Museums’ dirty secret: a failure to shift the dial on inclusion
Of all creative practices, it’s in the heritage sector that privately shared concerns are most at odds with public narratives about equity, diversity and inclusion (EDI). Funders are so keen to support EDI initiatives that they’re prepared to overlook near-certain failure. And leaders confess that senior ‘diverse hires’ are needed to ‘keep the head count up’. Both clearly demonstrate an awareness of failure and widespread discomfort about the complicity that comes with upholding a broken system.
Arts Council England (ACE) 2021 workforce statistics show museums remain among the worst in the sector on inclusion. Museums have borne the heat in public debate through important work around decolonisation and repatriation of artefacts. There’s much public-facing work that looks different enough to scare the bejeezus out of the average Daily Mail reader.
But despite brilliant and notable exceptions, inclusivity in programming is not filtering through to inclusivity in the workforce. The resistance to making genuine change is in part because the solutions are unpalatable to many working in or funding museums. And this vested interest perspective blocks the self-reflection the heritage sector desperately needs.
What sits behind the failure is a rigidity of hierarchy unparalleled in most arts environments which, reinforced by a near-obsession with formal qualifications, rarely looks to other parts of the creative sector for best practice. Because heritage thinks ‘we’re different’, solutions remain elusive and multi-layered bias remains hard baked into both environment and working practice.
Better off at Amazon?
The workplace experience of museum staff might seem a million miles away from working in a retail warehouse on the minimum wage. But staff at Amazon’s UK warehouse in Coventry are set to take collective action for the first time in the company’s history.
Museum staff experience some of the widest pay disparities in the sector. Where a venue-based theatre will typically see its most senior leaders earn 3 or 4 times that of most junior salaried staff, in museums this gap is frequently 4, 5 or 6 times larger. While this pales into significance with wage disparities outside the arts, it matters more as salaries come from the public purse.
Museums’ reliance on volunteers to deliver programmes adds fuel to the fire. Recently ACE has heard and responded to the need to build R&D into projects; it has shown flexibility with makers who have argued successfully for funding that’s ‘the same amount for less’, reducing delivery requirements to improve staff pay.
Museums can’t afford to deliver programmes equitably on existing budgets. What’s needed is a radical re-think of the business model and delivery, pushing salary commitments higher up the agenda especially for those at the no-pay or low-pay scale. For the workforce, collective solution-seeking is possible – while industrial action may not be the solution, a conversation with leaders with joint and common purpose certainly is.
Qualification and hierarchy
It’s galling for anyone to admit they’d earn more at Amazon than in the job they love - but how much worse if you’ve spent years on a PhD to qualify for the job? As one worker told me: “I speak three languages and have a Masters and my job consists of telling people to ‘stay behind the barrier’.”
The biggest barrier to building inclusive museums is their emphasis on tertiary education qualifications. And the solutions museums keep churning out reinforce old-fashioned thinking about qualification and skills.
Museums have sought to attract diverse entrants by the creation of bespoke diplomas as a way of short-cutting entry into a sector that thinks skillset can only be assessed through evidencing formal qualifications. Such initiatives are upheld as ‘success stories’ for inclusion.
The continuing emphasis is on paper qualifications rather than skills and experience gained through work. It’s bizarre then that leaders don’t recognise that the diverse hires going through diplomas are automatically at a disadvantage until they ‘catch up’... and then only to earn some of the lowest salaries in the sector. As one senior leader said: “I suspect maybe only 5% of the work truly requires a post-graduate degree.”
And worse: many well-qualified 'diverse hires' are given fixed term contracts and asked to do EDI work via the backdoor. Not only is this an embarrassing and inappropriate conflation of decolonisation work in the programme with organisational change, it also conflates lived experience of marginalisation with expertise in organisational development. Fixed term contractual status means less likelihood of investment in skills development as these staff are seen to be ‘passing through’. Doing EDI work ‘on the side’ detracts from the skillsets that brought them into the organisation.
Museums have failed to pivot
The heritage sector is least likely in my experience to draw insights from beyond its own practice. Leaders are advised to consider what training models are fit for today and what cross-sector training museums are engaging with. There are valuable skills to be gained in research into other business sectors.
Building an inclusive workforce is not just about entry level roles, but developing people who have been overlooked and who have not had any investment in their skills development. This is usefully done through secondment or project leadership, not just bringing in more fodder for a broken machine to break.
This emphasis in recruitment is out of synch with the trends in employment training. It’s not only disingenuous but also guarantees smart would-be entrants would be better off working at Amazon, doing a variety of non-museum roles to progress their career.
In the umpteenth report into inclusion in museums, Art Fund’s Curatorial Diversity Report (November 2022) describes a year-long research project that confesses to ‘a lack of numerical data on UK initiatives that precluded quantitative analysis’.
Not only is there a lack of quantitative data, there is no analysis of inclusion strategies by ethnicity. This means that a report which asks whether inclusion strategies in museums have worked provides no insight into how such strategies compare across different ethnic identities. It also fails to articulate any narrative about intersectionality and ignores disability, gender and social class.
Art Fund’s report eschews practical and measurable steps for action and, despite being uniquely placed to do so, doesn’t commit to gathering data from the 850 organisations it works with to inform future narratives on inclusion in the sector.
Museums have failed to pivot like so many in theatre, dance, literature, music and elsewhere have done. They need to stop thinking they are special because of their emphasis on post-graduate qualifications. Theatre directors work across moving image and broadcast; visual artists work with heritage, archives and craft; dancers work in performance, theatre and community…
Tomorrow’s museum worker will understand that the sector has few routes to full-time, financially viable employment. More importantly, they will have the ambition to work across the widest of creative practices, just like colleagues starting out in music, or visual arts.
Tomorrow’s successful museum will build a business model that works with that certainty of flexibility.
Amanda Parker is a Creative Consultant and Director of Policy, Research & Communications at the Forward Institute.
Link to Author(s): Amanda Parker