Use your privilege wisely - Museums Association

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Conference 2024: The Joy of Museums booking open now – Book before 31 March 2024 for a 10% discount

Use your privilege wisely

Jessica Turtle, inclusion manager, Museums Association

At the MA conference in 2016, I participated in a panel that explored class and inequality in the sector. During the questions and answers, a (self-described) white, middle class man asked what he, as someone who benefits from significant privilege, could ‘do’ about diversity. Apart from suggesting he move over and give up his place at the table, I was not able to answer the question adequately at the time. It has stayed with me since and I’ve been pondering how we can make real change happen in a sector that is predominately made up of a privileged workforce.

I have learnt so much working with the MA Transformers: Diversify cohort through 2017 and I owe the participants a great debt. What follows is a personal and honest reflection on power and privilege in museums, inspired by the ability of the Transformers to be vulnerable and fearless at the same time.

During Transformers 2017 and Festival of Change I learnt about allyship and it was a huge piece of personal development for me. As the sector is undeniably privileged, I believe real change will happen more quickly if people work towards better allyship in their daily practice. Here are some tips that I have found useful and, had I known these then, I would have answered my colleague at the conference with something like this:

Five steps towards allyship:

Step 1: Become aware of your privilege and acknowledge it

For much of my childhood I experienced various forms of homelessness and poverty, but I have managed to forge a successful and interesting career in the arts. For years I hid my personal experience but more recently I’ve worked with it as a driving factor for my own social justice focused work. I’m proud of myself, of where I came from and of where I have got to. However, I know that despite the adversities I’ve faced, I hold massive privilege.

What extra barriers would I have faced if I was disabled or transgender? In a sector that has institutional biases in favour of white people, how many jobs can I really say I got completely on my own hard-won merit? These are truths that we need to examine if we are to work effectively towards inclusive museums. In April 2018 my colleagues and I at the Museums Association carried out an equality assessment and we’ve included the tool in the resources section of this publication for you to work on with your colleagues.

Step 2: Educate yourself

Don’t expect to be educated by those you perceive as ‘diverse.’ It’s not their job to educate you on social justice matters. This is the digital age and there’s plenty of material out there to absorb. Emotional labour is tiring and people who identify under the protected characteristics and work in museums must explain themselves or fight micro-aggressions every day. Allyship means not adding to that burden by educating yourself as much as possible. This will also help you make better decisions on a day to day basis and you’ll be better equipped to call out injustice when you witness it.

Step 3: Give space

Let’s take a hypothetical situation. You are in an exhibition planning meeting where a person of colour is speaking on matters of diversity and inclusion, related to the content. You feel some emotions and have an urge to engage, to tell that person you understand how they must feel. Maybe you want to apologise, try and mitigate their experiences, offer up solutions. Don’t. Give space and really listen. This ‘talking over’ behaviour happens a lot. We need to learn to listen, allow people to express what their ideal solution would be and think about how we can actively and practically contribute to making it a reality.

Step 4: Don’t expect or require gratitude

At Festival of Change 2017, my biggest takeaway was Museum Detox’s allyship barometer, inspired by the Racism Scale. The barometer was part of the design of the White Privilege Clinic led by Shaz Hussain. Looking at it I questioned my allyship. I realised I sometimes act as a performative ally. This can mean expecting or needing recognition or praise for social justice work, or leading when you should be amplifying. There is an increased risk of this if leading something as high profile and exciting as Festival of Change. My mind was blown by this. I get a great reward from carrying out social justice work and this means I really have to watch my own need for recognition and gratitude in relation to the work.

This is delicate stuff. We all get a warm glow when a colleague thanks us or says we’ve done a good job, but in the social justice arena a different approach is needed. The barometer was a timely reminder that this work requires a reflective approach, self-awareness and putting a commitment to structural change above our own need for reward, professional or otherwise.

Step 5: If it hurts, it means the work is actually happening

If you are working with communities and criticism is levelled at you or your institution by members of the community, don’t shut it down or dismiss it. Embrace it, listen to it and act on it. Often if we pride ourselves on being socially engaged practitioners, it’s all too easy to say, ‘we’re doing our best, what more do they want?’ But these difficult and complicated conversations are where the real change-making work happens. It’s a symptom of a sector that is moving in the right direction: people are more and more empowered to claim space, inhabit museums and ask for more from them. Allyship means encouraging that, especially when it’s difficult.

Allyship: an active, consistent, and challenging practice of unlearning and re-evaluating, in which a person of privilege seeks to work in solidarity with a marginalised group

Definition from PeerNetBC, under a Creative Commons License