Do Museums Care: Conversation with Museum De-Tox
CENTRE FOR FEMINIST RESEARCH, GOLDSMITHS · MONDAY, 13 JULY 2020
Thanh Sinden, Nick Virk, Cina Aissa from Museum De-Tox in conversation with Dr Nirmal Puwar (WP6)
Watch a video recording and read the transcript below
READING TIME: 41 MINUTES
Do Museums Care: Conversations with Museum De-Tox
Conversations with Thanh Sinden, Nick Virk and Cina Aissa, chaired by Dr Nirmal Puwar Thursday 2nd July 2020
Part of the series of conversations on CARE by the Centre for Feminist Research, Goldsmiths College.
Institutions, including museums and art galleries, are releasing statements in solidarity with BLM. These accounts are also taking on artistic forms in public space. Museum De-tox are trying to make changes which take us beyond performative gestures, so that institutions start becoming accountable for their accounts. In this conversation the speakers will discuss the institutional tracking, tracing and mapping work Museum De-tox are labouring over behind the scenes. Abridged transcript by Chloe Turner (any mistakes their own)
Nirmal Puwar: Good evening everyone its lovely to see so many recognisable names and new ones. I would like to say thank you to the Centre for Feminist Research, Akanksha Mehta, Chloe Turner and Malavika Madgulkar for doing the work into putting these events on. This is a series of events on care run by the Centre for Feminist Research. This event is a dialogue between three members of Museum De-Tox asking ‘do museums care?’ How do museums care, what does care constitute, is it a statement, is it allyship? Is this a long standing form of care or does Museum De-Tox exist because there is a lack of care? We will start of with a warm question to get to know each other - What drew each of you to the Museum De-Tox network and what was your first interaction with Museum DeTox?
Thanh Sinden: Hi Nirmal, thank you. What drew me to Museum De-Tox? At the time I was working in audience development in Coventry, I was doing a lot of work and feeling like I was needing other people that were working in this area, to sound out and understand some of the barriers I felt I was facing structurally. I came across Museum De- Tox when they were most visible, when they did the flash mob. To begin with the group formed from people meeting socially for a form of peer support. It became something more about how to get in contact with other people who felt the same, so the flash mob at the Museum of London was the most visible statement of ‘there is diversity, but there is a problem here,’ the problem isn’t diversity, the problem is bigger than that. After seeing that I thought that Museum De-Tox was exactly what I needed and so I made contact with Sara who in the Museum Association article about the flash mob was mentioned as the point of contact for getting people together. She was at Birmingham at the time organising The Past is Now, decolonisation exhibition, that I’m sure a lot of people in the sector have heard of, and I went and happened to be at the Birmingham meet up of BAME, POC people that worked in the sector. Most people were from the Birmingham museums or heritage sites and there I was from Coventry, meeting people there, in a social setting in the evening and I just straight away knew that this was the beginning of something i was going to be part. I found solidarity and friendship and a bigger purpose of what I recognised needed to happen in the sector.
Nirmal: Nick can you remember what your first interaction was like with Museum De-Tox and why you were drawn to it? Nick Virk: For me, it wasn’t that long ago, it was only two years ago and it was when I started worked at Tate. I’m a Producer at Tate for the last two years and before that I’ve worked at other cultural organisations such as the Shakespeare’s Globe and the Southbank Centre. My experience within those organisations were that they were predominantly white and that conversations around race, unconscious bias and micro aggressions were very limited. It became quite difficult in these work places to voice an opinion. At Tate in particular I was chair of the BME network for a considerable amount of time. I had attended Museum De-Tox events for the first year and been socially engaged with them, met some of the members but as I progressed through my career at Tate and my work with the BME network, I became conscious of the fact that people of colour cant have a safe spaces in these institutions because they are framed within a White space. You are basically putting people of colour in a network that is still controlled and dominated by White people at the top. The BME network at Tate was pushing for change but we were pushing for change from a Directors Group and Trustee Group that were not diverse, and did not represent us. That always represented a challenge. At that point is when I become really drawn into Museum De-Tox because I realised this guerrilla style working where we didn’t have to answer to institutions, could really speak amongst ourselves and put pressure on these organisations from the outside really appealed to me. For the last year I have been doing the social media for Museum De-Tox which has been really eye opening for me, its brought into focus for me the real spotlight that museums and galleries really place on people of colour and the issue of race. Or the lack of spotlight really.
Nirmal: Could you say a little more why the current internal networks were not working?
Nick: I think it really comes down to justification. The similarity between both groups were that they were heavily focused on people of colours lived experience within those organisations and so when talking to another person of colour you don’t need to justify that experience or explain why you are feeling a certain way. People just get it. But the difference is when your at a Museum De-Tox event or talking to the members, you don’t have to have that conversation again with someone more senior in order to enact change. By sitting on the executive committee for the past year it has really taken away this barrier of having to discuss this and my lived experience with White people. Whereas with the BME network it was always we as a group agree on something but now we can’t do anything about it because we don’t have that power. We have to go somewhere else and as a collective justify our lived experience. With Museum De-Tox I don’t need to do that, I can say how I’m feeling and people understand, and I can put something out on Twitter without any of those questions which can contribute to the emotional labour of people of colour.
Nirmal: Cina - what drew you to the network and what was your first interaction with Museum De-Tox?
Cina Aissa: What drew me to Museum De-Tox was really a sense of friendship. I know its a professional network but I’m a very warm person and I had been working first in libraries and then in museums and galleries for quite a few years, and there was such an emphasis on competition in the Arts. You couldn’t have any friends, or any kind of warmth, human warmth, warmth that included being able to share the good, the bad and the ugly together, to share together with each other and I really missed that. I actually discovered Museum De-Tox by bumping into two of its members, Sandra and Miranda, some of the warmest people in the network, and they really invited me in to participate and through their invitation I discovered the network and became more and more involved. It interested me that we could have a collective voice, that there could be the possibility of collaboration and a collective drive to change a system where I had felt so alone and so misunderstood and so marginalised for so long. Suddenly I had found this group of people, it was quite a revelation for me.
I am also a mental health activist, my understanding is economic insecurity and a precarious job and other social ills will bring about mental health problems. We all know that people of colour are overly represented in prisons and the mental health system. So for me its for friendship, warmth, interaction, for being together and solidarity that I am in Museum Detox. To help each other and be there for each other in a world of work in the Arts and the heritage sector that doesn’t seem to appreciate us, or want us around.
Nirmal: What really comes through from the three of you is the network as a kind of gathering of friends, recognition and a place where you don’t have to explain or apologise for a situation. I understand the network started in 2014, I’m sure the demands on your time as a group and your own discussions have led to changes in the network. I have noticed there is a lot of out facing work, you are actually calling institutions to account, building networks of persuasion. Thanh would you like to comment on anything of that nature that you’ve been involved with or want to be involved with in the future?
Thanh: I guess its been the evolvement of the network, we have come together to share and hear, and be listened to and have the support but actually we are angry and what are we going to do about it and how can we change things. So we mobilised and got more organised, thought more strategically about how we can leverage our influence and take power for ourselves. What can we say and do here thats going to first of all, make the things that are invisible or marginalised centred, examined and looked at, whats mentionable is manageable so we need to out that and talk about it. We need to be disruptive and collaborative, to progress and make an organisation and a sector that really understood what our lived experience was. That is what we wanted to draw attention to, yes strategies need to be informed by data, but the lived experience of people, which this network is so rich in, is more insightful for what needs to be addressed. So for us the question is how we galvanise that and make that into something that is impactful and prioritised. Equality is a huge thing, we want equity in the sector for people of colour, what does that mean and what does it look like. We are all volunteers, and doing what we need to do in our careers and lives, and we have these huge extra layers of emotional labour on top of that to be seen and heard and understood. Its then how do we resource ourselves to build, do that work, build allies and create a better understanding. Nirmal: Following on from that perhaps you would like to speak here Nick about the emotional labour involved in doing the work and strategising and caring for yourselves. Could you speak of the emotional labour that you spoke of earlier, and Thanh picked up on?
Nick: I think following on from Thanh, as a network we are very strong on having great dialogue between members about what we have experienced in the day to day of our workspaces and the emotional labour we carry within them. To be a person of colour and to raise our voice on issues of race, when they are often met with defensiveness, guilt, lots of different emotions that we as people of colour have to take on aswell. So we are both living with the problems we are facing and the problems of White people. I think my strategy going forward with the Twitter account in particular has been to spotlight issues but not to solve them. This takes away some of the emotional labour that is burdened upon on us, because a collective voice on those platforms is saying ‘this is an issue and you need to go and solve it’. I think a lot of organisations do not renumeriate people of colour for the diversity work they do and lived experience like Thanh said is incredibly valuable. We often see statistics that lack the empathy that a word or a phrase that people can really illicit. That is something I am very keen on, we have all those voices in the network lets highlight their voices and hopefully that will bring a shift. The constant thing I am met with on the social media platforms is the shock on how we are experiencing working in these organisations. I experience a lot of people saying ‘i cant believe this is happening,’ and by doing that they absolve themselves of responsibility and potentially might perpetuate that same behaviour in the workplace and what they might be doing to be anti-racist or standing up for people of colour in the organisation, particularly in this moment for people in the Black community.
I think as an organisation we are constantly left with the emotional labour of what should we do? Its a constant balancing act in my opinion of spotlighting the problem and then saying okay here’s some starting points, here’s some resources to go and do that work. But it takes willingness and someone on the other end of that Twitter thread reading it to say, I see this problem and I need to something about it. I think its that ‘I’ thats currently missing and why there is so much emotional labour in the sector currently.
Nirmal: Yes - Sometimes the very naming is a huge task at the start. Do you get to this point where you are just continually naming and at the moment institutions everywhere seem to be in shock that people have been living with institutional racism. Cina you mentioned mental health issues, emotional labour and the work of being organisations and their lack of support, would you like to come in here?
Cina: Yes I would like to comment on the emotional labour of being involved in these conversations in the first place. I really liked what Nick said about spotlighting the issues but not solving them. A lot of institutions whats to use me and people of colour for their knowledge and lived experience, and not value it, either with money or recognition. When I have brought up before about people of colour are on low paid jobs and on precarious contracts I have HR approach me as if all i care about is money. Yet we need to live, to pay rent and raise children and this leads to bad mental health and additional emotional labour. Yesterday I was in a BME meeting organised by one of the institutions I work and I was absolutely shocked because I felt really gaslit and that is going to create mental health problems when you see an issue and everyone is telling you it isn’t there, which again causes mental health problems. So I had to remove myself from that meeting because it felt really really unsafe to be in a room, to be denied a voice, silenced again, it was just with HR and people of colour in management positions and people on low wages were silenced, there experience wasn’t valued, and I’m sure they will get used as pawns at some point for a photo opportunity. Like no. I don’t think they are serious about changing the system, and until then my focus personally have shifted from changing the institution to working on my own self care. That is where my power lies.
Nirmal: You mention organisations with different hierarchies and one of aims of Museum De-Tox is to place people at different levels of the hierarchy from management to curators and your group includes people across this range. Museum De-Tox have also pushed for different kinds of programming and display to centre decolonising, more than just a word or one artist, to be more that relabelling to evolve giving back what has been taken from all kinds relations of violence around the world. Museum De-Tox network has been at the centre of highlighting this context of Empire and the violence of exchange of objects, which is coming to the fore of the wider public right now. Many of you have been doing this work, as you said voluntarily - Thanh would you like to come in to think about how the network has been used and be expected to deliver and offer services often for free?
Thanh: I feel like we pushed back from this, going have been going back and forth with it, we will part of the problem if we don’t put our foot down about situations. I feel like we get drawn into it because we want that change and that highlight on issues, we get sucked into feeling like this is what we want but at the same time its also about drawing the line and knowing our value. If we are being asked to contribute to something its because our voice needs to be heard, and if you want to hear from us there is a value and renumeration to be attributed to that. We are getting much stronger at demanding that. I currently Chair the executive committee, some of the work we have been doing in the last year, has been to structure and organise ourselves that focus on our core mission of impact and equipped ourselves in a way to draw funding, money and ability for our services to be remunerated. When i say services, its about us enabling change in a sector that is going to be beneficial to us all, it not about us being in service to White institutions or patch over issue with a plaster. We are first and foremost in service to ourselves and thats why we came together to support each other and our members and be able to address that we are losing diversity in the sector despite all the noise around representation and making that change. Its about the environment changing.
Nirmal: Nick as you will be taking over the Chair of the network soon. Thanh mentioned noise, theres is a lot of noise going on now, and it has been named performative statements, but noice can also be an interference. Theres an activist noise that is interfering with how people are narrating institutions and histories. Whats the place of MD in the sector, how is it seen and how are you trying to position yourselves?
Nick: I think its really interesting you mention about seeing us as at the centre of these debates because while I agree that is not how we are perceived. There is constant erasure within the sector that occurs when we might put out something on a platform, and an organisation will see the critique via a tagging for example, and a few hours later we will see a responding tweet that is a Black Lives Matter statement but they have not responded in dialogue to us or mention that we were the network that pushed for that change. I think thats just how a lot of people of colour feel in this sector we constantly do this diversity work for organisations and the organisation own, put their name on it and individuals are lost in that work. So its interesting that you say you think we are at the centre because i don’t think that and and I don’t think we will be at the centre for a very long time. The way I have always seen Museum De-Tox is always operating on the side, on the periphery, as museums and galleries try to expand and move forwards with diversity initiatives we are always there pushing them to go into different directions saying this is not the right way to go. I think when we talk about volunteers and emotional labour I think its very interesting because personally I feel like its conditioned within me that I should be doing this work. I work in film making and I think back to a time when a Senior Manager said to me that I’m doing a lot of discussions on diversity and a lot of work on that but you might want to focus on the producing side, or choose which kind of career path you want to go down. I think that really made me realise is that the diversity work is not really something i want to be doing. While I sit on this panel and its amazing but its not my chosen career path but I’m doing it because i cannot physically survive in my organisation or this sector without doing this work. It doesn’t feel like a choice. It feels like something I'm forced to do. I wouldn’t be able to breathe if Museum De-Tox wasn’t there to handle the thoughts and feelings I have.
Nirmal: Thats a very powerful way of putting that - about not being able to breathe within these institutions without Museum De-Tox because its so difficult and the relations of Whiteness are everywhere around us. Cina would you like to follow on from that?
Cina: I’m not sure how Museum De-Tox is seen, being inside as a member, but yes i agree with Nick that the place of Museum De-Tox and why I choose to be part of it is because I couldn’t have it any other way. Its the only way to survive the sector. The intersectionality of my experience of all of the layers that are to be taken into account in terms of being badly treated by institutions, treated with no value or importance, you will have the smallest job at the lowest salary and that we should be grateful for it. Its now been four decades that I have been working, I was raised by parents who didn’t have the chance to go to school, who were sure I would get somewhere by studying hard and working hard, and so I’ve kept my head down for those decades and now I think something has snapped in me where I just feel has it ever worked? Has it ever worked when really I am competing for £10 per hour jobs with my 19 year old daughter? Has it ever worked when I look at the skills that I have that my employers are not interested in and don’t consider me for anything remotely interesting? So yes i think it is a pressure valve being within Museum De-Tox, and helps me survive the sector and like Thanh said earlier on about yes we are losing diversity in the sector, and realistically there are not many people of colour that can work for so little. So by definition its only privileged people that can do a lot of work for free, or unpaid placements and volunteering, if you are lucky enough to get them roles. So yes we are losing diversity in the sector but we are still here and are are making out presence know.
Nirmal: On that note of making our presence known - in the play of institutions I see that the network hasn’t been held centrally but you are there with different kinds of pressure points that you are pushing with. Thanh you mentioned earlier the arts activism that happens with the flash mob and I was also thinking of the White Privilege Clinic in Manchester at the Museum Association Conference 2017, so its really interesting that that was a place you played with the sense of Whiteness and the importance of discomfort and questioning ‘wokeness’. Thanh or Nick would you like to come in on that point?
Nick: Yes, this idea of making yourself known is interesting to me as something that as people of colour we have difficulty doing in this sector, having your presence felt can be diﬃcult. Like Cina saying not having employers that would offer her anything interesting or care about her skill set, I think a lot of the time we are ornaments within these organisations that help them look like diversity is present. When we think of the White privilege test I think this is really interesting, when I first joined I took the test and scored quite highly meaning I had a lack of privilege. I was speaking with several White colleagues about it and the constant things I was hearing was that it doesn’t give an accurate representation of privilege because I come from a lower income household or I’m a woman - these other areas where people are marginalised within society. Speaking as a queer person, my queerness in the organisation doesn’t mean I experience marginalisation two fold over, it doesn’t mean that my making myself known is harder than for someone who is a person of colour that presents as cisgendered or not queer, and I think privilege and the different ways people are made up is not in blocks, they coexist in different ways. So making yourself known is always difficult because people will always try to derail the conversation, by asking what about class or gender or sexuality all of which are equally important but thats not the conversation we are having right now. I think a lot of White people need to understand that racism needs a space on its own to coexist and you will not understand what it means to be the victim of racism, its impossible. Empathy will only ever get you so far, what you need to do is listen to our experience. I think the idea of making ourselves known is really hard for us because no one wants to know.
Nirmal: Picking up on that, Thanh that notion of getting people to listen, as the Chair how have you found that?
Thanh: As a collective voice its been real helpful to amplify that and to individually support anybody and rally around our individual activists who are putting themselves out there to make a point and know that we will be there to catch people, to give that support or that pat on the shoulder whatever is needed. Museum De-Tox has been that blanket to be able to voice but also have that home place to come to because that sense of not belonging anywhere is very disorientating and destructing for anybody wanting to focus their talent and intelligence on what they want to do, for example film producing. We are living with the identity of a visible person of colour, with racism and structural racism it means thats there are so many other layers to navigate and have energy leaked from you. So certainly I think its been good in amongst this exhausting, tiring work that its okay and you can be quieter and support the network through anti-racist work in a different way through being in solidarity and support of others and the cause. You can also take a rest and know that your peers are there doing that, its a marathon which we take it in turns to pace out, lead, galvanise and support around that. We are also a very diverse network within itself but the common thread is that we understand this intersection and reality of race. The point that Nick said about the distraction and derailing of the conversation is when discomfort is met, that happen so often and doesn’t lead to a deeper sense of realisation or deeper work that needs to happen. The actions that need to follow are not accurate or what we said. White people need to catch themselves, not derail conversations and lean into that discomfort of wanting to talk about something else, thats because its triggering something uncomfortable, but thats exactly where you need to go.
Nirmal: In the current moment does it feel like a marathon or a sprint happening at the moment with all the attention prompted by Black Lives Matter to say something? How do we push this saying something to doing something so it becomes a deeper form of work that institutions need to do? What is the deeper work that institutions need to do?
Cina: There was something about image earlier on and I feel that institutions have always had an image of me projected, its not me that they see but a representation of me and its the stereotype of me. One of them being a loud angry woman, which I’m not, I’m actually someone that hasn’t been heard for years. There is a build up after a while and I think yes listening to Thanh and Nick talking about discomfort absolutely. I don’t think institutions and especially White people in institutions are very good at sitting with the discomfort of letting people tell them exactly who they are and be who they are. So for me for example going back to the BME meeting I was at yesterday I felt really labelled. As if being told you are on the lower scale, non curator, £12 per hour person, older - back of the room. Its just awful to be portrayed this way and the work they need to do is do nothing and sit back. For example when someone topple a statue its a bit like an analogy of me shouting, because when you haven’t been heard for so many years, yes there will be violence like toppling a statue and you get that kind of rage because it has been a while and no one has been listening. I think institutions should listen and stop doing those quick statements or quick fixes, performative actions that they are so good at doing, or there 25 page long document matrix’s of change and action which are only validated by the top tier, its rubbish. Do nothing, sit back and let people tell you what they need. First let people scream and that is uncomfortable.
Nirmal: The importance of really being heard and one of the consequences of not being heard as this need to scream, the build up of rage and frustration and being squashed into something smaller than you can be. So how are we going to create this push now in the current moment and generate a pressure that cant be ignored in institutions?
Thanh: I think that there is a real shift in momentum, there is moments when like a marathon, the pace changes and it steps up, and I think that we are in this moment now. With COVID19, Black Lives Matter and the tragedy of George Floyd I think we are in a period of reflection but for us, we have been in a period of reflection and thinking, going round in these conversations and now its actions. Its fearless action, unapologetically demanding change. This is something Nick has really been setting the tone in regard to Museum De-Tox social media and communications and really going forward we need to push that momentum, as a network we have allies that want to support this and we know that. We spoke about the emotional labour and not being here to provide solutions, they need to be brought together and thought of by people that created the problem. Though saying that we also recognise that we need to be this beacon and we need to lead, the way we lead is to speak and the way to follow is to listen. Then we will come with solutions. I have been on talks when people ask ‘when do we get to healing and the reconciliation?’ I remember one asking of this question where the person was so desperate to get there but we wont be there until we are really listened to and understood.
Nick: I think following from Thanh with the marathon and some of her wording around allies as supporters, and I agree with her but also think that White people should be running that race and people of colour should on the side cheering them on. I think the difference is that right now its the other way around. I have been thinking a lot personally about my own aims for what I want to do to change the sector. A couple of months ago I was very much thinking about reforming the organisation I work for and the sector and the more I think about it the more I’m steering towards abolition and the idea that these organisations need to be pulled down and regrown again for there to be real change. When we talk about making yourself known, so many people think they are not a racist but fail to see how they perpetuate the racists structures they work within. If you take an organisation and everyone who works for them was an amazing ally, helpful and supportive, systemic racism would still happen because racism isn’t individual its about how the organisation is built. Organisations tend to be built with White people at the top and people of colour at the bottom and its very hard for people of colour to get into the higher ranks. So we need to pull them down, we need White people to resign, so people of colour can take those positions, and I think if your not doing that your not being anti- racist. It’s the idea that if you feel you can’t contribute to this conversation then your not helping racism be eliminated within society on a structural level, then you are not in the right job. Because there is someone that can do that. It really requires White people to step down. Obviously there is the more practical stuff that can be done, the donations, the sharing of resources, even on that level we are not seeing it done. We are seeing organisations posting about the Black artists in their collections or objects they have accumulated over the years outside of Britain which is great but what are you actually doing to solve racism - nothing. Those objects are there and we know that, and its great that they are not gathering dust on your shelves somewhere, but thats not taking any part in the way that the world is operating at the moment. Museums are not neutral and that the real problem we have that they need to take the time to take a stance on these things.
Nirmal: Thanh that reminds me of an event that we put on together where much of that was about objects the British and the East India Company brought from India, namely the Mahārāja’s chair. So this object attracted lots, of what museum speak is ‘diverse audiences,’ people who wouldn’t normally go to the museum. In that sense it was a success. On another level it highlighted how they were prepared to sit in the discomfort of Empire, they were prepared to give ownership of the narration of that exhibition as it had come from the V&A and it was doing a regional tour. So that sense of what Nick called ownership is so vested in the controlling of the minutiae of the objects and the assemblage around it and we did our best to institute polite guerrilla tactics. In the end we managed to just about have a panel in the Museum…
Thanh: In the end yes, we held an event called ‘Decolonising Culture’ an act of subversion that was wedged in and felt like a battle to the wire at the end to just have the room that we were in. People were not convinced it would filled up but we had to turn people away at the door. That did change some things. This showing of how institutions
really do need to listen and sometimes people do have a different idea that may really work, and you need to try things out. It took so much to get a panel together in a room to talk about decolonizing culture and to talk around these objects that were displayed for aesthetic reasons, with a touch of Empire put into it. That was a few years ago and I think we have moved back and forth since then. I think with Nick saying actually when you’ve done what you need to do and you know what you need to do after pointing it out its about making space for people to try things outs, to take on somethings, to make progress and do anti-racism work. So if in your job if you don’t know what to do or your not in a place to do active work - you need to make space and let somebody else do it.
Nirmal: There is a serious struggle over space and the looming doubt over the ‘Decolonising Culture’ event of whether it would happen - the ongoing accumulation of doubt and being squashed and not being enabled to grow in this space…
Thanh: Yes and acts of micro-agression are acts of active sabotage in some cases. Its power, control and the fear of losing significance because suddenly what you know and your anchor points are not there anymore because the conversation has shifted somewhere else more relevant and urgent. I think when you realise that is happening is when you make space.
Nirmal: Cina would you like to come in here on how change is going to involve lose, and people need to recognise privilege and lose within change. ITs not going to be a polite? conversation on a sofa. Would you like to come in there
Cina: Absolutely so my focus used to be referring the institutions and getting them to hear me and us. Now, as I said earlier on, its pretty much on self care and kind of having self care as a way to survive what is being done on top of what has been done previously. When you work in museums and galleries you have historical artefacts, you are constantly challenged by a history looking back at you and those labels which say one thing but you may know something else about the story. All of this violence really takes its toll. Which is why I constantly bring in ideas of care and self care, which is not something I am waiting for institutions to give me because i will be waiting a long time. And that is not what they are going to do. I like to see change happening from the inside out, they don’t seem to what to hear the lived experience of people who work in museums and galleries so we will take different steps, we will self publish, listen to each other, create our own medias.
Maybe at some point they might or might not be interested in joining in the conversation with us. I sometimes see institutions look at Museum De-Tox as some kind of danger or revolutionaries, something bad is going to happen or they is going to try and take over. No one has said this with these words but I can see and feel the alarm, the blood pressure rising! As Thanh said earlier Museum De-Tox is a really diverse group of people, not just POC, and we come in peace, we come in absolute peace. This emotional toil we are talking about has to be countered with really putting ourselves first, for me the change will not come from the organisations themselves but from us, changing what we can change and maybe at some point organisations seeing us as peaceful people who would like to be heard instead of revolutionaries who want to disorganise and disrupt everything without a need for that.
Nirmal: That sense of terror even if you sat there very politely but because of the perception of threat, what it poses to the legacy of the institution and the resistance to having an open conversation about the legacy and the needed shift in what is knowledge what is expertise and who controls the objects. Nick would you like to come in there before we open for some questions?
Nick: I think the topic of artefacts is an interesting conversation, for me now in the last few months, it think that sits within reform rather than abolition. On BBC News there was a report on how museums have responded to Black Lives Matter interviewing the British Museum but it was also headed by Dan Hicks who is a White person talking about how museums had taken artefacts and objects and the need to decolonise. I think thats interesting because thought they are interlinked but I think we need to keep them separate. It comes down to that structural racism that gets swept aside, the violence that Cina was speaking of. Look at Goldsmiths College for example, you can make an incredibly diverse curriculum but you are still going to have academics who are of colour resigning because your system and the power structures that lie within the organisation do not give them the support they need as people of colour and have there voice heard. When we talk about healing and self care I think its incredibly important and I don’t think we have a language or understanding of being thats advanced enough to talk to people of colour, which also lies with the fact that psychology is a field dominated by White people. There are a few great voices in the sector doing that work but we haven’t really thought about the trauma of racism in such depth that we know how to combat this as individuals.
Finally I what to saying on the ideas of threat and fear that I have definitely felt this within organisations myself. I don’t think this has much to do with Museum De-Tox but as a person of colour you are constantly seen as challenging the narrative when you bring up ideas around racism. This can be constantly met with fear and feeling you are a threat. Nirmal you spoke about sitting there politely, and that is something I have been doing for so many years and never seen any change. We talk as group about the statues being pulled down with force not politeness and petitions, I have really come to peace with seeing myself as a threat because I am a threat. I am going to threaten the very structures these organisations have built themselves upon. I am a threat to peoples jobs because I have a skill set that they do not and rather than appease White people in a vernacular they understand, and say I’m not a threat, I have limited myself. So I’m learning to own that label that has been placed upon me as an aggressor, or a threat. I’m beginning to see that its time for me to push for change in a way that authentic to myself rather than in a way that makes White people comfortable.
Thanh: I think museums are slow to respond because the structures suit them, it keeps the people with the privilege and power in that place. By replicating itself there is very little motivation to change. While actually its external threats that are pushing for change, its about relevant and the external environment forcing that change. Some big institutions will be able to root themselves and weather that because of status and being symbolic, national, historic features but I think that demand for change and change within is going shift the delivery, operational model. As said the way its is delivered, it keeps the power structure in place, it doesn’t open it up at all. So building in a more agile approach so maybe the system like Nick said needs to be abolished and worked differently.
Nick: I think its also worth noting that the idea that museums are averse to conflict, we have to be specific and say that thats about racism. As a queer person I’m not sat on a panel talking about my queerness and how that is represented in museums. There is a different comfortability with different marginalisation happening and we have to be really specific about racism being a problem particularly.
Nirmal: A couple of questions from the chat: can you talk about the difference between decolonising the museum and structural racism? Can you think of any moments within museum that felt like a temporary kind of achievement with anti-racist issues?
Cina: In relation to a small battle won, one of my jobs is in an art gallery I was really horrified by the fact that an artist of colour was being exhibited and I felt there were many kinds of sensationalist things being put across about this artist. The gallery wanted to put a sign here and a sign there, a sorry this and a sorry that, and trigger warnings. There was a video of what some people may find shocking, it portrayed police violence and it was CCTV mixed in with academics speaking. There was a whole commotion over this video, I approached my managers and explained to them that this is someone’s life, this is what this Black artist has experienced. I want to avoid all the trigger warnings. Just as we spoke about terror, it is the terror of the testimony of people of colour is too horrible to watch, and its a really racist thing. The small battle that I felt was won was that there was not as many signs put up, as I explained it was someones life and saying it was too horrible to watch (which of course it was horrible to watch) but this is what some people have the live through. Even if you find this too horrible to watch they have to accept it and its part of their lives. If you call yourself anti-racist can you sit down and watch the video. Take five minutes to watch the video and connect with the feelings of this person, you will never be able to step into there shoes but maybe that horror you keep pushing away is what you need to experience for five minutes of your time.
Nick: I think trigger warnings are important but they are addressed the people they are affecting, the people who have the emotional labour with this and lived experience that the things the topic will be speaking about. It is important for people that don’t have to deal with that to watch it and see that experience because its a way of understanding. On the question about decolonising the museum and structural racism I think you cant decolonise any museum without combatting systemic racism that prevalent within it. I think you have to abolish to start thinking about that.
Nirmal: Theres another question on the role of volunteers being used to decolonise museums when volunteers tend to be from a particular privileged cohort of the population. Would anyone like to respond to this?
Nick: I think its quite interesting as when I work in organisations like this, I tend to see the volunteers split in-between two kinds of sub categories (1) very privileged white backgrounds and (2) lower socio-economic people of colour. I think its quite a testament that for some volunteering is a privilege and for others its a way to get experience to get the entry level job. That conflict I can constantly see and racism is happening within that,people of colour don’t have the privilege to be able to do as volunteering as something optional, or help them or something to free their time. I think the majority are doing this in order to get the jobs they are not being welcoming in for - thats my personal perception.
Nirmal: One of the other questions coming in through, twice actually, it who’s labour is valued and the structural racism and how that works through the value system, who has permanent jobs or temporary, who is considered dispensable and who job it becomes to do all the Race work within the department. This is how racism lives through appointments, a value being delegated, positions being allocated and enabled for certain people and not others. Anything anyone would like to say on that?
Cina: I just want to make a quick point that I’ve come across as being seen as a threat also because of my skills by people who are managers. I think sometimes you can find yourself at the bottom because you have so many skills and you can be quite scary for any employer. I see a lot of people with permanent jobs with very basic skills, as I see them.
Thanh: Picking up on that point on value and who’s voice is valued and expertise, and people of colour being on more precarious contracts, its a very destructive institutional racist way of not enabling progression and things to take root and develop, relationships be held and built, expertise and growth to happen. And at the root of it is institutional racism. So it often makes us feel like we are starting all over again, circling round. To give a personal example working where it was absolutely the case, I was the only person of colour working back of house in one institution, and working with communities of colour there is a complete lack of recognition of there
Working with communities of colour there is a complete lack of recognition of their value, experience and cultural knowledge. Cultural democracy is experiencing and making culture in their own way, it is the voice that is recognised or valued in institutions. The kind of treatment of the different networks that I was supporting and felt like I was letting down, compared to the networks of artists and the sector and the people were more comfortable with. As it is recognised and valued more. Certainly that shift in what is valued is very much embedded in the social hierarchy of whiteness, what centres around White culture is more valued.
Nirmal: This raised questions of how competence is measured, where is competence seen to reside and which bodies are considered more capable than what they actually even do. Like you said before Cina you do a hundred times over what they expect but your skills are still not recognised as having competence. This competence issue is really central to structural racism and the measurement that happens in value.
Cina: If I may add something - I have worked quite a lot with supplementary schools, which are like Saturday schools for people generally from a different ethnic background which are set up by parents and people of colour which volunteer on weekends to teach a mother tongue language to children of deprived households. I have also heard that these teachers with lots of skills also don’t get the promotions within school, they have this mothertongue language and they are not valued for it. So when you have too many skills it can be a problem.
Nirmal: So a question has come in that is often asked, if you had people of colour in the top positions in organisations would that make any diﬀerent. Would anyone like to comment on that?
Nick: I guess we will never know until it happens. It is hard to answer but it would be nice to see it happen and try it out.
Nirmal: Try it out and lets see. Great answer. There is a debate in the chat about apprenticeships in museums and whether they are a good thing as they allow young people to come in who don’t necessarily have a lot of experience. Someone else has responded saying the rate of pay is equivalent to £4 per hour. Obviously this is a debate within the sector does anyone have anything they would like to say with regard to that?
Nick: I personally say that apprenticeships are one route in but is not the only route possible. I think there is a weird dialogue that is happening in the sector where its deemed that people need prior experience for so many of these jobs. But how can people get this prior experience working for free in this economy, it doesn’t work. You need to give people a chance. I think the reason institutions are taking those risks with people of colour is because they are seen as threats, people who are new to the sector and these organisations still have a skill set that can be applied even if they haven’t worked there before. That is the way to get new voice in. Museums like to give fixed term or zero hour contracts to get them in, assess their worth, brainwash them slightly into Museum language and if they are brainwashed enough they get the full-time job. There is always the issue of retention and for people of colour in this sector, the job retention is incredibly low because Museums have not done enough to make the space comfortable for people of colour.
Nirmal: I mean you have all pointed these conditions of inclusion and how do people get included which simultaneously involves exclusion and its pinpointing those conditions of inclusions. The brainwashing one could call it social cloning, you have to be cloned to become susceptible and then you are no longer a threat, your malleable, one of the gang so to speak. Thank you all for starting this very rich discussion and we will continue to follow the work of Museum Detox. Thank you to the listeners and to our speakers for putting their time and effort into the panel today.