gatekeepers’. Let’s ask the hard questions and really put out in the open what our sector really thinks about diversity. My guess is that we would be startled into immediate action. And I wonder whether the ensuing change will create entirely new institutions, with a new vision, and roles that require different expertise altogether.

Notes

[1] The latter is particularly disappointing since in 2012, when the Arts Council took over from the Museums, Archives and Libraries Council it reviewed research on stakeholder engagement. One of its criticisms was that then-current processes did not hand over control – which is one of the key criticisms of this current report on their initiative (and that of others).

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