Get on board

A more representative set of trustees will have a trickle-down effect on the workforce and provide a diversity of thought and life experience that will make for a better museum. Juliana Gilling reports
Juliana Gilling
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Trustees of the New Art Exchange in Nottingham. The organsation's goal is for two-thirds of its board to represent BAME communities
Trustees of the New Art Exchange in Nottingham. The organsation's goal is for two-thirds of its board to represent BAME communities © New Art Exchange

The drive to diversify museum audiences and workforces has been ongoing for many years, but it often feels as if little progress has been made.

In Power and Privilege in the 21st Century Museum, a report about equality, diversity and inclusion in the sector published by the Museums Association last year, Sharon Heal, the organisation’s director, wrote: “In the 21st century, most of our institutions remain stubbornly monocultural to a degree that would be deemed remarkable and inexcusable in other sectors. While some of the most hierarchical and established professions, such as the judiciary, have seen improvements in diversity, museums have talked a good fight but have failed to deliver substantial or lasting change.”

Arts Council England’s (ACE) 2018-19 Diversity Report reveals that museums and galleries, like other cultural institutions, are still not reflecting the audiences they serve. This disparity is particularly evident at board level across museums.

The board is probably the most doable, solvable part of the problem of lack of representation in museums.

Sara Wajid, head of engagement, Museum of London

ACE’s research, published in February, shows that people from black and minority ethnic backgrounds make up 3% of board members for museum National Portfolio Organisations. LGBT representation also stands at 3%, while 5% of trustees have a disability. There is clearly  a long way to go to make museum boards more representative of the communities that they serve.

The statistics come as no surprise to Sara Wajid, the head of engagement at the Museum of London and founder of Museum Detox, a networking group for black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) professionals in the heritage sector. But she believes that a diverse board is attainable.

“The board is probably the most doable, solvable part of the problem of lack of representation in museums – and the one that will give the most impact most quickly,” says Wajid. “It’s about the political will to make this change.”

“The arts council, and other funding bodies, have a role to play in advocating for change,” says Kate Bellamy, ACE’s director of museums. “Ensuring that the cultural institutions we support represent the diversity of this country is hugely important.

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“Inclusivity and diversity is one of the four investment principles outlined in our new 10-year strategy, Let’s Create. Organisations that receive regular investment from us will need to set themselves stretching targets for representation in governance and leadership. Failure to meet these will have an impact on future funding.”

Bellamy wants museums to adopt a strategic and imaginative approach to board recruitment. She says: “Within five years, I’d love to see boards that are truly reflective of the gender balance of England; a significant increase in the number of black and minority ethnic and disabled board members; and a greater representation of board members from different socioeconomic backgrounds.”

York Museums Trust has shown that progress is possible. Chief executive Reyahn King, who identifies as Cape Malay and Muslim, has always been attuned to the need for museums to reflect their audiences and communities. York Museums Trust has been on a mission to shift the board’s ethnic diversity since 2016. “At that point, we had no BAME representation on the board,” says King, who points out that a lack of monitoring was part of the problem, as the museum did not know whether it had LGBT or disabled trustees.

Figures for 2019-20 show that the York Museums Trust board has become more balanced. BAME individuals constitute 14% of trustees, while LGBT representation stands at 14% and people with disabilities accounting for 43% of board members.

King says the change is the result of persistence and open-mindedness. Persuading the board to diversify was the first step, with King stressing the demonstrable benefits of changing the board’s composition. She encouraged trustees to recognise the importance of lived experience and to reach out to people who understood their communities, in addition to engaging with existing audiences. York Museums Trust also expanded its network and campaigned for potential trustees.

“People are there in our communities – it’s our job to find them and interest them,” says King. The trust ensures a regular turnover of board members and she is now considering how best to involve young people in decision-making.

King has some advice for other museums, including their boards: “Don’t hold back. Be brave about approaching people and fighting for diversity. But also be generous with people who are slower to come along.”

The launch of York out of the Closet (c) York Museums Trust
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Most museums have the mechanisms and contacts to improve the diversity of their boards, according to Wajid. She highlights Birmingham Museums Trust as a progressive example. One of its trustees is Birmingham-based artist, curator and creative producer Mohammed Ali, who established Soul City Arts. His work brings together communities divided by culture, faith and ethnicity.

Wajid says recruiting through the usual channels is not enough – if you do the same, you’ll get the same. Museums need to actively search for diverse candidates.

“The next time you’re advertising a board vacancy, do it differently,” she says. “There are ways to frame trustee roles that might make them more appealing to civic-minded BAME people.”

Museum Detox is a great resource for promoting board appointments, says Wajid: “If we, as the 500 people of Museum Detox, all joined boards, we would make a radical impact on the diversity of museum boards.”

Sara Wajid is the founder of Museum Detox

Museums also have to create the right conditions for new board members to flourish. Wajid is on the board of the University of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum. The organisation has a commitment to good governance and addresses issues around repatriation and decolonisation. But Wajid says it still took her a few years to find her feet there. Crucially, she is not the only non-white person on the board and, as a result, she feels freer to speak her mind.

Bernard Donoghue, the chief executive of the Association of Leading Visitor Attractions and an LGBT activist, says: “Whether you are a person of colour or someone from an LGBT background, you shouldn’t feel that you need to own the whole of that issue on behalf of the board. Share your experiences and share your expertise, but you are more than the arts council description that defines you. LGBT issues are for everybody – that’s the point.”

Donoghue is a trustee at the People’s History Museum in Manchester and was previously on the board of London’s Museum of the Home (formerly the Geffrye Museum). Both museums embrace LGBT issues in their work. He is acutely aware that the stories of LGBT people need to be told, and speaks proudly of the People History Museum’s Never Going Underground: the Fight for LGBT+ Rights exhibition, which was curated by the community.

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“It was one of our most well-regarded, most successful and most visited temporary exhibitions,” says Donoghue. “It’s incredibly important for visitors to museums, galleries and heritage sites to see themselves reflected in the collections, stories and public engagement programmes.”

Donoghue hopes that by joining the board at the People’s History Museum, he will pave the way for others. But he warns against boardroom tokenism and says museums need to consider whether new trustees are able to effect change.

If museums and galleries are to be authentic institutions, “people should be able to bring their whole, full, authentic self to work”, says Donoghue. “Museums and galleries are places that borrow from the past and interpret now to make a better future. That future must be more diverse and more inclusive.”

In a world rocked by Covid-19, museums are going to have to work even harder to welcome visitors. Having a broader leadership that reflects the breadth of human experience will be essential.

“It’s a question of cultural democracy,” says Wajid. “You should be reflecting the audiences that you serve. Diversity of thought makes for better museums.”

Juliana Gilling is a freelance journalist

Born out of community activism

The New Art Exchange is a contemporary arts space in the Hyson Green district of Nottingham with a mission of showcasing “culturally diverse arts for all” through its exhibitions, programmes and events.

The fact that the institution’s board is representative of the communities it serves is down to its strong foundations, says chief executive and director, Skinder Hundal.

The organisation was born out of community activism in an inner-city, multi-ethnic, working-class neighbourhood. Cultural diversity was a core principle from the start. But Hundal says it is also a policy that is written into the board’s constitution. The New Art Exchange’s goal is for two-thirds of its trustees to represent black, Asian and minority ethnic communities.

Hundal says museums and galleries should use their staff’s professional, personal and community connections to help create representative boards, as people are more likely to become involved if they hear about an opportunity from someone they know and trust.

He hopes to see museums tackling insularity by creating open structures that allow inter-cultural, as well as intra-cultural, dialogues.

The New Art Exchange’s reputation for culturally diverse art attracts like-minded stakeholders, and Hundal finds that people are more inclined to give their time to credible institutions that align with their values.

“When you’re experiencing what it is to be a minority in the UK, you gravitate towards organisations such as the New Art Exchange, which are making a difference for minority communities and contributing to the wider dialogue in society,” he says.

Hundal acknowledges that changing boards and representation is a challenge that requires investment and determination. But he believes it is worth it. “It becomes a delight when you activate communities on the urgent and relevant issues of the day,” says Hundal.

HOW TO BECOME MORE DIVERSE

The MA’s professional development officer Tamsin Russell has some easy-to-follow advice

An organisation can have an inclusive vision and a competent and diverse workforce, but this can be irrelevant if its leadership is undiverse and decisions are made on a top-down basis.
A diverse board means that boundaries are stretched, norms and traditions are challenged and change is possible.

Here are some easy-to-follow steps to diversify your board:

  • Think about when, where and how to advertise board members
  • Look at the language used in the adverts for board appointments
  • Undertake a skills audit to help you identify the people you need
  • Think about how you represent your organisation and the messages that this conveys
  • Review selection processes to ensure there is no unconscious or conscious bias
  • Be realistic about the time required to be a board member and people’s ability to devote that time
  • Pay expenses to attend meetings and any other costs incurred
  • Be clear about the length of meetings, and set clear agendas.
  • Having an effective and inclusive chair is vital

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