Can arts and heritage become more representative?

Can arts and heritage become more representative?

Narinder Uppal, Principal, Membership, Arts & Heritage, and Charities, looks at the diversity challenges facing the museums, galleries and heritage sector.

The UK has a vibrant arts and heritage sector that is of huge importance both culturally and economically. The heritage sector alone contributed a gross value added £36.6bn to the UK economy in 2019, providing over 560,000 jobs, and while COVID-19 clearly came as a hammer blow there has been a strong recovery with the value to the economy of museums and galleries rebounding to near pre-pandemic levels.

This is good news for lovers of galleries, museums, castles, stately homes and the like. Yet not everyone is in the habit of going to such places. Visitor demographics are not always fully representative of the communities served by cultural and historic attractions. 

Within the sector there is a longstanding awareness of the problem and various efforts have been made to shift the needle. In its Power and Privilege report, the Museums Association noted that “there is pretty much universal agreement that museums and galleries in the UK would be better, richer and more engaging places if our audiences and workforce were more representative of the communities that we strive to serve.”

The report includes an interesting ‘Tactics for inclusive museums’ section with some useful advice from museums that have focused on improving diversity and inclusion. Among the key points: listen to local communities and collaborate with them; inclusion deserves long term investment; if a workforce does not resemble the community it serves, that should be addressed.

There is a long way to go and the point about workforces not always mirroring the communities they serve is a thorny issue. An Art Fund curatorial diversity report found research respondents were vociferous in their criticism of the discussion around the lack of diversity in museums in general and curatorial roles in particular. Such a lack was reinforced by the inadequate delivery of actions and scarcity of programmes aimed at rectifying the situation.

In its recommendations, the report calls for an increase in high-quality research on career pathways of participants in arts and heritage diversity schemes with appropriately funded longitudinal studies and the creation of a dataset that tracks demographics of the curatorial workforce. It also urges museums and galleries to encourage school-age children to think of their organisations as good places to work and collaborate with the higher education sector to increase diverse students at undergraduate and postgraduate levels, widen participation and create stronger pipelines and training schemes.

Schools and higher education institutions certainly have a role to play in ensuring that for some groups of people, especially those from disadvantaged backgrounds, exposure to museums and galleries blossoms beyond organised school trips. Unfortunately, there is a perception in some quarters that these places predominantly serve a white, middle-class audience.

Another problem is that after leaving school, cultural attractions fall off the radar for many young people. They may not visit one for years, perhaps only returning (if they do return) once they have a young family of their own to entertain and educate. Could the sector do more to reach and attract young adults, to be more relevant and exciting? And if so, how?

Perhaps digital outreach is one way in which inclusivity can be boosted, with initial online exposure and interaction helping overcome some ‘not for me’ barriers and encouraging non-traditional audiences to come along in person. It’s interesting to note that one aspect of recent Arts Council England research into the economic value of museums and galleries’ digital offers assesses the impact of class and social inequality on people’s willingness to pay. Unsurprisingly, those who went to an independent or fee-paying school were prepared to pay more than double the amount of those who went to a state-run or state-funded school.

The social mobility questions used in this survey were developed by Dr Susan Oman from the University of Sheffield whose earlier research triggered the creation of a new network of arts and culture professionals working in publicly funded institutions which offers support in gathering and analysing equality, diversity and inclusion related data.

It’s reassuring that such work is taking place and hopefully the holy grail – metaphorically speaking, not a relic to be found in a museum near you! – of a more representative visitor base is achievable. But given that budgets are far from bottomless and income generation is often a priority, and as such may lead to a focus on tried and tested audience segments, sadly change will not happen overnight.

However, for it to happen at all, the right kind of talent is key. Some arts and heritage organisations already have people in place striving to boost diversity across both the workforce and visitor profile. More should and will follow because arts and culture must remain relevant within a changing society. Do please get in touch if you’d like to chat about this talent challenge or to talk more broadly about whether the issues covered in this piece chime with your own experiences.  


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