From diversifying the workforce, to co-creating programming and content. A case study from the Museum of London

June 2, 2021

Over the past two years we have been working with the Museum of London to evaluate their ACE Programme portfolio, which includes Curating London contemporary collecting activities. I interviewed Keir Powell-Lewis, their Content and Collections Project Manager, to tell us more about the Programme and reflect on some key learning.

What is the Arts Council England Programme and Curating London all about?

Keir: ‘The broad principle is to engage with people who wouldn't otherwise engage in the Museum. The Curating London programme specifically aims to collect London in living memory, and provide programming and collecting activities that capture the stories of modern Londoners. It's a way of us broadening the audience base for the Museum, but also ensuring that the collection and the programming is more representative of London and Londoners than they ever have been before.’

1. Small changes to recruitment processes can create major changes to workforce diversity

‘We know we need to increase the diversity of staff in curatorial, learning, and strategic roles. One of the goals that we set ourselves with this Activity Plan was to increase diversity specifically within the curatorial team, because there is a strong belief that the diversity of individuals representation within the department will also then lead to representation of Londoners more broadly in our collections and our activities. We’ve recently recruited new assistant curators who are all people of colour. Now 19% of our curatorial staff come from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic backgrounds, which is up from 4% in April 2018. So that is a small step, but it is a step. We changed the way that we advertise and the Job Description content, to try and attract people with lived experiences of London. We changed the language and emphasised experience over qualifications. We had over 500 applicants. If anyone is interested to learn more about these approaches, get in touch with the Museum.'

2. Recruiting is only half the challenge, retaining these new staff in a meaningful and supported way is key

‘Working with the challenging content of our London, Sugar and Slavery Gallery highlights the need for additional support. For my Black colleagues, the direct connection with their heritage adds a huge emotional burden in having to engage with this on a daily basis in a way that I don’t personally experience. Colleagues of colour or who come from specific communities and backgrounds shouldn’t feel they have to be the museum representative for those communities in the content they work on. Museums need to be more aware of the personal burden for staff of colour and ensure we’re providing the support they need.’

3. Content, collections and research is becoming more representative of London today – but different kinds of content can influence in different stakeholders

‘We have been successful at reaching under-represented community groups. For example, we have a good relationship with some South Asian Muslim community groups and have increased our representation of young people through the likes of the Collecting COVID Ramadan in Lockdown project. The We Are the Youth of Today report is a really important step in representation for young people. It provides an authentic voice for young Londoners in a format that people who are decision makers in strategic roles can understand. The research builds on the fantastic public facing work of the Collecting Ends project with young people in West London. However, that project resulted in a display and it wasn’t possible for all the Museum's senior staff to visit it. We have needed to find ways to represent these stories to senior staff starting to think more about how young people are underrepresented in the Museum's programming. Content such as research can do this really effectively.’

4. Content co-created with people with lived experiences is engaging newer and more diverse audiences – but Museum staff’s personal role within this has been key

‘There is hard evidence in the audience profile data about how different content is shifting the people who are coming to visit us; the Dub London exhibition is a prime example. If you put on programming organised by people from the community for people from the community, then you get people from the community showing up, and it hugely shifts, who's engaging with the Museum. Curators have been bringing their personal connections, and connections to these communities. We did an event last week where Prime Isaac, who's featured in the Collecting Ends display, spoke. Prime said she wouldn't have thought about coming to the Museum and wouldn't have trusted her work with the Museum if she didn't know the curator personally and if that curator hadn't convinced them to work with the Museum. It really is testament to the effectiveness of representation within your staff.’

5. Special project programming and collecting is important to represent underserved communities

‘There's a big debate in the museum sector, about special project collecting. For example, with the Ramadan project, we invested more time into recruitment with both Muslim families and young people through new and existing partnerships, and wanted the focus on the topics that communities would have a personal connection with. If you do a broad brushstroke project, that is intended to have a general appeal, you'll probably get the same suspects – people already interested in museums. The challenge there is to make sure that they feel like the project is with and for the community, not just about the community. What's useful and representative for them, and what do they get out of it? And often, that's a balance between long-term collecting and more immediate programming. We see that in the Family Festivals where one of the festivals was all about the community group that the Weaving London Stories project was delivered with.’

6. Progamming is just as important as adding to the permanent collection

‘It's sometimes much easier to engage with something that's got a tangible output like an event, and I think people don't really know what happens in a museum in terms of collecting. For some communities, collecting is an extractive process where the objects that represent their stories go into the museum collection and are not easily accessible by the community anymore. For many people, collecting isn’t necessarily a driver for their participation in museums activities unless it goes into a display first, like with Dub London. That has a less extractive feel about it and a much more co-produced feel. Having objects on display so that everyone can show their work, and then afterwards, it goes into the collection, I think is a really important part of the community relations. Evaluation has emphasized the role of events and displays in representing communities.’

7. Now is an opportunity for experimenting, especially around structural challenges relating to diversity

‘Now is a real opportunity for museums to take a long, hard look at themselves, and think about what do they want? Especially in the context of Covid and in the context of Black Lives Matter, how do we work differently and how do museums relate to communities? I would like to look at some of the structural issues. Obviously, changes in the curatorial department have been successful, but how do we expand that to other departments? How do we look at sharing what we're doing, but also being aware of what other museums are doing? Museums will often only share the things that they want to share once it is finished, rather than bringing us along on the journey? We are doing lots of projects at the moment thinking about structural racism as a museum and our community relations and ensuring that we are more co-productive in our activities – in a more equal partnership in our activities – but we could share this more with the sector. I would like to see museums being more open, not just with visitors to get them into the building, but with communities as a space for people to feel connected to both their place and each other. Now is the chance for a step change in being more ethical, co-productive, and less extractive throughout the museum sector. Hopefully, we will achieve these through the new Museum of London site, but you don't have to be having a new building to re-imagine the way that you're working with your communities or connecting with the people that you want to connect with.’

Featured in the June 2021 edition of The Learning Diaries. Aimed at those working in learning, engagement or participation in the cultural sector, this newsletter shares updates from our team on sector events, ideas from some of our projects and links to new research. To receive The Learning Diaries, visit the sign up page.