Covid-19 has shone a harsh light on issues of social inequality and class divisions across the world. At the height of the pandemic, working-class labourers such as supermarket cashiers and delivery drivers were dubbed “essential workers” and were asked to shoulder the highest level of health risks. Such rhetoric exposed the socioeconomic inequities of our contemporary neoliberal societies.
The impact of the pandemic was especially apparent in the UK, where the class system has historically been, and continues to be, deeply entrenched in the social fabric. If early in the health crisis some attention was drawn to the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on ethnic minority groups, the crucial role played by class was widely overlooked. We were baffled by the general lack of consideration around class dynamics, including in museums’ early efforts to document and collect the pandemic.
This lack of attention towards working-class experiences goes beyond Covid-19. For example, David Fleming, a former director of National Museums Liverpool, observed last year that British museums have typically “failed the working class”.
Over the past decades, only a handful of museums’ displays and public programmes have explicitly addressed working-class experiences in the UK, while issues of class have been often overlooked in workforce diversity strategies. This trend has been counteracted by Museum as Muck, a network founded in 2018 to offer support and solidarity to working-class professionals and to improve working-class representation in UK museums.
Last year, we sought to contribute to this discussion by launching the project Inequalities, Class and the Pandemic, part of the Museum of London’s Collecting Covid programme. We wanted to facilitate understanding and reflection on the impact of the pandemic on working-class communities in London, and to document and ultimately collect their lived experiences.
We received funding from the Museum of London and King’s College London to undertake a small-scale, seed research and oral-history collecting project. We assembled a diverse research team and adopted a range of research methods, from social media mining to semi-structured interviews with working-class people who worked throughout the pandemic, with a particular focus on food delivery couriers. A few museum professionals who are members of Museum as Muck also contributed to the study.
The project produced several outcomes. These include the acquisition of several oral histories into the Museum of London’s permanent collection, allowing us to create a permanent record of the lived experiences of working-class Londoners during the pandemic.
We are currently producing a report, which we will soon share with colleagues across the sector. We hope this will foster further reflection on how to represent working-class experiences in museums.
While we have learned a great deal through this project, our research raised more questions than answers. Perhaps the most significant question that kept percolating our data was how to define “working class” in a super-diverse global city such as London.
We are excited to have received funding from the Arts and Humanities Research Council to further develop our thinking in this area via a Collaborative Doctoral Award. Entitled The Working-Class Museum: Exploring the Lived Experiences of 21st Century Working-Class Londoners, this PhD project will enable a working-class researcher to work with us to further reflect on how museums can better represent and engage with working-class communities using the city of London, as the research’s case study.
We are thinking about how this research should be expanded beyond London, and would be delighted to hear from colleagues whose practice and thinking are aligned with our work in this area. Please get in touch with us to explore opportunities for collaborations.