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Centring cultural change: how to ensure that anti-racist engagement goes deeper within the museum sector

Elma-Glasgow – Photography by JohnFerguson


Elma Glasgow, founder of
Elma Glasgow Consulting, is a national award-winning engagement consultant, storyteller, and communications expert. She shares her expertise in influencing positive change in the cultural sector, working with organisations to prioritise diverse stories in a meaningful and authentic way.

Elma’s work includes embedding anti-racism into culture and heritage, supporting organisations as they ramp up their inclusion efforts. In recent years, these efforts have seen the birth of the nationally acclaimed and award-winning exhibition Power of Stories, as well as the closely affiliated Aspire Black Suffolk community engagement initiative.

Power of Stories

Power of Stories – Photography by Megan Wilson

Power of Stories was the catalyst for Elma’s current work, breaking new ground by focusing on the oft-overlooked local Black community in Ipswich. Featuring three original Black Panther costumes on loan from Marvel Studios, the exhibition was a collaborative effort that went on to break Ipswich Museum’s footfall records.

Elma says, “It had a huge positive impact, even though it was opened during Covid restrictions in June 2021. Audiences and people from the museum sector came up from London repeatedly to see it. It was the first time museums handed over a lot of the curation and narration of an exhibition to the local Black community, outside of London and other big cities.

“Power of Stories was an anti-racist exhibition. It sparked a lot of debates locally about audience development, and about reaching people in more rural areas, which is something local museums outside large metropolitan areas really struggle with. I’m passionate about helping museums find solutions. Having seen the potential that Power of Stories created, I want to help museums and other cultural organisations break down barriers and develop new practices.”

Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion

Elma suggests that much of the current Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion (EDI) work in museums focuses solely on exhibition curation. But she contends that anti-racism practices must be extended beyond exhibition spaces to areas such as community engagement,      research and oral histories, in order for change to take hold. She says,

“Museums are doing brilliant work. Decolonisation work has been going on for a long time, but Black Lives Matter, and the release of the Legacies of British Slavery database by UCL, accelerated a lot of work in the heritage sector.

“The museum sector is leading the way, and I always encourage my clients from other industries like education, to look at the museum sector. Some of the work is very confronting but it gets the job done.

“But there is still always work to do. Many trustees and other people in leadership are not having these conversations. I’ve heard stories of trustees refusing to change anything because they’re terrified of losing customers or donors. You have to ask yourself: do you want customers or donors who disagree with anti-racist activity? Do you want to please people who approve of racist content, or exclusive practices? That’s the challenge all sectors have. And it’s worrying that so much has been allowed to remain unchanged.”

A holistic approach to anti-racism

Engagement is experienced in many forms, from exhibition narratives and internal staff communications, to working with communities and marketing. As the sector works towards a more equitable future, Elma believes now is the time to develop anti-racist practices which are of a better quality – championing a need to be authentic and more informed. She suggests,

“A lot of equality practices are seen in isolated exhibitions. You need to go deeper, looking at staff training, structures, hierarchies, and who is making the decisions. If, for example, trustees are not allowing organisations to develop in the way they need to develop, that’s a problem.

“Leadership needs to be on board with this work, which they see as radical. For me, it’s just about involving more people, being more inclusive and being more sensitive.

“Staff training should be implemented across all teams, not just curators. We also need to look at the language being used. Is it inclusive? Are we writing in a way which puts people off visiting your heritage sites? Is your pricing appropriate? Where are you raising money from? It’s a holistic exercise.”

Avoiding tokenism

For EDI to be authentic, it must come from a place of genuine care, as well as a firm knowledge base on issues surrounding equality. When it comes to diversity, quick fixes simply won’t cut it, according to Elma:

“EDI is a golden thread through everything. It must be embedded in the foundations of every aspect of cultural institutions. Otherwise, it remains at surface level, which people, especially younger people and marginalised people, can sense a mile off.

“If people have a positive experience at a museum, they will tell their families. In the Black community, for example, a lot of our recommendations are based on trust. Communities talk among each other, and if you’re marginalised, you’re going to trust someone from your community more than something you see online or on a billboard which looks as if it’s inclusive.

“Training can lead to authenticity. This work can be, rightly, disruptive. It brings up questions which can be difficult to answer, and this often puts leadership off. But these questions are necessary for change.”

Advice for other museum professionals? Don’t let fear stop you

Elma is the first to admit that true inclusivity takes work. It can raise challenges and questions that aren’t easily resolved, which is why her advice to museum professionals trying to reassess their own diversity is to be brave in the face of hardship:

“Be courageous. Time is ticking, and people’s social values are changing massively. The reactions to the pandemic, Black Lives Matter and the horrors in Gaza are examples of how society’s views are evolving, and museums must put in the work to keep up. It can be hard, and it can be uncomfortable, but there are incredible people doing incredible work already. Look to them for guidance.

“Don’t dive into something until you’ve really done your research, which should include talking about issues both internally and with experts.

“But if mistakes happen, don’t double down on them. Own up to them and learn from the error. It’s not easy work, but you can start small. The alternative is doing nothing, and risking being      left behind, losing income and reputation.”

MuseumNext hosts a range of in-person and online summits each year, covering topics such as digital collections, sustainability, social impact, learning and XR. Click here to find out more and book tickets.

 

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