When I was growing up in Luton in the 1980s and ’90s, and wanted to work in the arts, I didn’t see myself reflected in the faces of those who presented culture shows on television or who ran galleries. A reticent teenager, I determined that I wouldn’t be accepted into those careers. It wasn’t until the early 2000s that the cultural landscape began to ebb into more diverse terrains, albeit gradually. When I joined London’s Royal College of Art in 2011, a handful of noted BAME (black, Asian and minority ethnic) alumni – such as the filmmaker Asif Kapadia – gave me tangible hope that you did not have to be white to make your way in the creative industries. Have we come much further today?
Since the mid-2010s, diversity and decolonization have been at the forefront of cultural debate. Barely a stone in the UK arts establishment has been left unturned by this movement. Some institutions have responded defensively, by claiming that ‘to decolonize is to decontextualize’, as V&A director Tristram Hunt wrote in The Guardian last year. Others have admitted that there is a problem with the colonial structures they maintain and have invited activists to discuss issues such as inclusivity, representation and repatriation. There is an emphatic sense that the status quo can no longer speak to the UK’s complex cultural history. Yet, at the same time, a largely homogenous cultural establishment perpetuates the disproportionate representation of one group, when everyone should see themselves reflected in the arts.
According to Arts Council England’s 2017–18 diversity report, only five percent of staff at major partner museums (MPM) in the UK are BAME – an embarrassing figure relative to the 16 percent BAME working population. Their National Portfolio Organizations are paving the way for reform, with 12 percent BAME staff, showing that a diverse cultural workforce is not an impossibility. At an executive level, museums are even less representative: BAME trustees make up a lousy three percent of MPM boards.
How can we move forward? By way of discussion, there have been many Twitter threads (some of which I am guilty of fuelling). In terms of action, there has been less to write home about, though those who have flown the flag for change have not regretted it. Since 2018, we have seen a number of objects – such as the 16th–17th century Benin bronzes – restituted to former colonies; BAME curators appointed at an unprecedented rate; numerous conferences on how museums can reflect plurality; and public programmes more frequently broaching experiences and concerns that go beyond the male, pale and stale.
While such progress is encouraging, these measures only scratch the surface of a deep-rooted issue. Centuries of colonial rule have shaped the very structure of museums along with their founding collections, often comprised of imperial ‘discoveries’. Thus far, decolonizing projects have focused on reframing narratives in light of this difficult history. Yet, in order to remake the museum, we must also take tangible steps towards unpicking the power relations that play into its current composition. As anthropologist Patrick Wolfe wrote in Settler Colonialism (1999): ‘[Colonization] is a structure not an event.’
The heart of this change has commenced at the grassroots level. It has flourished so far in the form of collectives such as Museum Hue in the US, a creative platform for people of colour. Or consider Museum Detox in the UK, which began when a group of us came together six years ago to create a safe space to openly discuss the issues that were clearly at stake – and severely under-acknowledged – for BAME arts workers.
But change has to pierce the top, too. Only when the old boys’ club of the museum unlocks its lair will there be any hope of a meritocratic system of appointments and promotions, which enables museum leadership to thrive. Only when BAME candidates can look to diverse boards and directors will they overcome a lack of aspiration to pursue work in the sector. And only when those leaders create a culture of engaging with diverse communities will audiences of all backgrounds feel they are being adequately served.
Addressing inclusivity isn’t just about the workplace – it is, ultimately, about a richer arts scene that is in tune with its audiences and all the more vibrant and worthy of engagement. As a museum sector, we need to write a story that is reflective of the society we serve. The music industry is driven by pluralistic forms of expression and contemporary dance has found ways to celebrate cultural hybridity. It is time that museums caught up.
First published in Issue 209