In the first of our Editor’s blogs, Joe Sullivan discusses his thoughts on inclusivity in museum storytelling.
I recently started a post at the RAF Museum, as Heritage Outreach Officer. There’s some interesting development going on at the moment, and it’s great to be a part of it. For me personally, I find it exciting that the museum is trying to re-position itself to make it more welcoming and accessible, and a large part of my job so far has simply been going round meeting people from all walks of life, mainly on the estate on our doorstep. What has struck me most from doing this goes back to a debate that has been going back and forwards across the museum sector for a number of years – the majority of displays and exhibitions do not tell stories in an inclusive way. Through my previous jobs in museum education it is something I’ve talked about and come across, but it is a very different prospect to explain to someone who heads up an African youth education programme why it is that we don’t mention in depth the experience of African RAF pilots in World War 2.
Now of course, there are reasons for this. It is probably fair to argue that museums change slowly and therefore aren’t always a fair reflection of changing social attitudes (something you especially find with historic sites). It also must be considered that there is unfortunately not a broad enough diversity in the make-up of the museum sector personnel, as discussed in an article on this blog by Carrie Svinning. Another perspective is that it is potentially harmful to engage with minority stories in a big visible way as it can lead to tokenism – it may be that true inclusivity is best represented by giving everyone the same panel space, no matter their background or culture. In any case, museums are cultural touchstones and should have a mandate to tell stories from all perspectives. In the case of the RAF Museum, this could (for example) expand to cover refugees moving into London from countries that have previously perhaps viewed the RAF in a negative light as they engage on operations. This highlights an important dynamic – the key to a good response from an audience is to tell stories that they can relate to, and in a way that makes them feel comfortable.
On a recent visit to the Bethnal Green Museum of Childhood I was enraged to discover they had miss-labelled a Thunderbirds Tracy Island playset as a 2000s model instead of 1990s. Seeing the toy took me back to that specific Christmas in 1993 when they had all sold out, so Blue Peter famously showed you how to make one from cardboard. My Nan randomly saw a man carrying one on Christmas Eve, and she ran to the shop to find a solitary model left on the shelves (in 1993 that was an actual Christmas miracle!). Quirky personal stories like this are, in my opinion, the ones we need to be telling. Of course this is something that is easy to do from a white British perspective, but much harder to do when trying to represent other cultures and backgrounds. As a result, somee stories remain less- or un-told. Robinson Clarke, a significant Jamaican fighter pilot during World War 1 and the first black RAF pilot, features in the permanent World War I displays at the RAF museum to the same extent as the famed ‘Red Baron’ Baron Von Richthofen – a great example of built-in inclusivity. However, there is nothing about Roberta Cowell, the first British transgender person, despite her being a pilot in World War II. These are key stories for some minority or hard-to-reach communities, and telling them in equal measure ensures you are providing the particular stories and culture that those groups want to hear, enabling the a museum to support their visitors in a much wider, in-depth manner. The question remains though: does those groups demand (or need) us to do more?
The latter example brings me to one group that I personally want to make further inroads on telling stories about – the LGBTQ community in museums. It is significant that when I say this everyone immediately points to the single same example (the ‘Hello Sailor’ exhibition several years back at the Merseyside Maritime Museum). My interest in telling those stories is firstly for family reasons, and secondly due to spending several years playing in punk bands. The ongoing celebration Punk.London has come under some recent scrutiny, but I have to say that sparked something in me about the fact I played in a touring punk band for years and the whole of that scene has very much influenced my attitude towards working in a museum in regards to community, inclusivity and DIY ethics. There are fantastic individuals in the DIY underground punk scene working hard to ensure that safe spaces are available, and that the scene can become a breeding ground for self-expression, gender identity politics and feminism. There is an equal movement in UK museums (for example, the Royal Museums Greenwich just celebrated its first ever LGBT history month). Looking at this example, I feel that as the world continues to open up to ideas of self-expression, more and more it is essential that we in museums reflect this and tell those stories. Only when telling those stories becomes second nature, can we say we are truly inclusive.