Putting inclusion at the heart of our institutions

Sharon Heal, director, Museums Association

There is pretty much universal agreement that museums and galleries in the UK would be better, richer and more engaging places if our audiences and workforce were more representative of the communities that we strive to serve.

However, if we are honest we have to admit that despite almost 400 years of existence museums and galleries have singularly failed to diversify their audiences or their workforce. Which begs the questions: is it possible; is the task just too large; and more critically, do we actually want it to happen?

In the 21st century most of our institutions remain stubbornly monocultural to a degree that would be deemed remarkable and inexcusable in other sectors. While some of the most hierarchical and established professions such as the judiciary have seen improvements in diversity, museums have talked a good fight but have failed to deliver substantial or lasting change.

There are lots of reasons for this, but a critical factor is the relationship between the collection, the institution and the public. Collections have rightly had a specific weight at the heart of our institutions – they are the thing that sets them apart from other types of organisation and are what museums are founded upon.

However, the history of our collections and buildings, the very act of creating the collections – from cabinets of curiosity to collections of empire, is so often rooted in Britain’s imperialist past and present.

Museums carry the voices, echoes, prejudices and preconceptions of the past into the present day.

For all the richness and variety this creates, it also brings with it a responsibility that we must address. Museums carry the voices, echoes, prejudices and preconceptions of the past into the present day. They are not and cannot be neutral spaces, a fact that we have to acknowledge before we are able to move on.

The history of our collections means that when challenges to their authority occur: alternative narratives; multiple voices; decolonising; the resistance to change in the heart of our institutions and in the establishment soon becomes evident.

Hearing, acknowledging, supporting, facilitating and giving equality to different voices and narratives is a powerful way of recognising and overcoming that resistance to change.

Our collections are more contested than ever but they also hold more potential to effect social, environmental and political change. Remoulding our institutions to reflect the rich diversity of 21st-century Britain requires brave and radical approaches: giving power and authority to the unheard and underrepresented; and collecting with new and existing communities is one way of doing that.

If we really do want to move beyond the status quo we have to accept that museums are not neutral spaces, ours is not the only authority and that challenge, dialogue and debate should be the new heart of our museums.

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