Focus | Developing strategies to tackle racism - Museums Association

Focus | Developing strategies to tackle racism

Museums need to embed anti-racist practices in all that they do, finds Rebecca Atkinson
Anti-racism
The Waterfront Transformation Project is exploring how visitors to the International Slavery Museum understand the history of Liverpool’s waterfront through the lens of the transatlantic slave trade Photo by Pete Carr / Courtesy National Museums Liverpool

Two years ago, in response to the murder of George Floyd in the US, thousands of organisations from different sectors published statements about their commitment to becoming anti-racist.

This included the Wellcome, a global charitable foundation with a role that encompasses funding, a museum and research. It committed to developing anti-racist principles and an anti-racist programme – and commissioned an external evaluation of its progress.

This summer, the evaluation concluded that Wellcome is still institutionally racist. The body shared the report, issued an apology and announced several actions, including its first funding stream available exclusively to researchers who are Black or people of colour.

Although the Wellcome Collection was not included in the scope of the evaluation, the report highlights a painful truth for the sector – making statements is not enough.

Jean Campbell, an arts educator and anti-racist consultant, says: “Following George Floyd’s murder, we saw renewed awareness of anti-racism, but we also saw the polarisation of what that meant in different institutions. Some organisations want to keep this work at arm’s length and do the bare minimum, but what we need to see is deep systemic and behavioural change at an institutional and personal level.”

Having a formal strategy could be one way that organisations can move from a desire to be anti-racist to embedding the work across everything they do. This could happen on a national scale. For example, the Welsh government’s Anti-Racist Wales Action Plan provides a policy framework that organisations including museums can help deliver.

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Development bodies such as Museums Galleries Scotland can also provide the strategic direction to support the sector (as well as creating internal changes). For individual museums, having a visible strategy in place provides the means to implement change and hold themselves accountable.

A steering group meets at the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, to confront the colonial histories that have shaped the city Photo by Pete Carr / Courtesy National Museums Liverpool
All encompassing

In 2020, the newly formed Culture Against Racism North East called on cultural organisations in the region to up their anti-racism work. Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums (Twam) responded by developing an anti-racism action plan that encompasses workforce, collections, programming and audiences.

Taking a strategic approach makes a lot of sense from a “future-proofing” perspective – Twam is part of England’s “whitest” region, but demographics are changing, and the museum service wants to be relevant to everyone.

Bill Griffiths, the head of programmes and collections, says: “There is a need to rebalance history, to have broader and deeper understanding of our history.”

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This was seen in practice in the celebration of the 1,900th anniversary of Hadrian’s Wall, with a renewed focus on guards and builders, which included people of African descent.

The action plan has evolved since its creation and is being updated. “You have to accept that plans shift but it’s also about the journey,” says Griffiths.

“There is no point in publishing a plan and not doing anything. But equally, a plan is about gauging processes and finding different emphases. That has helped make us comfortable about sharing it, as it made us feel that we would be supported as we went along; the deal isn’t to get it right first time but to do our best – to learn and to keep moving.”

National Museums Liverpool (NML) developed its anti-racism actions following in-depth listening work with groups from across the organisation, as well as community partners and critical friends.

“It was decided that a tangible way to realise the change demanded was to develop ambitious and proactive action plans right across the organisation and that they were interconnected and realistic,” says Janet Dugdale, the executive director of museums and partnerships at NML.

“We know that change is not immediate or easy and that it takes time. We recognise that change and the activity to support it must be embedded in the action plans for every team – it is collective work.”

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These actions built on an existing commitment to being anti-racist, but ensured NML stepped up its inclusivity and representation work, made its actions more visible and held itself to a greater level of accountability.

“Our intent was also to craft an overarching set of organisation-wide anti-racist commitments that each action could be aligned against, and could continue to direct us in our efforts to deliver consistent change in the months and years ahead, across all areas of our work,” says Dugdale.

The actions feed into several ongoing projects, including a community-led research and display initiative  on the colonial legacies of the Sandbach family; a redisplay of its Benin collections; and the Waterfront Transformation Project, which includes the expansion of the International Slavery Museum and further exploration of how visitors understand the history of Liverpool’s waterfront through the lens of the transatlantic slave trade.

National Museums Liverpool’s anti-racism action plan feeds into a community-led research and display initiative on the colonial legacies of the Sandbach family, which made its fortunes on the back of slavery
Building a support web

Cornwall Museum Partnership’s (CMP) Equity Action Plan was developed with its community partners and audiences in mind.

“Its development was workshopped by the whole team, with a focus on self-education – this is why the reading and listening lists feature so prominently,” says Charlotte Morgan, CMP’s collaborative programmes manager.

“It was intentionally a whole-team approach, recognising that this work isn’t limited to one type of function in an organisation. We wanted to centre the importance of learning and build a culture that supported this sort of work during ‘work hours’, as opposed to something individuals might pursue in their own time.”

One of the challenges was to maintain momentum. CMP established an inclusivity working group made up of board members, staff and senior managers. The group reports quarterly to the board and oversees the action plan’s implementation.

The plan has helped the service identify where it can make “clear and discreet steps forward in embedding equity and inclusion, being more representative and prioritising self-education”, says Morgan.

Making the plan transparent (it is available via Trello) ensures the organisation is held accountable, and enables it to show where it has made progress and where more needs to be done.

“We are in a period of reflection and reassessment of the purpose of the Equity Action Plan, and in the future, it might look different – we are not tied to its current format,” says Morgan. 

For Campbell, a successful anti-racism strategy draws on the views of people from across an organisation – starting with those working with audiences. “Strategies are statements of processes, intent and operations,” she says. “They are structural and require ongoing learning and thinking. Most critical is embedding accountability; a strategy shouldn’t be produced just to make you ‘look good’.”

Meera Chauda, an arts educator who collaborates with Campbell on anti-racism practice and training, says strategies should encompass existing decolonisation work, with “whitism” linking the two: “You can’t have anti-racism practice without decentring [whitism].”

Chauda and Campbell believe that publicly available strategies are essential for museums to hold themselves accountable. But to what extent can museums get on and do the work without spending the time developing something formal?

We need to ask museums what they have done since 2020. What changes have they actually made?

Dianna Djokey, learning programmes manager, Aspex Gallery

At the Aspex Gallery in Portsmouth, anti-racism work has focused on changing the internal culture. Dianna Djokey, the gallery’s learning programme manager, says: “We have protocols in place to address racism, but when it comes to embedding things, I believe it can start with us and spill out. It boils down to treating people fairly and with respect – why do you need a steering group to say that?

“Museums need to give people of colour the choice about whether to lend their voices to [this work] or not. It shouldn’t be their responsibility to guide organisations through the process. I see a lot of anti-racism work happening with lower-level staff, but it has to be led by directors.”

The Powell Cotton Museum in Kent is two years into a decolonisation project that aims to change understanding about its collections and move from “museums as authority” to a co-curatorial model. Director Catriona West is keen to develop a strategy, so the museum can measure its success by using the strategy as an accountability tool. She says it was important to start the work without a strategy or action plan in place.

“We needed to do something and move fast with the team,” says West. “Going forward, we want to make sure we are embedding this practice and ensure it’s a golden strand throughout our business plan. Whatever we do, now we’ve started, we have got to keep on going.”

The museum has recently introduced tours dealing with its colonial connections. “We are testing how we can challenge local audiences in a way that makes them think and opens up conversations,” West says. “If that’s painful for individuals, they need to assess why – I’m doing my own learning and growing around white fragility.

“Some people will be alienated because of who they are, and we can’t shy away from that because we have to meet our obligations to other community members. We want everyone to feel safe here but if we whitewash [history], we are continuing a colonial point of view.”

Despite the many statements released in 2020, there is still much to be done – largely because museums haven’t acted on their statements, says Djokey, who is also a Museums Association board member.

“It’s not about strategies but questioning accountability. We need to go back to the start and ask museums what they have done since 2020. What changes have they actually made?” 

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