Sara Wajid

The conversation

Tehmina Goskar, Sara Wajid, Issue 116/12, p17, 01.12.2016
Why don't museums reflect the diversity of society?
Dear Sara: What society? Is there only one? Who’s deciding what a true reflection of a museum’s society is, anyway? We are talking about diversity in a two-dimensional way, which is probably why we feel museums are not reflections of their societies. As individuals, as collectives around particular interests and issues, and as local communities, we occupy so many different identities and aspirations that are constantly changing and adapting, depending on their environment. We’re human beings, not just a
set of labels.

Oll an gwella, Tehmina

Dear Tehmina: I agree that humans are fluid, and the meanings and potential of collections are multiple. Through some recent campaigns work I’ve been doing, I’ve noticed young people seem to deftly and instinctively negotiate complex questions of equality, identity and cultural rights and representation in ways in which many museum directors are incapable. It feels like time to leapfrog the stale tried-and-tested approaches to diversifying our museums that many middle and senior managers have been trained in, and to put more power in the hands of ambitious younger staff, who embody more progressive views.

Best wishes, Sara

Dear Sara: I would like to see this, too. The prevalent structures museums work within, especially those entrenched in self-serving independent charitable boards or the whims of local authority members, need to be challenged, regularly and loudly, and with the support of industry bodies such as the Museums Association. Without this support, it’s too easy to be ignored, marginalised or called a troublemaker. The point I make about a fixation on labels, used in the name of embracing diversity, is that it lays bare the flaws in the structures we are so reluctant to change. Museum stakeholders need to be far more active in challenging organisations they fund to change, before they give them a penny.

Oll an gwella, Tehmina

Dear Tehmina
: The US election and Brexit results got me thinking slightly differently about museums’ failure on diversity. Like the Labour party, museums are used to super-serving a narrow slice of the population, so they “don’t know who they don’t know” – they can’t hear voices beyond their bubble. Most of London’s national museums overwhelmingly attract Remain voters. Cities such as London and Birmingham are fast becoming “minority-majority” places. The question underlying the diversity problem is why aren’t (most) museums more popular across the board? Many museums still don’t aim to create content with genuinely broad appeal.

Best wishes, Sara

Dear Sara: Museums are a good thing in civil society, as windows on to the world and providing a better understanding of that world. We need that now, more than ever. So if we put aside, for the moment, “what diversity looks like” and think instead of diversity as a socially minded attitude, we might start to get somewhere. All the keys are in our collections, and in the great knowledge and wisdom they hold – share it openly and shout it loudly. Let’s reinvent, or even return to the radical roots of the museum movement as a power for positive social good.

Oll an gwella, Tehmina

Dear Tehmina
: I find Paul Gilroy’s concept of “convivial multiculturalism” useful. When I speak to cousins in Pakistan or friends in South Africa about my work, they are amazed that it’s all publicly funded, which is a useful reminder to me. When marching alongside librarians at a recent anti-cuts demo, I felt they were fighting to defend a core service valued by a more diverse spectrum of society than museums. More museums need to ask themselves: “When the time comes, who will march to keep us open?”

Best wishes, Sara

Tehmina Goskar is a consultant curator and the Museums Association’s representative for southwest England.

Sara Wajid is the head of interpretation at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery

Tehmina Goskar and Sara Wajid are taking part in Arts Council England’s Change Makers programme, which is aiming to increase the diversity of senior managers in arts and cultural organisations.

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