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Posts Tagged ‘#museumsrespondtoferguson’

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:

Representation

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 [1]. 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.

Outreach

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 [2]. 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).

Unpaid internships

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.

Advertising Roles

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.

Support

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.

Notes

[1] For a related post you may find this one interesting. The comment discussion on this post may also be of interest.

[2] 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.

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Ferguson [1] has reminded me of a saying I learnt in the US: ‘The road to hell is paved with good intentions’. I think this applies to interpretation, and heritage management more generally, also. Our literature and our conferences are full of suggestions of interpreters’ inherent good will, and the positive outcome this is supposed to almost automatically engender [2]. We freely explore our sense of a mission, and it seems that with all this good, inspirational energy we surely can do no wrong [3].

I want to offer a challenge to this notion. I think what we as interpreters need is to recognize and acknowledge that we are firmly rooted in our own cultural and experiential horizons, and that they may directly contribute to perpetuating exclusion, especially because of the public-facing roles we occupy. This is not about structural exclusion within our institutions [4]. This is about looking at ourselves as individuals.

Which brings me to a German saying: ‘To grab one’s own nose’ [5], to start looking at one’s self before asking others to do the same. So this post is about me grabbing my own nose. I’d like to share a few personal experiences, and how what they show me about myself also show my limitations as an interpreter/heritage professional. I hope they’ll encourage you to do the same. They are limitations only while they go unexamined.

I am a part of this whether I want to or not

In the early 1990s, I went on my first ever trip to the US with a male, white friend. We were both students from a German liberal tradition. I arrived in the US effectively thinking that I would single-handedly change race discrimination. I was not going to be part of it. Then we came to St Louis, Missouri. At a bus stop, a young black man told my friend that he was a ‘f*ng white man’. I can’t remember the rest. I remember the man’s anger (although he was not overtly aggressive), I remember my friend’s set jaw (he said nothing), and I remember standing aside from them both, mortified. I also remember feeling an incredible sense of relief when we arrived downtown, where everything was back to how I expected it: white people, black people, and no one challenged our assumptions and intentions. The truth? I did not know how to respond to the man. This was so much bigger than I. I was shocked to be classed as ‘white’, when I had arrived determined not to use any such categories. I did not know why that had happened, or how to handle it. I did not understand what ‘white’ meant, just like I did not understand what ‘black’ meant in that man’s life experience. 20 years later, and Ferguson has given me a glimpse of what his life might have been like. And you know what? I’m still not sure how to respond. I am really uneasy about this whole terrible mess and injustice, it challenges everything about me and what I believe and where I fit in. The best I can hope for is to be an ally, and I need to be guided by others in that [6].

I only notice what is in my lifeworld

A couple of years ago, a colleague and I were driving along the road, when I noticed someone throw rubbish out of their car. I am from a country where you do not throw rubbish anywhere. Germans recycle religiously. I’m an environmentalist. I commented, outraged, how much I detested people throwing rubbish around like that. Says my colleague, quietly, “I think they threw it at the girl.” Looking in the rearview mirror, I saw a black girl walking along whom I hadn’t even noticed. I felt awful. Why did my colleague notice what might actually have been going on, while I was completely and utterly on the wrong track? Who cares about the environmental issues with throwing rubbish around when in reality this might have been an act of racism? I felt that by not even noticing, I was somehow complicit. What is worse is that Ferguson has made me wonder whether I too am ‘colourblind’ [7], and whether this incident was the lamentable result of that attitude. This example is specific to someone’s colour of skin, but I do wonder what other aspects of people’s lives I don’t notice just because they are not part of how I normally perceive the world based on my own experience, and what I therefore pay attention to.

I have judgments coming out of my ears

A few months ago, I was zapping through the channels when I stumbled upon the World Music Awards. This guy had just come on, and I continued watching because I thought, how dare he? Arrive at a clearly high profile show like this and he’s drunk! People need to show more respect, and besides, getting drunk and then in public, that’s just disgusting. Drunkenness is one of the things that for personal reasons I have a really strong, emotional reaction to – except, I never realized just how much this reaction was also a condemnation of the other person who is completely unknown to me. I only continued watching the show because the man actually had a really great voice and I thought, wow, how does he manage that when he’s this drunk? Then I started listening to the lyrics and it dawned on me that probably, he wasn’t drunk at all. It was Stromae with ‘Formidable’, and when I investigated I found out that in a master stroke he’d filmed the video for the song equally pretending to stumble drunkenly through a city, releasing clips before the video officially came out [8]. And I felt so ashamed, not because I would have cared a dot about whether or not some famous person is drunk in public, but because watching the video, I couldn’t help but wonder what disgusted looks I give people, all the while feeling completely justified by the very real experiences of my own life. [9]

Here is my point with all of the above: I am a good person. I have good intentions. I am as convinced of the right of my opinions and actions as the next person. But despite all of that, I get it wrong. And that’s not because I’m thoughtless, or because somehow I haven’t discovered ‘focus groups’ or working with ‘target audiences’ yet (trust me, I spend much of my professional life with those). It’s because I am as culturally and socially programmed as everyone else. And that’s okay. But because of the job I have, I, and everyone else in the field, need to be more aware of our positioning. We need to grab our own noses, ask uncomfortable questions, face unhappy truths, and stop talking as if our profession somehow made us and our work inherently ‘good’ or ‘right’. How to deal with these challenges of our own personal horizons needs to become part of interpretation literature and training. We cannot continue to skirt around these ethical questions of how, at the moment, our interpretive practices and philosophy favour certain views and experiences, which mostly fit our own.  That, to me, is our main responsibility.

Notes

[1] In a recent blog post, Gretchen Jennings wrote, ‘The word “Ferguson” has come to stand not so much for a place or incident as for a cluster of events and ideas.  The shootings of Michael Brown, Eric Garner and other black men by white policemen, the regularity and impunity with which this happens, and the light this sheds on race relations more broadly in the US—Ferguson has come to mean all of this.’

[2] Tilden takes apart one interpreters’ presentation, only to absolve him in the end because the interpreter ‘loved passionately’ what he was talking about. Tilden, F., 1957 (1977). Interpreting Our Heritage. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, p. 39.

[3] Emma Waterton’s book Politics, Policy and the Discourses of Heritage in Britain (2010, London and New York: Palgrave Macmillan) makes for a really good read in this context, talking about the specific topic of ‘social inclusion’.

[4] Which abounds, as discussions such as #museumsrespondtoferguson are beginning to show. One is linked to the other, structures are linked to the individuals holding power within them. What I hope this post does is encourage those of us in power to start thinking critically about how we might be part of the problem, without wanting to be.

[5] sich an der eigenen Nase fassen.

[6] Just to make one thing very, very clear: from my hardly-ever-challenged life experience point of view it seems to me that the man could have found a better way of expressing his anger and frustration. But I get why he couldn’t. I’ve had one English person tell me to go back to my own country and I have had to watch how I think about English people ever since. Imagine me getting this Every.Single.Day.Of.My.Life. As long as I keep my mouth shut, no one will ever know I’m not British. Now imagine the colour of my skin were responsible for the racism. I’d be the first to get really angry.

[7] I say this deliberately. It’s a white notion not to see colour, and it’s thanks to many bloggers since Ferguson that I’ve become aware of that. I don’t see colour, that’s true (I think). But that’s just to say that I don’t want to, I want to believe the world doesn’t need to be aware of the colour of people’s skin, more than the colour of their eyes. For the time being, sadly, I need to start seeing colour though. Because it’s the colour of our skin that in some places determines our experience and place in this world. Which is just awful.

[8] I don’t know, but I’d like to imagine the whole world going into a frenzy over how he’s exposed himself thus – apparently the images ‘went viral‘.

[9] On a different note, I wonder what interpretation could learn from this approach? How awesome would it be to grab visitors with such a narrative device long before they enter a museum, and take them on a journey almost of deception that turns into self-discovery? I keep talking about museums needing to hold up a mirror to society – can you imagine a concept like the one behind this music clip applied to a museum initiative about the negative ways in which immigration has been portrayed? Exposing the hypocrisy that this blogger experienced (see the end of the post)? Now that would truly change lives. Much more so than another exhibition of ancient objects.

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