Simon Brown, curator at Newstead Abbey and the National Justice Museum in Nottingham, has been thinking about the direction of the museums sector.
In a recent job interview I was asked to describe the current ‘trends’ in the museums sector. It was an odd and unexpected question, but I understand why it was asked.
In considering my answer I realised that a massive part of the current conversation can be filed under one word: equality.
It was something my mind was drawn back to last month, as I attended a symposium at the V&A about the concept of ‘decolonising’ museums. There were plentiful case studies of individuals driving their institutions towards addressing difficult subjects around race and the legacy of the British Empire.
There are numerous other projects on equality that have been implemented and discussed in the past 18 months or so. The National Trust’s Prejudice and Pride programme saw a deeply traditional, conservative organisation embrace the opportunity to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the partial legalisation of homosexuality. The Past is Now exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery explored Birmingham’s relationship with the British Empire and its continuing legacy- it was fascinating as much because of the process of its development than the brilliant exhibition itself.
Shape Arts continue to develop a huge programme of work supporting access to culture for disabled people- the annual Adam Reynolds Memorial bursary will next year include a residency at BALTIC in Newcastle. At an even higher scale, Arts Council England have made the Creative Case for Diversity a central pillar of their National Portfolio Organisation framework.
These are large scale examples, but are being replicated at different levels all over the country. The unveiling of Gillian Wearing’s statue of Millicent Fawcett on Parliament Square, in this year of the centenary of the Representation of the People Act, felt hugely significant. The statue always seems to be surrounded by people waiting for photographs next to it, and is one of dozens upon dozens of projects celebrating the anniversary all over the country. That the continually inspirational Glasgow Women’s Library came so close to winning such an establishment-minded prize as Museum of the Year is another acknowledgment of the value of work towards equality.
I never imagined I would be stood in a queue at a conference, among other white men in suits, waiting to have my nails painted by a trans activist. Yet that is what I experienced at last year’s MA conference in Manchester. Just the opportunity to spend five minutes with inspirational people like Charlie Craggs put me in the company of someone whose experiences I have little personal comparison to. Opportunities like that are why I visit museums in the first place.
All of these projects, and many similar ones on small and large scales all over the country, have all had a similar aim- to make our institutions more open and equal for all. Not only in terms of the workforce, but ultimately for the public.
I came to understand in that moment that this work is a huge part of why I – and many others – am in this sector. When I was growing up, I never felt that museums were for people like me. Museums and art were simply never on my radar, in just the same way as ballet or golf. It took the extraordinary opportunity to go to university, and move to a different city, for me to feel confident enough to even try setting foot in one. If this white, straight, deeply conventional bloke can feel that way, then what about everyone else?
A lot of this work has been spoken about for a long, long time. It could easily be me being naïve, but I feel that we’re pushing forward. Many conversations around equality in museums five years ago spoke about intentions– now we are speaking about case studies. We have examples of successful projects that have tip-toed national institutions towards being properly representative of society. This is progress. Small progress, but progress nonetheless.
This should be celebrated, but it is far more important to see this progress as a catalyst to move further forward. I hate to think of such a fundamental issue being a ‘trend’ – but those of us who are gaining positions of responsibility can keep moving beyond that, to push the sector further towards equality.