Time to phase out hackneyed terminology

Shaz Hussain, Issue 117/10, p15, 01.09.2017

What are we really trying to say when we use the word diversity? 

How often have you heard omeone say that change is just too difficult at your museum? Many of us probably entered the sector with the drive and enthusiasm to instigate change – and I was definitely no different.

In 2015, I became a museum trainee as part of a diversity scheme that aimed to give young people from under-represented backgrounds an alternative entry route into museums. After a few months in the sector, I learned that museums were severely lacking in diversity, particularly black, Asian and minority ethnic employees and visitors.

Diversity seemed to be the buzzword. It was a word that I barely thought about before joining the sector but I found I was now using it on a near-daily basis. It became a label that started sticking to me because I was considered part of that “diverse” group of people museums were looking for. But conversations around diversity became more and more frustrating, and being told that I was diverse felt increasingly uncomfortable.

There are plenty of different terms and jargon that we use in museums, but what are we really trying to say when we use the word diversity? The current approach to diversifying museums makes sense only through the eyes of the predominantly straight, white, middle-class norm that exists now. The word diversity imagines museums as spaces for these people and suggests that anyone else that enters that space is something “other”.

Diversity is really just a polite way to say s“different”, and different can exist only if you have something with which to compare it.

This idea complicated my position as a trainee on a diversity scheme – I was there to promote diversity in museums but it was, instead, a heavy burden.

I was passionate about changing museums, but as a trainee I didn’t feel like I had the power to change policies. But I knew I could not leave the responsibility of initiating change in the hands of only those above me.

I realised that to challenge how we tackle diversity in museums, I had go back to the basics. Diversity was a word that was not good enough any more, so I began by changing the language that I was using. Although it may have seemed like an insignificant change, it forced me to think more closely and more consciously about the meaning behind my words and actions. Language is such a powerful tool and it is one of the easiest and most accessible ways we can all start making a change.

I replaced diversity with “representation” because I want museums to employ people that look like those I see every day on the street. And I want visitors to reflect that. It changes my mindset and I am more connected to the communities I am supposed to be serving.

This simple change has made a big impact.

I want to challenge everyone to think about the hackneyed phrases or terms you use at work. Make just one change in your language and see what a huge difference you can start to make.

Shaz Hussain is a collections assistant at the Royal Air Force Museum London


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28.09.2017, 10:12
This is a really important point. As a sector we utilise language without considering the full impact and loading of specific terms. Terms are applied instead of developed. I can imagine this change has made a huge impact within your organisation. Amazing work.
Charlotte Pratley
Director, Culture Syndicates CIC
19.09.2017, 07:49
Well said. Cultural organisations must grasp the need to change if they are to become more relevant. Your experience as a junior member of staff highlights the potentially missed opportunities of not involving a wider range of staff in the organisation's development - it's important for managers and directors to recognise the ability for project teams to be more representational and experiment to keep approaches fresh. Using a Diagonal Slice approach, where project teams include a variety of employee levels, can be a great way to try new ways of listening to junior members of staff and volunteers. A quick Google reveals the backlash against another bit of jargon when common sense should prevail though: forums include "WTF is diagonal slice?" and "you try working out costings with 27 people in the room" but like many theories, if it was happening naturally, a model wouldn't be necessary.