One in four people (of all gender identities) has suffered domestic abuse. There is a high chance at least one of your colleagues, and many of your visitors and stakeholders, have been affected. Some of them could be perpetrators. But how can museums address this reality in a meaningful way?
It started with two of us having a chat after a few tweets revealed a common cause. Sarah Hartshorne, a museum development officer at Museum Development East Midlands, and I wanted to talk about how museums could have a positive impact on the lives of those who are victims or survivors of domestic abuse. We both have a personal interest: Sarah is a trustee at Broxtowe Women’s Project (BWP), a domestic-abuse charity based in Nottinghamshire, and I am a survivor of a decade-long abusive relationship. We were convinced this is an area in which museums could be safer spaces, as well as positive, activist voices.
As we talked it through, we realised it can be divided into three main strands: the museum workforce and how we support anyone who has experienced abuse; our public engagement and how we can potentially offer safer spaces and signposting; and our content and storytelling, in which we rarely see explicit narratives about domestic abuse, despite it being endemic throughout our global past.
Building on knowledge of other activist and grassroots museum networks, we suspected we wouldn’t be alone. With support from Sharon Heal (drawing on her experience as the director of the Museums Association and also as a founder of the feminist Space Invaders network), we put together a plan for an exploratory working group and information sharing session.
Our team was joined by Naomi Garnett, at the time the learning manager of the National Justice Museum, Nottingham, home to the Don’t Judge Me temporary exhibition that was co-curated by survivors of abuse. We invited our networks and were overwhelmed at the level of interest from across the sector. What started with some tweets had become a group of likeminded people starting to formulate a plan.
Our first meeting, in November 2021, was introduced by BWP’s Chris Harris, who offered signposting support and an overview of the current situation. This includes the recommendation in a recent report from Women’s Aid that employers and businesses should learn about best practice, and that Covid-19 has highlighted the role of family, colleagues and friends in helping those in abusive relationships. Harris said: “The Don’t Judge Me exhibition was a positive example of raising awareness within the cultural sector and providing an opportunity to start these conversations. Using this template, BWP is clear that, with the right support, other cultural spaces could make similar changes and, by raising awareness of domestic abuse, make a real difference.”
Breakout rooms during that first Zoom meeting focused on the themes of safer spaces, workforce and content. It was a hugely inspiring and motivating experience. There were thought-provoking questions and a healthy element of constructive anger – the kind that drives change. Expanding beyond domestic abuse to look at violence against women and girls in a wider context, we had some passionate and driven conversations, and found strong areas of common cause. We agreed that, in the early days, a network for sharing best practice and resources would be one of the most important outcomes, but that there is an appetite for more, including shared training opportunities and collaborative working.
Our next steps will be to define our group name and structure, and to formalise our purpose. Initial actions will include facilitating further networking and help with signposting; working on HR guidance and support; sharing resources and best practice; developing a list of case studies and further reading; and creating a mailing list and social media account to grow the movement. We’re also seeking a meaningful way to mark International Women’s Day on 8 March, with its Break the Bias theme.
We are inviting colleagues across the sector to join us. Sign up here.
Rebecca Morris-Buck is the engagement and programmes manager at Creswell Heritage Trust