Simon Stephens, Issue 116/02, p4, 01.02.2016
Cultural diversity is a win-win situation
The recent deaths of actor Alan Rickman and musician David Bowie has prompted a bit of a debate about cultural diversity. Both of them came from working-class backgrounds and went on to achieve remarkable things in the arts.

Workforce and audience diversity has been a concern for museums and galleries for some time, but for many, the pace of change has been grindingly slow. With workforce diversity, progress seems to be at a standstill in some ways, with extreme competition for the few jobs available working against a broad range of people joining the sector.

Maybe it is time to go back to basics and think a little more about why it is important to have diverse workforces and audiences. Part of the problem might be that achieving greater diversity is often seen as being about reaching targets, alongside other performance indicators such as number of website, education and overseas visits, and so on. This means that the actual reasons for promoting diversity can get slightly lost.

The British screenwriter and novelist Frank Cottrell-Boyce and musician Jarvis Cocker were on the radio recently talking about cultural diversity in relation to Rickman and Bowie. They both made the point that diversity in the arts is not just important because it is fair, and the right thing to do, but because it benefits our culture and enriches all of us.

Cottrell-Boyce pointed to Charlie Chaplin, who was born into extreme poverty in 19th-century London, but later in life more or less single-handedly elevated cinema to a popular artform. Cottrell-Boyce went on to say that while innovation can come from anywhere, it often comes from the margins, from outsiders. If we close the doors to these margins, we are in danger of diminishing our entire culture.

This is not just about fetishising working-class culture. Cocker said his positive experience at art school was partly because of the broad mix of people on the course, with different classes, races and religions represented. As he said: “What makes the world a better place is when everyone is invited to the party.” Maybe that is what we should be focusing on: making sure that we invite everyone to the party.


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MA Member
10.02.2016, 14:52
Sadly, I think that when Jarvis Cocker went to Central St Martins, they still had grants!

It is not a question of not inviting people to a party, I agree with Ms Ryall-Stockton - there's no point in holding a party in the north of Scotland, inviting unemployed guests from Cornwall and then not helping them with the transport to get there!

The museum world has always been a competitive field, but (paid) job prospects have never been worse, not dissimilar to other areas of the arts, Some museum jobs, as in any area, are always going to need specialised training and in the modern world one would have thought there would be equal access for all to the training needed. But in this climate of the marketization of culture and everything else - it's only worth doing if it makes money for someone, and the poor have no right to anything anyway if they can't pay - and so on, equality for access to the arts, seen by government as utterly expendable, is going to be the first thing to go.

I fear the blame lies not really with the museum sector - but with central government. Access to arts, history, culture, whether for those who want to work in the area or who want to learn about it as visitors, is no longer a right, but an increasingly elusive privilege.

To tackle the problem, an absolute and total sea-change needs to happen, and almost none of it can be achieved by the museum sector without political will to back it up. Restoring student grants to make it more possible for anyone who is interested to train, creating more full-time, permanent, paid jobs, advertising them widely, through many different channels and not just internally or in the specialist press - these would all help. But pigs will fly before any of it happens under this government...
MA Member
08.02.2016, 16:37
Yes cultural diversity is leaking out of the sector. To undertake internships or volunteer work after graduating one needs to have someone else willing to cover their living costs, rent and travel costs. It does look good on the CV to have done a years volunteer work but well off graduates are the only ones able to do this and this was the case twenty years ago and is the same today, there has been a slight improvement but the cost of living has risen and someone from a poorer background no matter how passionate they are cannot compete with someone who does not have money worries especially if one wants to do volunteer work in London, Cambridge or Oxford Museums. Diversity in the Museum sector is regressing and there has been a rise in unconscious biases in Museums existed twenty years ago and it still exists today (it is just better hidden) and is a bar to diversifying the museum sector. The same groups of people are still applying for volunteer work and the apprenticeships and one only needs to look at most apprenticeship programs in Museums to see which people are applying for them. Look at the lack of diversity of volunteer staff in the National Museums and the University Museums. If one has noticed the salaries are also are not rising in line with living costs. More people are willing to work in museums for less money and on zero hours contracts.
Lauren Ryall-Stockton
MA Member
Curator, Thackray Medical Museum
06.02.2016, 10:50
It does appear that cultural diversity is leaking out of the sector, causing me to question whether the high cost of University courses coupled with the standard practice of needing to volunteer before getting a paid role is causing long term harm. Students doubtless want a career following such a big financial investment in their future which has more secure job prospects.
The point made above by Simon about inviting everyone to the party is extremely poignant, and without stretching the metaphor too much I think we also need to put on transport to the party as well as extending an invitation.
Charlotte Pratley
MA Member
Director, Culture Syndicates CIC
06.02.2016, 08:32
Very eloquently put. Culture Syndicates are undertaking research into why applications for our graduate internship scheme are not from a diverse range of candidates and how we can improve our recruitment methods to accomodate different situations and reflect our graduate training mission. If anyone is conducting similar research or has an insight into the diversity of humanities courses, we'd love to hear from you.