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When you look at the museum sector as a whole, it is incredibly diverse. Nearly every aspect of human history, scientific research, creative arts and endeavour has some museum – or, at least, a part of one – devoted to it.
Then, you look at the diversity of those working in museums (and there are several exceptions to the rule around the world) the vast majority of the professionals working in the museum sector are drawn from educated, middle-class backgrounds. What’s more, in Europe and the United States the sector tends to employ more far more white people than those from black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.
While the sector is home to many female museum workers there is still a gender pay gap, something that is in common with many other academic institutions. Simply put, the higher up you go in the hierarchy of nearly any institution you could care to name, the more likely it is that you will be dealing with a man. What’s more, he’s more likely to be white, middle-aged and middle class than from any other demographic.
Of course, no one is suggesting for a moment that being educated is something that is not necessary to have a successful career in the museum sector – far from it, in fact. Nevertheless, there is something of a problem if nearly all of the senior staff in museums and galleries are drawn from middle-class people whose parents were also professionals. If that’s the only demographic that makes it towards the top of the profession then, necessarily, the world view of such institutions cannot be as culturally diverse as they could otherwise be. For many in the sector, this is a problem that needs to be overcome.
If you take the meritocratic argument, then the cream will always rise to the top. Therefore, in any organisation, whether you are talking about the public or private sector, it is a question of competition and diversity is a secondary matter. However, this argument fails to factor in the historic societal advantages of men – and white men, in particular – have enjoyed. By embracing diversity in the staffing of museums, so – in time – more dissimilarities in the make up of senior managers and curators should come about. With any luck, the aforementioned societal advantages should simply evaporate giving each and every social group an equal chance at making progress in the sector based purely on merit.
In the short term, of course, less diversity in staffing, especially among senior employees, means institutions are not best placed to meet the needs of a diverse public. Sure, it is possible to imagine what people outside of one’s own demographic group want to engage in within the context of the museum sector, but there is nothing like having been brought up in such a community yourself. Despite the resistance to greater diversity in the sector – something which is sometimes unfairly trivialised as tokenism – the fact remains that many people who work in museums and galleries recognise the need for greater diversity in staffing.
What are some of the world’s museums doing about the issue?
Following a demographic study that covered the whole of the city in 2016, New York’s mayor decided that all of the publicly funded museums and galleries in the area had to become more diverse. What the research indicated quite clearly was that staff who worked at the city’s many cultural institutions were predominantly white. In fact, in many of the museums and galleries in the New York which received some form of public money, almost two-thirds of the employees were white, a figure which should be seen in the wider context of the city’s population which is only about one-third white. As you might expect, the study also showed that senior jobs and positions with greater status – such as curators, for example – were even more likely to be occupied by white people.
Necessarily, the study found, jobs in museum maintenance and security were tended to be carried out by people drawn from BAME communities. Of course, such jobs are just as important to the day-to-day activities of a public institution but they are obviously not as well paid and have fewer career advancement opportunities than the sort of positions found to be held by white people. As a result, Tom Finkelpearl, the mayor’s cultural affairs commissioner decided that action needed to be taken to reverse this long-standing trend. Crucially, Finkelpearl was the former director of the Queens Museum, so he could draw on the sort of direct experience in the sector that most career politicians could not. He decided to launch CreateNY, a cross-institution cultural agendum that aimed to submit a plan for greater diversity with ‘measurable goals’.
In total, 33 institutions, including arts spaces, galleries and museums, signed up to CreateNY which placed the onus on individual establishments to meet self-defined diversity goals over of his five years Finkelpearl would remain in position as commissioner. The agendum is still ongoing, but places like the Bronx County Historical Society, the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts and the Metropolitan Museum of Art have all taken steps to make themselves more welcoming for people new to the city as immigrants. In addition, CreateNY charged the city’s institutions with the job of making themselves more accessible to disabled people and to elderly visitors who may have additional mobility issues.
It is noteworthy that CreateNY was not simply put in place to make New York’s museums more appealing to a wider public but to break down some of the traditional hierarchies in them. According to the Brooklyn Museum’s director, Anne Pasternak, such a change had been long overdue although it was important that each and every museum could find their own way forward within the wider framework. She said that it was important that cultural and diversity issues could be handled differently at, for example, the Jewish Museum compared with her own institution.
At the Brooklyn Museum, Pasternak said that pooling the resources of museum volunteers, interns, employees and members of the museum’s board was the first step because previous attempts at improving diversity were already out of date. Due to the ever-changing demographics in a fast-moving city like New York, the museum could not simply assume it knew what diversity really looked like any more without consulting as widely as possible. “In those forums, we found that we weren’t being inclusive enough,” she said. This was because, she identified, issues surrounding diversity had changed somewhat with an even more varied set of demographics in the city. “People define themselves differently nowadays compared to three or five years ago,” she added.
One of the things that made the Brooklyn Museum immediately stand out under the mayoral plan was that it quickly moved towards paid internships. Pasternak’s team recognised that their public subsidy meant that only accepting wageless interns was no longer viable. After all, unpaid interns may gain a valuable foothold in the museum industry which can lead to great career paths but if only people who are financially secure can gain them, then this hardly breaks down traditional hierarchies.
Since those initial consultations with her museum’s stakeholders, Pasternak has committed the Brooklyn Museum to full-time summer internships which go with a salary. However, it is not just at the first rung of the career ladder that the museum has acted. She has also committed to greater wage transparency across all areas of the institution and said that hiring practices which are more equitable will be followed in future. Importantly, the Brooklyn Museum has committed to these moves with its own staffing not merely as a way of securing its public funding but to make the establishment a better place to visit. “In terms of disability, gender, religious beliefs, socio-economic backgrounds and political ideas among the staff,” Pasternak said, “the better we can fulfil our role of telling thoughtful stories.”
The experience of CreateNY is a city-specific example of how a political agendum can be used as a driver towards greater diversity in the museum sector by leveraging public money. Of course, many institutions in the United States and elsewhere are engaged in fostering greater diversity without such a financial incentive but because it is in their own wider interest to do so. According to a report that was published in 2017 in the UK, nearly nine-tenths of the workforce in the British museum sector has a first-class degree and most of them have a postgraduate qualification of some description on top of that. The report, named Character Matters: Attitudes, Behaviours, Values and Skills in the UK Workforce report obviously highlighted what was already widely known in the industry – that academic success is needed to forge a career in the sector.
However, the report also delved a little further, examining the other factors that go into museum sector recruitment in the UK. Like the US, volunteering was found to be something that many in the sector had done, something that may not be financially viable to people outside of middle-class backgrounds, of course. What’s more, the academic qualifications mentioned tended to be from the ‘right sort of institution’ something that may also lead to a lack of genuine diversity among the brightest minds. In fact, the report spelled out that 92 per cent of staff in the British museum sector identified as white while a mere 5 per cent reported that they had any form of disability.
Partly as a result of the findings in the 2017 report and some which preceded it, Museums Galleries Scotland (MGS) has offered recruitment programme. The so-called ‘entry to the workforce’ scheme has run since 2011 and aims to remove the unconscious bias in recruitment procedures that too often favour the established demographic in institutions. By offering a more flexible recruitment process and more career progression routes, MGS has been aiming to break the link between hiring practices and a lack of diversity in the workforce.
One of the ways that this works is to offer top-notch learning facilities to interns and others who would, under usual circumstances, feel excluded from the museum sector workforce. MGS says that it has improved in this regard by learning from the mistakes it has made in the past as well as sticking with what has been successful within each programme. Every time, there is a new approach so the diversity offering does not remain set in stone, with greater inclusivity and accessibility each time the programme is run.
In fact, since it began, over 50 new entrants into the sector have undertaken year-long work-based placements in no fewer than 35 Scottish museums and galleries. Perhaps more importantly, by far the majority of them have gone on to find gainful employment in the sector, including management roles, curatorships and many other senior supervisory positions.
After attending a one day seminar in 2018, Jenny Bull, the Engagement Coordinator at University of Cambridge Museums said that she realised how important intersectionality is with regards to a robust diversity plan in the sector. She said that a number of speakers at the All-Inclusive: Championing Diversity in Museums seminar, staged by the Museums Association, raised the issue. Essentially, the question of intersectionality refers to the level of unconscious bias that an individual suffers from if they are in more than one demographic which is marginalised in some way. For example, a person of colour who also happens to be from a working-class background, or who has a disability, will have the odds stacked significantly against them in terms of getting into the museum sector.
Bull also referred to what her institution needs to take on board in terms of so-called micro-aggressions, a subtle practice whereby an established demographic group creates negativity among others on an almost daily basis. Even when it is conducted unconsciously, the theory of micro-aggressive behaviour is that it makes for a low-level of hostility in the workplace for ‘others’. Only by promoting a more diverse workforce where such behaviour is identified and challenged is it possible for workplaces of any kind, not just museums, to do away with it.
Unconscious bias training is one of the key tools museum professionals have in combatting micro-aggressive behaviour and intersectionality. By highlighting it, institutions won’t become more diverse overnight but existing staff should be able to examine their own behaviours with a more critical eye. This is why, according to Bull, places like the Tate Gallery have been delivering mandatory training on the issue. Crucially, this has not just been rolled out for employees but for gallery volunteers and consultants, as well.
There is no single model for improving the diversity of a workforce within a museum or any other institution. Constant vigilance is required as the way people identify themselves and which groups they consider they ‘belong to’ changes as societal attitudes shift. Unconscious bias is a real phenomenon or you couldn’t explain the lack of diversity in the sector around the world without considering the unpalatable idea that such biases may be active or conscious in some way. Therefore, all establishments, no matter how progressive they consider themselves to be, must continue to strive in this important area of social inclusion.
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.
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