Staff of colour at Nottingham Castle Trust have submitted a formal complaint to the board of trustees over their handling of an alleged racist assault at the heritage site in August.
In a letter sent to senior board members and the Charity Commission yesterday, seven current and former employees of the trust said they were writing to “express our deep concern, exhaustion and fear, in our current situation at the castle”.
The Staff of Colour (SoC) Collective said they had chosen to speak out “anonymously and collectively” for fear of losing their jobs. They said employees of colour have yet to be offered any support following the incident on 17 August, when Black curator Panya Banjoko says she and her grandchildren were racially abused and physically assaulted on castle grounds.
The letter said: “The subsequent poor handling of the incident, the treatment of Ms Banjoko and the lack of any formal anti-racist statement, have led to an environment of fear, distrust and extremely low-morale among staff of all backgrounds, but particularly those of colour. Staff have had to take sick leave, have been anxious and in tears at work on many occasions, and have shared with senior management that they are upset and stressed by the behaviour of the board in response to the racist attack on Ms Banjoko and her grandchildren.”
The SoC collective said the handling of the incident had done “irreparable damage” to the trust’s relationships with communities and partners, and “public opinion is at an all-time low”.
The collective said the dismissal of former CEO Sara Blair-Manning days before the incident had exacerbated the situation, and questioned why the board of trustees had ignored repeated calls to make a statement opposing racism. Blair-Manning is currently taking legal action against the trust for wrongful dismissal.
The letter said: “Following the sudden dismissal of our former-CEO, Sara Blair-Manning (with whom Ms Banjoko shared a good relationship), and at the time of the attack, the governance of Nottingham Castle was in the hands of trustees.
“Indeed, even now with an interim CEO in place, the board continues to exert control over communications and other aspects of the organisation’s day-to-day running. After the incident of 17 August, trustees fell silent on the one subject most crucial to maintaining staff wellbeing and public confidence – that of an anti-racist statement. When urged repeatedly by managers to issue an internal anti-racist statement to reassure staff, nothing was forthcoming.”
It continued: “The failure to issue any formal external statement (even to say that [Nottingham Castle Trust] opposes racism) was seen by staff of colour as potentially giving far-right groups a green light to be racist on our site.”
The collective said this fear was legitimised by other incidents of racism from members of the public on the site and the displaying of a “white lives matter” banner.
The letter said: “For us, as staff of colour, coming into work in the wake of this attack has been both emotional and frightening. No one from the board of trustees communicated with staff of colour to ask how we felt or reassured us that they are taking this seriously.”
The collective said that “controlling the media’s awareness of the incident” had been prioritised by the trust over ensuring “the wellbeing of staff of colour”. The letter said there had been “a distinct lack of empathy or compassion shown towards staff of colour and their experience of the event, so much so that several staff members and volunteers have quit their roles in protest, with others close to following”.
The letter continued: “We feel completely unsupported by trustees, afraid that we will be victims of further racism and that no one will protect us were that to happen. We feel that had Ms Blair-Manning been allowed to remain in post, the handling of the incident of 17 August would have been very different and staff would have felt safe and reassured of the organisation’s seriousness in dealing with the incident, as well as staff wellbeing.”
The SoC Collective also questioned the appointment of an independent investigator into the incident, who it later emerged had links to two trustees. The letter said: “For staff of colour, this is the latest evidence that the Nottingham Castle Trust’s board of trustees are not interested in fixing the problem of structural racism at the organisation, nor addressing the wellbeing of its employees of colour, but that they prioritise their own professional reputations above all else.”
The letter called on the chair of trustees and other members of the board to step down and “allow for a board that is appropriate and more reflective of the diversity of Nottingham to take over”.
The SoC Collective says it plans to initiate a Serious Incident Report with the Charity Commission if it does not receive a formal and satisfactory response from the trust within seven days.
In response to the letter, the Nottingham Castle Trust board said: “The trust board continues to work towards positive change in light of the incident mentioned. An independent reviewer was appointed to fairly investigate and establish facts in relation to the incident on behalf of Ms Banjoko and the staff. Objections were made to this reviewer and we are now in the process of a new appointment to take this crucial work forward.
“We take seriously the grievances raised by our employees and will take forward the allegations raised today. The trust is open to visitors, board members, employees, and volunteers from all backgrounds and our expectation is for all to be treated with dignity and respect. We continue to be disappointed and concerned that anyone on our site would act in a way that relates to unlawful discrimination. This all forms part of our ongoing investigation.
“The letter has referenced the former CEO of Nottingham Castle Trust. She has issued proceedings against the trust and has failed in the first set of these proceedings. No further comment is possible at this time due to the ongoing employment tribunal claim which the trust believes to be without merit and is committed to defending vigorously.”
Sharon Heal, the director of the Museums Association, urged the board of trustees to take a stand against racism. She said: “We are extremely concerned to read about the issues of discrimination and racism facing staff at Nottingham Castle Trust. We wrote to the chair of trustees after the first incident in August and were assured that trustees were taking the issue seriously and had engaged with senior management to make sure that concerns were addressed.
“It is disappointing to learn that staff of colour have now been forced to go public with their concerns because they have not been directly addressed.
“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 12 months in light of the Black Lives Matter campaign. We believe it is a basic human right to have access to culture without fear of harassment and discrimination and that applies to all staff and volunteers who work in our museums.
“We would strongly urge the trustees to take a transparent stand again racism and to list what they will do to address this issue at the trust and to support staff of colour.”