A Black curator whose grandchildren suffered an alleged racist assault at Nottingham Castle has criticised the institution’s handling of the situation.
Nottingham Castle Trust last week confirmed that an independent consultant had been appointed to investigate the incident and review its wider organisational culture.
The alleged assault took place on 17 August, when writer and poet Panya Banjoko took her four grandchildren and daughter on a visit to see the castle’s Don’t Blame the Blacks exhibition, which she had curated as a freelancer. The heritage site reopened as an independent charitable trust in June following a £30m redevelopment.
Banjoko says that after looking around the exhibition spaces, she took her family to the adventure playground in the castle grounds. While there, she says two of her grandchildren were physically assaulted and racially abused by another child, and had property thrown over a wall. When she attempted to speak to the child’s parents, Banjoko says that she was also verbally abused. The matter has been referred to the police.
Earlier this month, Banjoko submitted a formal letter of complaint to the board about the way in which the institution had dealt with what she described as a “race hate crime”, saying the trust had breached its own safeguarding policies.
She told Museums Journal that Nottingham Castle staff made no attempt to prevent the other family from leaving the scene. She said one staff member had “kettled” her into a corner and another had told her she was being “aggressive” at a time when she was in distress.
“I was saying my granddaughters had been harmed and no-one was paying attention,” said Banjoko. “They only called the police because I insisted.”
Banjoko said she feels the response from Nottingham Castle since then has been “woefully inadequate”. She said one member of the board had approached her for a “five-minute chat” when she returned to de-install the exhibition the following week, and later incorrectly represented this as an official meeting.
Banjoko said she believes there needs to be a “complete overhaul of the organisation”, which does not have any Black trustees on its board. She also said she wanted the board to be held accountable for safeguarding and called for signage to be installed on the site to make clear that discrimination and abuse would not be tolerated.
In a statement, Ted Cantle, chair of the Nottingham Castle Trust board, confirmed that an independent review is now under way. He said: “The trust board continues to work towards positive change in light of the complaint received following an incident on site on 17 August 2021. I can confirm the appointment of an independent consultant who is now carrying out a detailed review.
“It has taken time to source the correct consultant to undertake this work as this review will not only investigate the complaint but consider the background and culture of the organisation. It will examine processes and procedures, including staff training and make recommendations for change.
“We will be asking the reviewer to meet with Ms Banjoko and many other relevant parties as soon as possible. We hope this meeting will allow us to agree a positive way forward with Ms Banjoko and support our efforts in ensuring a castle visitor environment that is inclusive and free of hatred, abuse and the discrimination of any group.”
But Banjoko criticised the castle’s decision to combine her complaint with a wider organisational review. She said: “While this incident has prompted an opportunity to review the castle's diversity and inclusion policies and practice and the nature and effectiveness of staff training it detracts from my complaint and adds further trauma to me and my family as we wait for answers. It feels like the complaint is not a priority and that it will be wrapped within their internal review rather than being dealt with separately.”
Banjoko told Museums Journal that she had decided to speak publicly about the incident because she wanted things to change more widely.
“I faced [racism], my children faced it and now my grandchildren have faced it,” she said. “There are other institutions here in Nottingham where there have been similar issues. It’s time that there was a change – this is why I’m speaking out.”
Museum stakeholders have called for the sector to take a stand against racism following the incident. Sharon Heal, director of the Museums Association (MA), said: “This is a shocking incident and we believe that all museums should take a zero tolerance stance on racism. The Code of Ethics for Museums contains a commitment to providing public access to museums without discrimination and also states that museums should treat everyone equally, with honesty and respect.
“The MA is passionate about equality, diversity and inclusion and has campaigned for museums to take a stand on racism, in particular over the past 18 months in light of the Black Lives Matter movement.
“We believe it is a basic human right to have access to culture without fear of harassment and discrimination. I hope that the museum is dealing with this matter urgently and transparently and that lessons learned can be shared with the wider sector.”
A spokeswoman for Nottingham Castle Trust has issued the following statement:
“We remain deeply concerned by the incident that happened at Nottingham Castle on Tuesday 17 August. Our staff followed formal processes in a situation involving complaints from two families. A number of staff were involved to try and calm the situation but matters escalated, and security was involved.
“We quickly reached out to Ms Banjoko to express our apologies for her distress and did so again when she visited the castle to deinstall the exhibition she curated. We can confirm that this was not a formal meeting but a conversation that our trustees had with Ms Banjoko to reinforce the apology and to express that we are open and willing to have a conversation about how we can enforce positive change.
“During the incident, our staff followed formal processes to try and calm the situation. We recognise that Ms Banjoko is upset that the other family involved were not asked to remain on the premises. Staff are not able to physically detain guests and the trust would not expect them to do so. However, the team correctly called the police and captured statements as well as CCTV footage. Officers are now investigating the matter and we are working with them as part of their enquiries.
“I would also like to take this opportunity to confirm that the trust board first reached out to apologise to Ms Banjoko for her distress the day after the incident occurred, with two further communications sent including a letter the day after the formal complaint was received. The trust has respected her request to wait for her approach in relation to confirming a meeting.”