From microaggressions to institutional racism, colonial mindsets are entrenched in museums. Committed professionals are confronting the legacies of imperialist hierarchies and whitewashed narratives that still permeate galleries. Their efforts can be personally fulfilling, but this work can be exhausting and take a toll on mental health.
And if people of colour working in this area are undermined, the impact can be demoralising, particularly if they are in the public eye. Trauma, frustration and burnout are avoidable repercussions that risk the retention of staff who undertake precarious roles.
What support mechanisms should be put in place when tackling racism? What do changemakers need from their colleagues to succeed? Which strategies can overcome the myriad of organisational obstacles?
Resist pigeonholing people doing anti-racist work
Be it a grassroots activist, radical campaigner or low-key advocate, when it comes to doing anti-racist work, it’s delivering substance that matters, not cliched labels or lip service.
Strong leadership means giving support in spirit and practice
As the fundamental starting point, it’s paramount to feel everyone in an organisation is working towards being actively anti-racist – because it is a collective responsibility.
Miles Greenwood, curator of legacies of slavery and empire at Glasgow Museums, and co-chair of Museum Detox, says: “The best thing that any museum manager or leader can do to look after the wellbeing of staff doing anti-racism work is to sincerely and actively engage in doing the work themselves and as an organisation, and to support that work with resources and tangible commitments.”
He cautions against working in silos. “As individuals doing this work, it helps to know that you have the backing of your employers, rather than fighting against racism and your institution as well.”
However, one challenge is the lack of leaders of colour in the sector. Sahar Beyad, PR and communications officer at National Museums Liverpool and senior communications and marketing manager for the World Reimagined, says: “A lot of us who are extremely passionate about equality, equity and social justice are not in senior positions to change systems and structures. We have to do twice as much to make ourselves heard.”
“I primarily see myself as a curator. Because of the nature of my work, people might see me as more of an activist – and I’m comfortable with that. There’s definitely an element of change needed to do the work in the way that I want it to be done that requires elements of campaigning. That doesn’t necessarily mean I want to be an activist; I just want to do my job. But sometimes you need to make change to do it effectively.”
Create safe spaces for difficult conversations
Zandra Yeaman, curator of discomfort at The Hunterian, University of Glasgow, recommends negotiating a mutually agreeable communication style and working culture with management, so that everyone can thrive. Rather than have conventional office meetings with the director, she instigated offsite walks for “difficult conversations”.
“It was safe for both of us to be able to go to the Glasgow Botanic Gardens,” she says. “The director showed 100% commitment behind the work I wanted to do. They trusted me and were willing to have the conversations we needed to have. I was never shouted down or made to feel that my ideas were silly or wrong.”
Co-create with integrity
Organisations consciously engaging the services of people of colour must break out of their cosy cliques to actively listen to outsider input as equal partners, and take heed of their lived experience, whether hosting a guest curator, commissioning artists or collaborating with community groups.
“Be prepared to take a step back and expect that they are going to say things that you’re not going to like,” says Beyad.
Furaha Asani, PhD research lead at Pervasive Media Studio and co-chair of the Wellcome Connecting Science Community Advisory Panel, warns museums not to tokenise people: “Only bringing people in when there has been a request for more Black and brown faces makes a mockery of representation.”
She says museums need to ensure they support people who are pushed to the margins in their everyday life: “What does it mean to invite someone for a ‘fantastic commission’ if you’re inviting them into a place where they are going to face the violence of racism in the form of macro or microaggressions?”
What do these aggressions look like?
“It means the system being built to make people understand that they will never fully be accepted,” Asani says. “It means unwritten rules where people have to do more work to prove their worth, and people having to pick up slack because they know, in one way or another, that they are stereotyped as the diversity hire. It’s the everyday things that can happen. And these things build up eventually.”
“I have a long background as a human rights activist. I targeted cultural heritage as part of my activism because I could clearly see the insidious messaging that was all around us, beyond street names and statues. Most of my work has been behind the scenes. If people think being an activist only means that you have to be marching down the street, they’ve got the wrong image of what activists do, because major change happens behind the scenes quietly too.”
Let go of fears and forge new frontiers
Fear of risking their jobs can paralyse museum employees from acting against racism. But Yeaman’s life experience gives her the courage not to take any nonsense in the workplace: “I’m not afraid of losing my job and that gives me a kind of confidence.”
And she is bemused by the anxiety in some museums about potential smearing by right-wing tabloids.
From his vantage point in Scotland, Greenwood acknowledges the importance of cross-national solidarity to join up best practice between the UK’s regions and nations.
“We have a more supportive government in Scotland,” he says. “It isn’t engaged in a culture war against anyone trying to make a socially conscious change in the sector. It makes you wonder whether the sort of reticence in England is because of a fear of losing funding.
“There is still a fear of change – on an individual basis and an institutional one because organisations have been set up over such a long period of time to be resistant to any radical change.”
Develop supportive networks
Greenwood is the co-chair of Museum Detox, a professional network for people of colour in the museum and heritage sectors.
“Primarily, it’s a network that’s about supporting each other and having our collective voices heard as people of colour working in this sector,” he says. “Being able to connect with people who also want to make a change and are experiencing similar challenges and difficulties is valuable. It helps sustain the work that we’re engaged in doing.”
Greenwood’s professional anti-racism work seeps into other areas of life.
“It can be all-consuming, but that does not always means that it’s depressing,” he says. “There is something quite joyful in collaborating with people and nurturing a sense of community among people who are also trying to push for this change. I’ve been able to connect with people who see things in another way or in a similar way, but bring with it new energy, and that keeps me motivated.”
Yeaman agrees that the camaraderie she has fostered through her own local networks is a tonic.
She says: “I’ve made some amazing friends, particularly with the community creators, beyond the work we’ve done together. Sometimes you just need to be able to laugh. Having people to whom I can reach out has been a great support mechanism.”
“I'm a public scholar, a writer, a teacher and a mental health advocate. I never call myself an activist because I feel like that word is overused. I see myself as a storyteller who tries to capture arguments, descriptions, suggestions, and recommendations in the stories that I tell. I've seen how much harm can be done when stories are told from a white supremacist angle, especially in healthcare, so I look for ways to redress that.”
Channel energy to serve a higher purpose
“Pick your battles,” says Beyad. “It’s important to remember that real people are doing this work and it’s tiring – it’s emotionally taxing.”
Asani has had to lock her Twitter account on numerous occasions to fend off trolls. But what drives her to keep going? She cites the civil rights activist Audre Lorde’s 1981 keynote on the uses of anger as a foundation to her thinking.
“I’m unapologetic to say that a lot of my work is driven by anger and bitterness because I have a lot of reasons to be angry and bitter,” says Asani. “I don’t see these emotions as negative. Over the years, I’ve found a way of steering away from the destructiveness. It’s cathartic – it’s a mix of resistance, disruption and agitation.”
Have a code word for when the going gets tough
“We have a good system, which was introduced by my director during a particularly challenging time, where I use a safe word with my line manager if something’s getting too much for me,” says Beyad.
“Whether it’s in a meeting or receiving an email or social media comment, I can confide this word to her and don’t need to explain anything. She knows that she must intervene, and will take care of it. It’s a discreet tool that supports my wellbeing.”
Being able to authentically express your vulnerabilities should be a two-way thing.
“I would have moments with my line manager and swear a lot,” says Yeaman. “I would say: ‘I’m sorry, I don’t know how else to say this to you. This is how I speak.’ His response was refreshing. I felt accepted and not minimised.”
“I would position myself as someone who will always want to fight the good fight, however big or however small. It's always the little movements we make behind the scenes that have the most impact and if I can be one of those little people in the background, I'm very happy for that.”
Plan time out to upskill and come back stronger
Doing emotionally charged work for too long can become draining.
“Every now and then, it’s good to step out of the museum world,” says Beyad, who recently embarked on a rejuvenating secondment as the senior communications and marketing manager for The World Reimagined, an art education project aiming to transform how we understand the transatlantic slave trade’s impact on enslaved Africans and its legacy. She is looking forward to returning to her PR role at National Museums Liverpool with renewed energy and fresh perspectives.
Demonstrate authentic allyship
If you’ve skim-read this piece thinking racism isn’t much of an issue for you and your museum, therein lies the problem. Anyone can play a role in challenging racism – it can’t simply be delegated to the perceived warrior few.
Asani says we all need to use our spheres of influence to curb racism in any way we can: “I can’t stand by and keep watching the same harmful narratives being peddled.”
Yasmin Khan is the founding director of Covalent Creatives, a cultural consultancy. She is a leadership coach and the curator of Outwitting Cancer: Making Sense of Nature’s Enigma, which is on at the Francis Crick Institute, London, until 3 December