One wintry day towards the end of my secondment at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG), I was in The Past is Now, an exhibition that explored Birmingham’s role within the British empire, when I spotted a petite woman quietly studying the exhibition. As she turned around, I realised that it was Rita McLean, the director of the museum from 2004 until 2012.
She is one of a handful of black people to have led a major museum in the UK. Throughout my secondment, I’d heard her name mentioned warmly and respectfully in relation to many progressive developments at the organisation, particularly to do with diversity and inclusion.
So, like a slightly crazed fan, I raced down two flights of stairs to grab my colleague Rachael Minott to share the moment. We are both also part of Museum Detox, a networking group for black, Asian and minority ethnic (BAME) heritage professionals.
I have a photograph of the three of us standing in the gallery – three generations of BAME museum leaders. Minott and I knew that our work on The Past is Now had been enabled by McLean’s work, and we felt part of a continuum of anti-racist museum practice.
Another name I’d heard often at BMAG was Reyahn King, who had been the head of exhibitions and interpretation at BMAG, and is now the chief executive of York Museums Trust, and the only person of colour to sit on the National Museum Directors’ Council. I’ve since had the great pleasure of meeting King and benefiting from her wisdom, knowledge and experience.
I was at BMAG on Change Makers, an arts council diversity leadership programme that aimed to redress the under-representation of BAME leaders in the arts. Undertaking my placement at a museum with a tradition of BAME leadership mattered enormously to my developing sense of myself as a leader.
But it wasn’t only about past leaders; it was about the whole workforce. In other museums, I was used to the almost imperceptible nod of recognition that passes between BAME people that says: “I see you – I know you know how it is.” But after a few weeks at BMAG, I noticed my “nod” wasn’t returned. There were simply too many BAME staff for the nod to be required. I felt at home for the first time in my museum career.
I also found that my white colleagues had greater experience and literacy around cultural diversity and difference than I had encountered elsewhere.The Past is Now was a risky project. Its impact on the sector has been significant but there were times when it seemed doomed.
It was borne out of many difficult conversations between staff and co-curators, but also between staff themselves – existing and new staff, and white and BAME staff. Crucially, there was a level of trust and shared understanding about the value of cultural diversity among rank and file BMAG staff that created the conditions for The Past is Now.
Sara Wajid is the head of engagement at the Museum of London