It’s time all museums were postcolonial

Errol Francis, Issue 118/07, p14, 01.07.2018
There are critical issues concerning museums' role and purpose
There are some critical issues facing our museums, concerning their role and purpose. Apart from their role in terms of the cultural and historical narratives, there are major questions about the dubious provenance of many objects in their collections, resulting from their acquisition as trophies of colonialism. The workforce reflects the same hierarchies of the coloniser and the colonised, and the programmes mostly reinforce notions of civilisation from a Eurocentric point of view.

Yet the heritage sector is also a substantial industry significantly contributing to our national economy in terms of tourism and employment. Heritage tourism annually generates £16.4bn by domestic and international visitors, while spending on the maintenance of historic buildings generates another £9.6bn, according to figures from Historic England. It is estimated that up to 386,000 people work in heritage, so this is an area of great economic, as well as cultural, importance. Yet a substantial proportion of our population is structurally excluded from this economy, in terms of employment and as an audience.

Recent research estimates that only 2.7% of those working in UK museums, galleries and libraries are from black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) backgrounds. This suggests that the diversity of the workforce is worsening because in 2010 it was reported that BAME workers in the UK museum sector had increased from 2.5% in 1993 to about 7% in 2006-08, although this number varies from 1.3% to 10.4%, depending on the type of museum and job role.

Furthermore, the gap in arts/heritage participation between white and BAME populations is widening, and in 2015 BAME adults were less likely to have visited a heritage site (59.8% compared with 74.1%) or to have engaged with the arts broadly defined (70.4% compared with 78.5%), according to figures in the Warwick Commission on the Future of Cultural Value report.

Restrictive entry routes into the sector drive inequality. A culture of unpaid work experience as a rite of passage into the sector favours those who can self-subsidise internships, and further narrows entry routes for people from working class or BAME backgrounds.

I believe there is a connection between questions of what to do about colonial provenance, imperialist narratives of history and civilisation, the lack of diversity of the workforce and the lack of interest from BAME and working-class audiences in what museums are offering.

How can we decolonise the museum? There should be an international register of objects with disputed provenance to prevent their further sale and, where ownership can be established, there should at least be arrangements to help facilitate loans and exchanges with museums in other parts of the world, if not their outright return.

There should also be diversity performance targets covering all protected characteristics laid down by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media & Sport and all UK arts councils, and museum funding should be linked to whether or not these have been achieved.

For the workforce, there need to be more programmes such as the New Museum School that Culture& is launching this year, which is specifically aimed at diversifying the workforce. There was also the Museums Association’s Transformers programme, which aimed to develop more diverse talent at a more senior level.

We can measure public programmes too, in terms of their content and whether they reach diverse audiences – initiatives such as the Pitt Rivers Museum’s Decolonising the Museum and Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery’s The Museum Will Not Be Decolonised.

If these actions can be taken, our museums can become postcolonial rather than colonial.

Errol Francis is the chief executive of Culture&, an independent arts and education charity

Comments