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Shaz Hussain on ‘diversity’ and changing the language we use in museums

‘If you really want to make a significant change, start with the language you use’, that was the quote Shaz Hussain, Collections Assistant at The Royal Airforce Museum in London started her presentation with at MuseumNext Europe.

In her five minute presentation she spoke about her first year working in the museum sector, ‘I was told very early in my museum career that I was different, I was diverse, what I took that to mean was I was brown, I was young and I was not educated enough and that was different, that was what the museum sector was lacking’.

She challenged delegates to think about the word ‘diversity’, and what that meant.

Reflecting on her museum traineeship in Norfolk, she said, ‘In my organisation I couldn’t make a significant change, I was the most junior person in the organisation, I wasn’t a budget holder, I didn’t have anyone who I was managing, so I decided to change the language that I used.’

Shaz shared the changes that she had made:

Diversity > Representation
Shaz said that ‘diversity’ suggests that the museum and it’s white, middle class audiences are normal and anything else is other. Instead we should talk about representing the whole community.

Creating Spaces > Inclusion
Shaz said that rather than a museum ‘creating spaces’ for different audiences, they should talk about inclusion. Making the museum a space for everyone.

Audiences > Partners
Shaz said that audiences is passive, but partners suggests that museums and their visitors are collaborators working together.

Hidden Stories > The Whole Story
Who are our stories hidden from? During her time in Norfolk, Shaz didn’t feel the region’s stories were hidden from local people so changed this to the whole story.

Giving a Voice To > Having a Conversation With
Shaz said that ‘Giving a voice to’ can sound very patronising, and that instead a museum should have a conversation.

She ended her presentation by challenging museum professionals to think about the language that they use, and recognise the power of what we call things.

How have you changed the language that you use in your museum?

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