On Oct 2nd 2015 Mobeen Butt attended the Museums and Diversity Symposium at Cartwright Hall Art Gallery in Bradford. Here are some of his thoughts and notes:
It was great to hear about all the good work that was taking place throughout Yorkshire. With regards to the sector becoming more inclusive however, there is much further to go if we are to succeed in reaching the target set by Arts Council England of having a diverse workforce, one that reflects all the cultures, colours and classes of contemporary England.
The highlight of the symposium was the final speaker, a young Muslim lady speaking of how she is engaging the Pakistani/Muslim communities and attracting local schools by linking the museum’s art collections with the national history curriculum, in particular, key stage 2, the study of ‘early Islamic civilization, including a study of Baghdad c. AD 900’.
It is important for communities that are disengaged, disenfranchised and suffer from multiple deprivation to have spaces where they can grow, feel safe, and speak openly in their ‘own language’ and on their own terms. These ‘safe spaces’ with the right resources, facilitators and links (people and structures who actively listen and respond) will produce empowered, confident and forthright individuals that can then be signposted out to participate articulately, positively and on par with others – and not just be there as a ‘token’.
In spaces like museums and art galleries, as Cartwright Hall demonstrates, nude paintings and sculptures are common. People of faith can find these environments insensitive and uncomfortable. Knowingly asking communities to compromise their beliefs isn’t a good start for equality.
Another point highlighted at the symposium was the lack of money (due to endless cuts) to invest in equality initiatives. It was heartening to hear someone pointing out that even when there was money in the sector, the sector still wasn’t good at equality.
So is having a diverse workforce going to have to wait for people to reach retirement before any real change can happen – as it is unlikely to see one person step aside to let another take their job?
Museums are increasingly requiring potential employees to have a relevant Master’s degree, even PhDs – it is unlikely to see people from low income backgrounds with a History or Art degree, let alone a Masters in Museum Studies. People living on low incomes will encourage their children to study traditional professional qualifications, so to give them a direct route into a stable income – so ‘Arty’ degrees are way down parent’s preferences. Also, many jobs now start by volunteering or an internship. People on low incomes cannot afford to give time for free.
Finally, let’s not forget, we are talking about a sector stuck in the past, where items were collected by the gentry – extremely rich, sometimes eccentric people – who then died and as part of their Will, a family feud or through inheritance tax negotiations they left their collections in trust. Now it is someone’s job (with the support of public money) to make these collections relevant, interpret them and attract people to come and see them. Does everyone have to go see them and find them interesting? Or are people just pressing the ‘opt-out’ button?