Museums are failing to reflect working-class lives
Class is often the overlooked factor in conversations about diversity, inequality and inclusion in museums. The pandemic put class-based vulnerabilities into sharp relief, with museum workers from lower socio-economic backgrounds disproportionately affected by job insecurity, income loss and mental health problems during the crisis.
At the same time, Covid highlighted the paucity of working-class representation in the public sphere, including the museum sector. Society’s view of what counts as essential or skilled labour was turned on its head as people in low-paid, manual jobs were asked to shoulder a greater burden of risk to keep the country running – yet their contribution was far less celebrated than those in white-collar professions such as doctors or nurses.
The inequalities brought to the surface by the pandemic have inspired a new report by researchers at the Museum of London and King’s College London. Museums, Class and the Pandemic explores the findings from a research and collection project undertaken by the museum at the height of Covid, which aimed to capture the experiences of essential workers in low-paid, working-class jobs in London – although it acknowledges that this doesn’t fully encompass the working-class experience.
At the launch of the report in January, authors Serena Iervolino and Domenico Sergi said they hope the research would inspire a broader conversation about working-class representation in the museum sector.
“We wanted to do a project that really mattered by collecting the experiences of those individuals that were basically running our cities while many of us were safely at home, and to create an archive of those experiences,” says Iervolino. “But we also wanted to think more clearly about how museums can, and should, reflect those experiences beyond the pandemic.”
Museums in the UK have a difficult relationship with class. In a recent book, Museums and the Working Class, David Fleming, the former director of National Museums Liverpool, described how museums “have failed utterly to reflect working-class culture in their drive to satisfy the tastes of a wealthy elite”. Fleming argues that the original, idealistic aims of many Victorian-era museum founders were later subverted as cultural institutions became focused on serving a wealthy white minority.
This has resulted in significant gaps in the reflection of working-class experiences in collections and scholarly research, says Iervolino, along with a lack of working-class representation in the museum workforce.
Just 23% of museum workers identify as working class, compared with 39% of the UK working population, according to Museum as Muck, a network for museum workers from working-class backgrounds. Working-class people are particularly underrepresented in certain roles, such as curatorial, and at leadership level.
Further data compiled by the group confirms the sector’s reputation as an overwhelmingly middle-class profession; half of Museum as Muck’s members were eligible for free school meals when they were children in contrast to just 4% of the Museums Association’s membership.
Iervolino says she hopes the research will start a broader conversation in the sector about how class is addressed in museums. As the project progressed, the team started “feeling that there were a number of areas of museum work that really required intervention,” she says.
“In the area of curation and representation, we found a tendency to project stereotypical, narrow, simplistic ideas of working-class lives – the kind of narratives of deprivation and struggle that are sometimes described as ‘poverty porn’,” says Iervolino.
Alternatively, museums may have a tendency to “romanticise” traditional working-class people such as factory workers or miners, she adds, portraying them as living a “much more community-oriented, much happier, simpler life”.
“These ideas sharply diverged from the narratives and complexity we were finding throughout our own research,” she says. The project certainly uncovered stories of economic struggle, powerlessness and injustice, but these were set alongside narratives of ingenuity, agency, support networks and community care.
“That challenges the simplistic ideas around working-class lives that we sometimes see projected in the media,” says Iervolino.
The approach of many museums also omits a structural analysis of socioeconomic inequality and the way in which it intersects with other identity markers such as ethnicity, sex and disability, according to Sergi. “We need a much more intersectional approach to class as both a political category and a lived experience,” he says.
Several institutions are doing more focused work in this area, particularly local and social history museums such as the Black Country Living Museum in Dudley and the Food Museum in Suffolk. An exhibition at Edinburgh’s Fruitmarket gallery, Poor Things, explores conversations about art and social class, featuring sculptures by artists from working- and lower-middle-class backgrounds.
“We argue that museums of every kind have the capacity to come up with imaginative and institutionally relevant ways to address working-class lives,” says Sergi.
This includes not just curatorial and collections work but areas such as marketing, public engagement and education. Recruitment and governance are two key areas that the report particularly urges museums to focus on.
The report adds: “Museums and heritage organisations need to develop long-term strategies to actively research, document and collect the tangible and intangible heritage of working-class communities.”
Sergi and Iervolino will present a more detailed analysis of their findings in an upcoming volume of the Museum Worlds journal.
Museums must see working-class people as equal partners
Class is difficult for a lot of people to talk about or define, says Museum as Muck founder Michelle McGrath, who wrote the afterword to the Museums, Class and the Pandemic report.
“We frame it [working class] as coming from a background of low economic, social and cultural capital,” she said at the report’s launch. “It’s where there wasn’t much money, but it’s also about social capital – who you know, your networks; and cultural capital – level of education and the experiences and opportunities you have outside education. I was never taken to a museum as a child, for example.”
McGrath set up Museum as Muck five years ago, and what started out as a support community for working-class employees has turned into a more formal movement.
During the pandemic, the network surveyed its members and found that the number of “muckers” who needed to claim benefits during the pandemic doubled to 22%, while 64% did not have access to a separate working space and 47% said they weren’t provided with the necessary resources and equipment to work from home. Muckers were more likely to be frontline workers, with 45% having travel to their worksite.
The cost of living crisis has heightened the challenges facing working-class representation. “Covid and the cost of living increase have affected progress as we are directly impacted through redundancies, loss of income, and health issues,” McGrath tells Museums Journal. “It also means museums aren’t prioritising this work.”
Although these issues can sometimes seem intractable, McGrath thinks the solution is straightforward. “We won’t have representation until museums pay fairly and have better working conditions,” she says. This includes fairer recruitment practices and better entry routes, moving away from a reliance on internships and postgraduate qualifications.
More than that, museums need to be welcoming spaces for working-class people and to view them as equal partners. “You need to think about how you bring people in on a level and you’re not just saying ‘come in, have a cup of tea and a biscuit, thanks for all your knowledge, see you later’,” says McGrath.
She urges museums to make simple changes, such as paying expenses upfront. “If you’re bringing different types of people into the museum, you need to understand them. If you’re all sitting around at lunch talking about your skiing holidays, that might not be inclusive to everyone. It’s not bad to talk about skiing holidays but broaden the conversation – ask people different things.”
White, working class boys perform the poorest of any socioethnic group during schooling, are least likely to go to university, and fall short of opportunities with major funding bodies, meaning they are disproportionately missing from museum and heritage teams. Until they can be empowered and supported from within the sector, funding bodies, and from sector support organisations, we will not see change.
Good to see work on this. Look forward to someone looking at rural working class (one more article about someone heading to a rural area that’s unpopulated and wild to stay in a crofters cottage to find themselves will finish me off. Rural working class aren’t even noticed; much more romantic to ignore their existence).