In the UK, as elsewhere, a great deal of energy and thought is being given to issues of diversity, inclusion and difference in museums. Network activist organisations including Museum Detox are challenging major cultural institutions and museums to bring about greater representation for those who identify as black, Asian, Arabic or of dual heritage in their workforce and programmes. The 2018 Museums Association Conference took as its theme ‘Dissent: inspiring hope, embracing change’ with papers and discussions focusing on the need for ‘decolonisation’ of museum collections and a revised approach to interpretation that acknowledges the troubling history of many museum objects. I recently attended a two-day seminar at the V&A entitled ‘Practices of Engagement and Contested Heritage Collections: Past, Present and Future’ which was one in a series of events organised under the AHRC Care for the Future theme. Over the two days we explored a range of topics from reaching out to under-represented communities to provenance research and the repatriation of museum objects.
And this is just a tiny sample of the work going on. Museum professionals are needing to consider the language employed, attitudes revealed and current systems in place that maintain discriminatory museum structures. Words such as ‘diversity’, ‘inclusion’ and ‘difference’ are themselves under scrutiny, as is the language of ‘decolonisation’, with rich debate happening across the sector.
But what role can research as a practice play in this debate? Or put another way, how can research support greater diversity within the art museum? As a white woman I am aware of how much I need to learn and am very tentative about writing on this topic or claiming any expertise. However my involvement in one particular research initiative at Tate is revealing a great deal to me about how research can open up a space to address issues of diversity, inclusion, knowledge production and power. Hence I thought it might be of value to share some thoughts on it here.
‘Inclusive Futures‘ is a year long pilot research programme led by Dr Karen Salt, the Director of the Centre for Research in Race and Rights at the University of Nottingham and Tate’s first Futures Fellow. The project is examining Tate’s systems, discourses and practices in relation to issues of diversity and inclusion, with the aim of enhancing Tate’s organizational learning and informing its practices and potentially those of the sector more widely.
Key to Inclusive Futures is its collaborative methodology. The project draws on Karen’s deep knowledge of the ways that discourses regarding difference influence narratives, decision-making and systems of governance. And it is shaped by her broader interest in the ways global minority communities marshal their collective power and participate in local, national and international governance structures. The project is therefore structured in two phases. The first part – ‘Ghost Projects’ – addresses historic projects and activities at Tate which have focused on race, power, equality and social justice, but which may have faded from the organisation’s collective memory.
We are in the middle of this first phase wherein we have invited all Tate colleagues to share their Ghost Projects so as to build an internal database of Tate’s collective past experience for future study. The second phase – ‘Futures Work’ – will see Karen working closely with teams across Tate to understand how they are applying diversity and inclusion strategies, policies and processes in a practical way and the ways that Tate can draw on and value the knowledge embedded within all teams.
Already the project is surfacing rich material and generating multiple insights, not least into the wealth of activity staff have undertaken over many years (we have colleagues coming forward with initiatives from 20 years ago), that were often very significant but which were never integrated across the organisation. We are hearing about how individuals’ profound commitment to change resulted in them doing work beyond their actual roles. And we are witnessing how Inclusive Futures is being seen as a safe space to talk about the opportunities, alongside the difficult and frustrating issues that staff have faced and are facing today.
I have a theory that it is in part because the project is framed as an exploratory and collaborative research initiative that colleagues are generously sharing their knowledge and experiences with such openness. Karen is not a consultant on this project, but a co-researcher working alongside staff to unearth and make sense of past activity. She has made it clear that she will not be coming up with a series of recommendations for Tate, but rather is working towards research findings based on what emerges through the process undertaken with staff. This research is not seeking to resolve a problem but rather to make visible past and present activity from which the organisation can learn. In doing so the project is aiming to generate new insights into diversity and inclusion practices in the art museum and model a practice of shared knowledge production that foregrounds the multiple forms of expertise present within the organisation. The process is as significant as the outcomes.