How we are actively tackling racism at Somerset House - Museums Association

How we are actively tackling racism at Somerset House

Being proactive is essential to ending systemic racism and inequality
Black Lives Matter Racism
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Natalya Best-Forbes
Volunteer, Somerset House
Laurent John
Somerset House Studios

In response to the global Black Lives Matter movement, on 1 June 2020, Somerset House Trust released a public statement in support of ending systemic racism and inequality against Black people. Following a consultation with a core accountability group of seven Black staff, artists and residents, an anti-racism pledge outlining ways that the London arts centre would start to actively combat racism was shared two weeks later.

The Anti-Racism Task Force (ARTF), made up of 13 volunteers from trust staff and contractors, was then formed to focus on these issues. We committed to sharing an update of progress in September 2020, so that we remained transparent and could be held publicly accountable for our anti-racism work. We will continue to share updates every six months, and ARTF membership will be reviewed annually, so that this responsibility is shared equally.

The first few months were dedicated to identifying processes, protocols and working environments affected by racism, and kickstarting tangible change within the context of the unique needs of Somerset House.

Bilal Harry Khan, who has a background in youth engagement and workshop design, was appointed to deliver the training, allowing us all to approach our anti-racism work equipped with the same basic level of shared understanding. Alongside this training, a reading group addressing racism was implemented for senior management, and anti-racism has become a standing agenda item in management and trustee board meetings.

Furthermore, a new voluntary forum for staff was formed to engage with a range of researched resources on racism and its impact on how we live and work, utilising our own experiences as well as those from oppressed peoples across the world.

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Responding to feedback from the public and our community of artists, makers and creative businesses, we began interrogating the history of Somerset House, to explore contributions and stories from underrepresented peoples. This led to an open call for proposals to help us unearth untold perspectives – the voices that are not captured by the history of Somerset House.

We have produced a historical brief and selected the successful researchers for the project. They will produce a 4,000-word document that will be used to update our history, further inform relevant strands of Somerset House’s programming process, and become a key part of our resource tools including, but not limited to, public tours and wayfinding.

The ARTF has fostered a space where we can challenge systemic racism within the institution from a diverse array of perspectives and experiences, with direct access to senior management. Together with our wider community, we have developed new systems or improved existing ones to actively combat racism at Somerset House. Our work will hopefully empower everyone at Somerset House to take responsibility for ensuring we all feel safe and supported when addressing issues of racial inequality, to create a working environment of which we can be proud.

When the ARTF was formed, we were clear that being proactive was essential. We compiled a list of actions to be tackled across the organisation and divided them into short, medium and long-term goals. With considerations for resources, these were then prioritised, based on feasibility of achievement. We are proud of our response and progress so far, and we are aware that anti-racism work is a continuous process.

As Somerset House is a working arts centre, there are various communities on site. One of our future actions will be to devise a regular meet-up where everyone can share experiences, opportunities and support around matters of racial inequality.

We are also exploring further anti-racism training across the site, reflecting on how we use language and terminology involving identity and race, interrogating recruitment processes, advocating for and advising on diversifying our senior management team, and looking at how we can ensure diversity and inclusion remain steadfast values in all decision-making at Somerset House.

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Natalya Best‑Forbes is a volunteer at Somerset House and Laurent John is part of Somerset House Studios. They have written this article on behalf of the Anti-Racism Task Force at Somerset House. If you would like to find out more about their anti- racism work, please email change@somersethouse.org.uk

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