Is diversity dead?

Alistair Brown, 01.03.2017
We need to think more carefully about our definition of diversity
Traditionally, museums have dealt in categories, taxonomies, classifications and groupings.

From ethnography to natural history, the labels that museums have applied to their collections have been instrumental in structuring our thoughts about the world. And all too often they have reinforced wider prejudices in society, such as colonialism, racism, social injustice, and environmental mismanagement.

Much of the recent mission of museums has been a reaction against the biases that traditional collections represented. Many modern museums have concentrated – rightly – on the need to uncover hidden histories and to give under-represented groups and stories a place in the public realm.

They have increasingly sought to diversify the collections they hold and the stories that they tell. With rather less success, they have also sought to diversify their workforce.

I think this has led to a new language of categories, classifications and groupings: the language of diversity. Today we talk about gender, BAME and LGBT groups as part of the effort to make museums more representative, more democratic and more welcoming.

It’s a language that has proved useful in advancing those causes, but which has many detractors at present. The political turmoil of the past year has seen plenty of commentators point the finger at so-called "identity politics" as the culprit behind Trump, Brexit and so on. According to them, we are experiencing a backlash of the majority against minorities.

Does this mean that diversity is dead? I don’t think so - but it’s up to those of us who want to celebrate diversity – of views, of representation, and of workforce – to respond powerfully to those challenges.

We need to continue advancing the causes of gender, BAME and LGBT equality. But we also need to seek out greater diversity of representation across all groups that face inequality, including in terms of socio-economic background, disability and lived experience. The MA’s definition of diversity has reflected this line of thinking for some time.

There is another area that urgently needs our attention. We need to start thinking much more cleverly about how we attempt to enact diversity within the workforce.

At present, the amount of concrete change that is being delivered by specialised diversity programmes is feeble. A recent American report that looked at 829 companies over a period of 31 years has issued a damning verdict on diversity programmes in the US, stating that: “Neither diversity training to extinguish stereotypes, nor diversity performance evaluations… have accomplished much.”

This is surely also applicable to our museums. Anyone who has participated in a discussion about diversity in museums will have experience the high ratio of handwringing to action. But the report offers some clues about initiatives that have more success.

They are the programmes that are more inclusive, that seek to reduce, rather than heighten, the division into "us and them" and that deliver gains across the board. They are also often those that support individuals through coaching and mentoring, providing individuals with access to vital knowledge and networks.

So perhaps the way forward for diversity in museums is, in fact, by creating less division, and being careful about how we use categories, classificiations and groupings.

The MA’s Transformers: Diversify programme will be an opportunity for a diverse cohort of museum professionals to develop new ways to improve diversity in their museum. The deadline is fast approaching, so apply now.


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09.03.2017, 11:56
Lack of diversity is a symptom of lack of resources first and foremost.

If the sector paid better, a broader spectrum of people would be able to do the job, and would want to. My experience in the private sector involved a lot more genuine diversity of staff than the cultural sector just because of this.

If more organisational resources (staff time, programming, etc) were put forward towards diversity, then more would happen. But this, as we all know, is a zero sum game- time spent tackling diversity properly is time not spent maintaining current operations, which is challenging enough in the current climate.

Non-financial barriers to entry are important. However, if nothing changes on structural staffing issues caused by lack of resources (lengthy volunteering/internships, low pay, short term contracts, part time work etc) then I'm worried we are only working the margins here, and possibly distracting from the main issue of funding.
09.03.2017, 12:09
I couldn't agree more with this. In the present climate you need another source of income to even consider a museum career!
02.03.2017, 14:29
Entering the museum sector as someone who is from a 'diverse' background is not for the faint hearted. Speaking from my own experience, having support networks both within your organisation and through specific groups, like Museum Detox for BAME museum workers, is essential. Institutional racism exists and cultural differences can make working life a struggle sometimes.Even just the term 'diversity' can be patronising.
I've noticed more of an effort from the sector to diversify in all aspects and on one hand this seems great, but at the same time I don't want to be a ticked box for ethnic diversity or to be called on to represent on behalf of all BAME visitors or projects.
Sometimes it feels as if the sector has tried to treat the symptom rather than the cause when it comes to diversifying.
Obviously you won't be able to hire a diverse workforce if the infrastructure or the accessibility to enable those people to even consider a career in museums is just not there. It's time to look at diversity differently and for us as a sector to challenge the way we approach it. An interesting article was written on the Australian arts hub about diversity, which should be read with a pinch of salt but nonetheless has some valid points.
02.03.2017, 11:22
I don't think diversity is dead either. But I do think it is very difficult to achieve, and even more so when funding for everything is being cut to the bone. I don't think this remotely means we should stop trying, but we do need to be realistic. Coaching and mentoring would be excellent - but who is going to do this when there are barely enough staff to cover the basics? At my institution there are huge gaps now, because so many posts have been cut - how would the MA suggest we deal with this?

We are seldom allowed to recruit because we have to follow council policies on budget saving and, on the few occasions we do, we usually are told to recruit internally because, again, it is cheaper than advertising externally and staff made redundant, not surprisingly, have to have first choice of available jobs via redeployment. None of this helps diversity, but we have no choice but to obey it! Sometimes we can argue that the skills for a particular job won't be found within the council so we are allowed to recruit outside, but even then if, as is so often the case, the post is low-paid, temporary, project-funded and/or part-time - someone from a lower income group, who might possibly also be more likely to be from other minorities too - is unlikely to be able to re-locate outside London in order to take the post up. So yet another reasonably-off middle class white person goes for the job!

All these factors militate hugely against diversity and it's unbelievably frustrating. Does the MA have any advice?