The Case for Diversity in the Museum Workforce
Carrie Svinning is an art educator working within cultural organisations, further education and museums. Currently London Programme Coordinator at Creative & Cultural Skills, a charity which ambition is to provide opportunities into the cultural industries, to create a more diverse and thriving workforce. In this probing post she highlights discussions at the last Museums Association Conference and explores some of the issues surrounding diversity.
The case for diversity
Increased diversity in the museum workforce is a long discussed topic but without momentous change. Men still dominate senior positions, the percentage of BAME and employees with disabilities are lower than in society, and the middle classes overshadow those from working class backgrounds. To move this debate forward from words to decisive action we must identify the issues, find solutions, and dismantle the barriers to allow for real change to materialise.
The facts of the matter
Recent statistics confirm that the demographic of the population isn’t represented in the museum workforce. The latest figures released in the ACE’s ‘Equality, Diversity & the Creative Case’ report, concludes that while the population of BAME stands at 18%, only 3% are employed in Major Partner Museums. 18% of the English population have some form of disability but with only 3.8% within the museum workforce. Although the data does not include socio-economic background, Goldsmiths University’s recent survey on diversity in the cultural workforce gives an indication, with just 18% born to parents from the working class.
Within the Big Debate:
Diversity talk at the Museums Association Conference in 2015, diversity was simply defined as ‘making sure that everyone no matter what their background are able to enter the museum workforce & progress their career’. This is a straightforward notion but unfortunately currently not the case; the barriers that lie between reality and ambition are numerous for many. Some issues relate specifically to particular demographics but many cross boundaries; therefore certain key actions have the potential to provide wider solutions. Within this short discussion only a number of key points can be considered, though there is with no doubt more to be said and in greater depth.
Facing the issues
First lets consider representation; ultimately museums tell stories, however these narratives often fail to represent whole sections of the population. This lack of representation disenfranchises and discourages participation from minority groups. Lower engagement and lesser connection diminish the motivation to forge a career within the museum sector. An interjection of new stories told by alternate groups could engage and excite a wider audience, and encourage a greater demographic to join the museum workforce.
Expectation is another factor; the expectation that you are able to afford hiked up university fees, that you can work for free for extensive periods of time, and that you can survive on a disproportionate salary in expensive cultural centres like London. As Sara Wajid explained during her talk at the Big Debate: Diversity, unless we change the salaries that we pay in this sector, we’ll continue to push away second-generation immigrants and those from the lower economic classes who strive for financial security. The same issue runs concurrently throughout the cultural sector, and perhaps explains why careers in culture are increasingly perceived as only for the rich and privileged. Sir John Major once concluded ‘In every British sphere of influence the echelons of power are held overwhelmingly by the middle class’. This power and influence shapes what museums are, how they function and ultimately who they are for and include. For this to change the diversity of its workforce must be transformed; the likeliness of a museum director to be a woman, from an ethnic minority, have a disability or be from a working class background needs to be equalised.
Benefits of a diverse workforce
The vast majority accept that to achieve audience diversification you need workforce diversity. To represent all demographics of the population at every level is to provide influence over key decision-making, which impacts audience engagement. Having a diverse workforce enables vast connections to wider communities and greater partnerships to draw upon. This has impact on the collection, programmes, and the stories that are told, which in turn renews the culture of the museum, moving away from a Victorian perspective and towards a modern collective ideology. A wider pool of talent increases the potential of progressive and successful museums, with new and alternative ideas.
Foundation for change: data, dialogue, partnerships, recruitment and entry routes
If museums are to uphold their social and moral value in society, and represent the society that it serves, then we have to look at our internal operations and make changes to the dominant archetype. As David Anderson, Director of Museum of Wales, concludes ‘we need to get our house in order’.
To start with we need to understand fully the state of play, with better data collection on workforce and governance, and a more comprehensive set of information to accurately identify the status quo. The definition of diversity must be extended to include wider characteristics such as socio-economic background and sexual orientation. Museums need to be accountable for recording accurate information on their staff, providing a clearer picture to enable proper assessment.
Cultural competencies need to be tackled head on within political discourse and cultural leadership to discuss the issues of power, privilege and exclusion. An on-going dialogue is needed which addresses uncomfortable realties and continually pushes forward the debate. This is why museum boards must be made up from a diverse set of individuals, to carry forward a collective response.
Partners: Changing the workforce may be a slow process, but introducing influence from external partners can quickly provide new ideas for exhibitions, programmes, methods of display and modes of engagement. Strengthening our relations with the community can help shape our diversity policy, and become a part of the solution. External organisations in mutual partnerships can support diversity development, providing guidance on recruitment strategies, CPD training, audience development and general best practice.
As the museum sector and the roles within in it are poorly understood by the wider community (which in part is slowing social mobility), better career services and outreach work by museums is essential to improve understanding and highlight clear career routes. Specialised recruitment agencies could be established to re-strategize recruitment. Providing alternative promotion, specific guidance and information to inform and support those from minority communities.
In recent years the HLF Skills for the Future and Creative & Cultural Skills Creative Employment Programme, have made some ground on entry routes into the sector. However, with fears around increased workload, expense, navigating the system and unsuitable frameworks, museums haven’t bought into the idea of apprenticeships as enthusiastically as other sectors. For programmes such as these to be fully embedded, a support network needs to be established to inform best practice, share knowledge, and provide combined resources. Until then, these initiatives have only been partially successful in diversifying the sector. With continued funding pressures and programmes such as these coming to an end, questions will arise around the future of entry route apprenticeships in museums. We must consider how alternative funds can be used, such as the ACE Museum resilience fund, to continue to push this agenda.
While an attempt on diversifying the workforce has begun, those skilled from outside of the sector have had less obvious routes in. However, recently new steps have been announced by ACE to tackle such issues. Statistics predict that while healthy levels of white women working within museums may see increased progression to senior level positions, this is not the case for those from BAME backgrounds. With this gap in diversity at management level, ACE has committed £2.6m with their ‘Change Makers’ fund. Aiming to support aspiring leaders from the black minority ethnic and disabled communities into arts leadership. This is a step in the right direction, but with no mention of the aspirations of the white working class into leadership positions, and non-existent apprenticeships for graduates, serious consideration is needed on how best to support talent from this demographic.
As mentioned, this topic is more complex and needs space for further discussion. What I would conclude is that if we accept the facts, face the issues, embrace the benefits and embed the potential solutions, we will ultimately progress. What is absolutely clear is that we must keep this at the top of our agenda, push for on-going progressive dialogue and action with our communities, so we are not still debating this in another thirty years’ time.
Note: this is a personal view on the issue of diversity in the museum workforce and may not represent the view of the London Museums Group as whole.