Museums Association visits Cornwall

On 12 May the Museums Association visited Cornwall for the annual Members Meeting in the South West. I’d like to extend my appreciation to MA colleagues for making the long journey from London but also emphasise the importance of such visits to show it is a fully inclusive and diverse-led organisation that is interested in views from everywhere.

Big debates and discussions in the museum sector tend to happen in big cities. It’s good for them to happen in large rural regions like Cornwall too. Cornwall and the South West suffer from a lack of representation and voice in national organisations and perhaps we are not good at sharing our great work and good practice outside our local areas.

As MA Rep for the South West, I’d like to help, in whatever small way I can, to change that so the region becomes another default place to look to where great ideas are put into practice, particularly from small and tiny museums.

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Share your case-studies

The Museums Association is always looking for great case-studies and stories, invitations for review and features. Museums in the South West should be better represented in the case-studies of the MA’s flagship policy Museums Change Lives. Please consider submitting one. If you don’t know how, get in touch and I’ll help.

Read my review of the South West Museums Association Meeting.

Diversity in the Nation

The phrase “increasing diversity” occurs regularly in discussions about culture but what do we mean? What does diversity look like?  Is diversity in the context of equality the same as diversity in the context of inclusion?

Diversity is on every major cultural agenda. I have been taking a keen interest in how diversity is represented and expressed by museums and other heritage institutions as I have been a long-time advocate and producer of community-focused programming as a mainstream rather than fringe strategy for survival.

Achieving resilience in your museum or cultural organisation has to have at its heart a commitment to diversify audiences. The reason is that if you want your organisation to survive, and be loved, your communities and communities of interest (not just the obvious stakeholders) need to understand why you are important to them.

At the Museums Association conference 2015, Sir Peter Luff, the Chair of the Heritage Lottery Fund gave a stirring keynote speech where skills, diversity and young people were firmly and unequivocally put on the agenda and HLF is changing its funding schemes to reflect these priorities.

Arts Council England is also centralising diversity in its agenda, particularly to support the Creative Case for ‘diverse-led’ arts and culture. The emphasis is also on diversifying the range of people and organisations which apply for arts funding from them, and to ensure that at least 75% of its funding is invested outside London. ACE’s Chair Sir Peter Bazalgette said that arts and cultural organisations must reflect the diverse communities they serve. A report by the Museum Consultancy presents research findings on the state of diversity in the museum workforce.

The much-vaunted UK Government’s Culture White Paper, published in March, “sets out the government’s ambition and strategy for the cultural sectors.” The paper jars heavily with the austerity-led narrative that dominates the cultural sector at the moment. There is a sense that the White Paper was born from a Whitehall Office out of touch with the reality of people’s joys and woes as producers and consumers of arts, heritage and culture. Nevertheless, diversity is mentioned 18 times in its 72 pages.

Diversity has also been much debated in discussions on #museumhour.

The UK Parliament’s Countries of Culture enquiry is ongoing and no doubt several of the oral and written submissions will express concern about a lack of diversity in funded art and culture.

I am less familiar with the culture and diversity landscapes in Wales, Scotland and Northern Ireland, and internationally, but I look forward to doing a bit of asking around and reporting back.

The phrase “increasing diversity” occurs regularly in discussions about culture but what do we mean? What does diversity look like? Is diversity in the context of equality the same as diversity in the context of inclusion? How does workforce diversity differ from audience diversity?

The debate took place at the Goldsmith's Centre, London.

The debate took place at the Goldsmith’s Centre, London.

Big debates

On 16 March I attended the Museums Association’s Diversity: A State of the Nation Debate in my capacity as the Regional Representative for the South West. At this point, I’d like to extend my thanks to the MA for sponsoring my travel from deepest Cornwall to London enabling me to attend.

This event took place not long after the MA’s Big Debate on Diversity at the annual conference in Birmingham in November 2015 which I also attended. This was followed by an informal and therapeutic meeting of the Museum Detox network, a very loose group of museum professionals from BAME (Black and Minority Ethnic) backgrounds.

I find these debates deeply stimulating as they make me question my own understanding and beliefs about people and their identities, and in particular how complex self-indentifying is, and how poorly we express and understand it.

However, there were also some concerning features apparent and unacknowledged at both these debates and indeed in the majority of discussion about diversity and what diversity looks like.

What’s missing from the debate. Who is missing? Where do they take place?

Big City types

Both Birmingham and London debates took place in corporate boxes. This is not a slur, just an observation as I believe that place is a fundamental, if unarticulated, component in understanding diversity.

The main proponents of the debates were also from London or large urban metropolitan areas whose perspectives on their own communities are shaped by the people and places they live and work in everyday. Sharon Heal, Director of the MA, spoke fondly of her everyday diversity where she lives in Bethnal Green.

When they think about diversity in museums, for example, do museums from large swathes of the UK that are politically and economically defined as rural, figure in their minds: the South West of Britain, the Highlands of Scotland, most of Northern Ireland, or North Wales?

Beyond the Protected Characteristics

The diversity themes that dominate discourse are around equality and social justice for those participating and working in museums, culture, arts and heritage that concern discrimination and systemic inequality against nine protected characteristics:

  • age
  • disability
  • gender reassignment
  • marriage and civil partnership
  • pregnancy and maternity
  • race
  • religion or belief
  • sex
  • sexual orientation.

Of these race, disability and sex and to a lesser extent religion, were of most interest to those participating in the Museums Association debates. Put crudely, there are more women than men in the museum workforce but few women occupy leadership and governance roles; disability remains poorly represented and catered for, more so a problem for those with hidden disabilities; working and participating in museums remains unattractive to those from Black and Minority Ethnic backgrounds.

Geographic exclusion, Cornwall and the South West

During the several round-table discussions, we talked about other major factors that present barriers to diversifying the workforce, audiences and programmes.

A top consideration at my table was geography and geographic discrimination or exclusion.

I live and work in the far west of Cornwall. It took me over 5 hours and an overnight stay to be able to take part in both Birmingham and London debates. Cornwall is politically and economically part of the South West even though culturally and perhaps socially too Cornwall and the Cornish are distinct from its South West neighbours on many levels, evidenced by international recognition of its indigenous language, Kernewek, UK Government-ratified National Minority Status and through the devolution of (some) powers to its unitary authority. Note that Nationality is not currently a protected characteristic under Equality legislation but is included, with colour and citizenship under race.

Even beyond Cornwall, the Isles of Scilly, with nearly 2500 inhabitants can feel that the UK mainland is a world away. For much of the year you can only fly there (if the weather is right).

I live and work in a highly fragmented region with hundreds of mainly small urban centres and large numbers of rural (isolated) places that are all defined in the context of London and other major metropolitan areas. Large parts of our region are unable to regularly participate in and access the big issues of our time (perhaps with the exception of Bristol), whether that’s diversity, austerity or other matters high on political agendas.

Consequently voices from the region, and especially Cornwall, tend to get muffled or ignored or simply deemed too far and too remote and not plentiful enough to engage with. Within this situation, what hope do minority people have in finding a voice?

Class psychology and professionalisation

The other theme of discrimination and diversity we discussed was class. I felt this was not particularly well-articulated by anyone. I am uncomfortable with the idea that low economic productivity directly leads to low participation in arts and culture. And football tickets are so expensive.

After all, many, many museum and arts jobs are amongst the lowest paid and least stable in terms of security and benefits of all professions. One of our table cited the professionalisation of our sector as a serious factor in the lack of class diversity, e.g. job competitions requiring sometimes not one but two degrees.

I think there’s a separate debate to be had about that as I do not agree that professional qualifications which give people the know-how to take care of our collections and make them accessible to our audiences is blanketly a bad thing. But at the same time not all museum jobs need a degree to do them. And, there still remain fewer jobs than there are people who want them–as I said it’s a related but separate issue.

Perhaps more broadly, class is a psychological barrier that encompasses upbringing, education, comprehension and articulation–do some sectors of UK society lack the social and cultural language to participate in culture? What can museums do about that, especially when they talk about the “hard to reach?”

More cultural organisations are aware of their obligations to serve diverse audiences but the same institutions are still not doing anything strategic about it. Diversity is addressed in short-term ‘nice to have’ community engagement projects but not addressed in organisational governance, mainstream programming or the workforce.

How do we develop long-term programmes and activities that are more attractive to those not currently engaged (however you want to define that)? What about those not engaged that face practical barriers to participation such as the “Time-poor dreamers” representing in 2010, approximately 4% of the adult population, a higher than average proportion from Black and minority ethnic backgrounds and most under the age of 44.

There was a sense from the room that diversity, as imperfect as expressions of it are, is now more mainstream than 15 years ago. More cultural organisations are aware of their obligations to serve diverse audiences but the same institutions are still not doing anything strategic about it. Diversity is addressed in short-term ‘nice to have’ community engagement projects but not addressed in organisational governance, mainstream programming or the workforce.

Democracy and power

Other features from my table’s discussion that I felt strongly about was democracy and power.  I was surprised no one brought up these fundamental features of social and cultural demography that we all take for granted. This led to a debate about the usefulness of techniques used in peace and reconciliation in post-conflict zones such as deep listening and developmental evaluation.

We didn’t get a chance to discuss these in detail but I think the principle of mutual education through listening is a fundamental challenge in our sector, as evidenced in the Tintagel Controversy.

We need to keep debates about diversity going, both formally and informally. They need to take place in more diverse places and more diverse people need to be invited to take part in them. I am only seeing the usual suspects time and again.

Diversity doesn’t look like anything. It’s a philosophy and a commitment to trusting the idea that embracing difference is a good thing that will lead to better-governed and more accessible and successful institutions and activities.

New Code of Ethics and what is a museum?

Museums enable people to explore collections for inspiration, learning and enjoyment. They are institutions that collect, safeguard and make accessible artefacts and specimens, which they hold in trust for society.

Museums Association definition of a museum.

Update: The Museums Association has just issued Additional Guidance for the new Code of Ethics.

At the last AGM of the Museums Association in November 2015 in Birmingham, we (the membership delegation) voted to formally adopt the new Code of Ethics.

This revision follows several revisions since the launch of a UK-wide code of practice and conduct in 1977. Previous updates happened in 1987, 1991, 2002 and 2007, each responding to the changing social, economic and cultural contexts of museums of all shapes and sizes.

The MA’s working definition of a museum, or what a museum should be, has not changed but the emphasis on how it should behave (this is not about prescribing a set of activities or audiences) has transformed by raising the stakes on community involvement and public benefit and this is raised to headlining the Code:

Museums and those who work in and with them should:

• provide and generate accurate information for and with the public

• support freedom of speech and debate

• treat everyone equally, with honesty and respect

• actively engage and work in partnership with existing audiences and reach out to new and diverse audiences

• use collections for public benefit – for learning, inspiration and enjoyment

Read in full the New Code of Ethics, 2015.

This increased emphasis has raised some cynicism and protest from those who are uncomfortable about museums’ social function being as important as core functions (albeit they are often not defined). This MA LinkedIn debate is worth reading.

For me, the MA’s Code of Ethics is the no. 1 reason I remain a member and volunteer (as Regional Representative for the South West) for the MA. Without a sense of purpose museums are just activity centres or cafe, event and shop businesses with a gallery or two tagged on.

Collections and their stewardship for and on behalf of society is what makes a museum a museum (rather than (just) an arts venue).

As an independent consultant, supplier and contractor the Code of Ethics gives me the strength I sometimes (often) need to challenge shady, lazy or misguided goings-on in the museum world.

At the same time I challenge pejorative, if well-meaning, comments that “people are more important than objects in museums.” Such beliefs can skew the fundamental philosophy and meaning behind what a museum is.

Without a starting point of collections, and their good care, research and dissemination, you are doing a disservice to the very people you aim to engage in your museum.

The emphasis on diverse communities being fully engaged in your museum is important and is one of the fundamental standards for any museum to dispense its ‘in trust for society’ functions.

Think about it this way, if your communities and audiences grow to love your museum because they feel a sense of ownership over the collections, and the exhibitions and activities which breathe life into them, the Code of Ethics is a philosophy to guide you in that purpose.