The answer to diversifying museums is already there, outside our doors

Rachel Cockett, Issue 120/02, 01.02.2020
Birmingham Museums has been working hard to diversify its staff, programming and audiences. We have had successes in increasing the representation of the people of Birmingham and their stories within our programmes and collections. 

Our workforce has had black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) managers, senior managers and trustees. We have won awards and recognition as a powerful agency for promoting diversity, social cohesion and inclusion in the city. So, job done? 

Let’s look at the statistics: 23% of our staff identify as BAME (2018-19), as do 35% of our 1,000-plus volunteers, while we have strong BAME representation in visitors (24% in summer 2019). In a UK and West Midlands context, these percentages sound good. However, the population of Birmingham was 40% BAME at the 2011 census, and by the next one, the figure is predicted to be 50%. Birmingham is also the youngest city in Europe. We have some way to go to deliver on our aim to be representative of our city.

I’ve worked at Birmingham Museums since 2000. There have been many workforce diversity initiatives, mostly in the form of externally funded traineeships. Some trainees got jobs with us and have stayed long term – a desirable outcome. However, it feels like we were happy to “do diversity”, but only if someone else was paying. 

We have progressed since the early days. Our Career Ladder programme, a paid summer traineeship aimed at 16- to 17-year-olds, now in its 11th year, takes a different approach. The emphasis changes from “diversifying the museum workforce” to celebrating our local community and helping it gain transferable skills. 

The priority is that young people learn new skills and gain confidence, increasing the opportunities open to them. Many of the 80-plus trainees have become Birmingham Museums staff or entered into related further education. The scheme is supporting young people and diversifying our staff. 

However, to be representative, change must be visible at all levels of an organisation. And over the past two years, our board of trustees has become less ethnically diverse. We recognised that this is unacceptable and that to change how we look, we need to change how we work.

Birmingham Museums is working in partnership with Don’t Settle, a National Lottery Heritage Fund-supported project led by Beatfreeks, a collective of companies that support creativity in the city, to empower 16- to 25-year-olds from minority communities in Birmingham and the Black Country to “change the voice of heritage through the arts, research and governance”. 

We are working with young people to create a new youth governance structure, with powers delegated by the Birmingham Museums Trust board. When the Don’t Settle project finishes, the new structure will remain, supporting young people from the city into board roles.

Our vision for our workforce is that everyone feels comfortable being themselves. We are not there yet. Discussions with staff have highlighted that there are still barriers within our museums. This can limit interaction and understanding of each others’ roles and wider experience. 

It means that some of our people feel unable to be strong advocates for Birmingham Museums within their communities. To achieve our vision, we will continue to focus on developing more-inclusive recruitment practice, improving staff retention and progression, through internal engagement opportunities for staff at all levels.

Over the past two decades, we have learned that we should not look inward, but look out, as a part of Birmingham. The museum sector has spent too long trying to find solutions from within and is waking up to the fact that the answer is already there, outside our doors.

Rachel Cockett is the director of development at Birmingham Museums Trust

This comment piece by Rachel Cockett and the article in the same issue by Sara Wajid have been published together to give differing perspectives on Birmingham Museums Trust’s approach to workforce diversity

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