For the likes of me

Sharon Heal, 27.06.2018
Thinking about class and museums
I was interviewed recently for some research about class and museums and it got me thinking.

It got me thinking about my own background; how it has shaped me; the impact it’s had on my career and what class means in museums.

I would describe myself as coming from a pretty solid working-class background; both my parents worked in factories; my family lived in east Leeds; I went to a local comp and my sister was the first person in our extended family to go to university.

That background has shaped my cultural outlook, my tastes, aspirations, confidence and opinions in ways which are explicit and subtle and lasting. It affects how I see myself and how others see me. And it impacts on my cultural consumption.

I wasn’t brought up going to museums, theatres, art galleries or opera. I went on school trips - once to Leeds Museum and once to Fairfax House in York, but not much beyond. As a family we spent weekends in the Yorkshire Dales and moors and in the streets of cities like York - never once in its many museums, they just weren’t on our radar.

And I ended up here, working in the cultural sector - which is a privilege - but I didn’t come via a traditional route. I didn’t go to university after I left school, so unlike many who work in the arts, I don’t have one degree, never mind two or three.

I don’t see that as a disadvantage, but it’s interesting how many times I have been interrogated about that lack of a degree in my career. It didn’t matter when I worked in journalism - on-the-job experience and skills counted for more in that profession. But since i moved into the cultural sector I have had headhunters politely suggest that I should study part time to get a degree and that it would look good on my CV (reality check; I was working full time and juggling childcare).

Then again, I have also had headhunters describe me as a strong candidate “but a bit rough around the edges”. Which made me wonder if this charming phrase was just a euphemism for working class.

I am also resolutely northern and I’ve not lost that identity or my accent despite years of living in London (top tip: do not adopt a fake Yorkshire accent when speaking to a northerner or relating something a northerner has said - it’s neither funny nor accurate).

Class matters in museums because we know that people from working class backgrounds are hugely underrepresented in our workforce and our audiences.

And language matters too. I’ve noticed that we’ve started talking about class in museums recently - but without mentioning the C word. “Socio-economic background” is admittedly a bit of a mouthful and “class” as a term is both loaded and fluid.

The new terminology coming from government in England and agencies seems to be social mobility - and to be honest I am struggling with it.

It smacks of meritocracy, with the onus on the individual to rise up and leave their lowly and deprived origins behind.

We should also be wary of the trickle-down theory approach to our audiences: the “you can have a little bit of our culture because it will be good for you” attitude - it’s patronising and you can smell it a mile off.

Language matters and what we do is important too. Small acts can send powerful signals - for example at the MA we never ask for qualifications beyond GCSE for any internal post we advertise.

And we put our money where our mouth is - such as investing core resources in Transformers, our mid-career scheme.

We are involved in campaigns to encourage museums to reach out to and work with their communities; to open up venues to diverse audiences; and to grow a diverse and representative workforce.

All this stuff matters; we need actions as well as words if we are to create a workforce and audiences that look and sound like the communities they are from.


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12.07.2018, 12:04
Diversifying audiences was once thought to be so important that national museums had to report on it. The numbers of 'hard to reach' visitors from underrepresented groups were monitored by DCMS, looking at annual returns in the key performance indicators. This was a bit of a blunt instrument but at least it kept the issue alive. Sadly, this no longer happens.
Lisa Ward
Museum , Games Workshop Ltd
28.06.2018, 11:58
I also recently completed a series of questions (perhaps for the same research) and find resonance with your comment about:

"And language matters too. I’ve noticed that we’ve started talking about class in museums recently - but without mentioning the C word. “Socio-economic background” is admittedly a bit of a mouthful and “class” as a term is both loaded and fluid."

I found it very difficult to describe and discuss my upbringing for the reseach, as we were certainly a low “Socio-economic background”, and we thought of ourselves as working class.

Yet my mother was an artist as a hobby, we visited every free museum and gallery we could, we listened to classical FM and I devoured the local library - I realise now that by some standards, we were middle class, but on a working class budget.

Class has so much expectation and prejudice wrapped up in it, that the change to Socio-economic background as a descriptor makes some sense, on paper, yet it misses out so much of the nuance.