A Small Needful Change: How museums can show that Black lives matter in their collections

The most important thing museums can do is to diversify their staff and compensate people properly for their labour.

Having said that,

when I am feeling frustrated by an inability to make change happen, I am comforted by the principle set out by Nilofer Merchant in The Power of Onlyness. That is, that we all have the potential to make a difference within our niche, because that is a difference we are uniquely equipped to make. I am frustrated with responses to the Black Lives Matter movement from the museum sector, so I have tried to focus on one concrete action within my area of work that I think museums should take, and that I will be pushing for within the museums I work with.

Museums can tweet #BlackLivesMatter but where is the evidence in their collections to back this up? As museums output is currently digital, and they are realising it is necessary to diversify the kind of content they share, they may be unable to find the collections to support the message.

They can commit to rectifying this within their collections by:

  • Updating their Collections Development Policy (and publishing it).
  • Updating their Collections Documentation Policy (and publishing it)

Contemporary collecting is important, but has been covered extensively in recent museum discourse, so I want to focus on the second action, and describe one specific change museums can make as a first step to making their collections more accessible. The objects are there in the collections. The stories are there, but hidden by neglect, by history, by the cultural ignorance of an overwhelmingly white workforce.

One way to show that Black lives matter in our museums is commit to:

  • Ensure collections are searchable and findable by the communities that they represent. That means recording information about the people and the cultures who the objects relate to.
  • Acknowledge that this type of categorisation, as it has been used by museums, contributed to the formation of racialised hierarchies and white supremacy.
  • Also acknowledge that by avoiding using any terminology related to race or other marginalised identities in collections cataloguing, because of fear of ‘getting it wrong’, museums continue to do harm by obscuring and making their collections inaccessible.
  • Proactively consult communities about any content representing them and be accountable to those communities in the way they are described in collections records.
  • Not use the current lack of such consultation as an excuse for inaction. As a starting point, some museums use Office of National Statistics guidelines. These terms are designed for self-identification, so applying them to museum records is not without its problems, but it does also allow the potential for data on museum collections to be mapped to other social research carried out using ONS terms, such as in this on Black representation in British film from the BFI.

Thank you to Louise McAward-White who pointed me to this work at BFI when I asked the #MuseumDocumentation community on twitter about what terminology they use for people and cultural groups. At that time it did not seem to be something many museums were talking about. Recently Tate has kicked off a project, Provisional Semantics, looking at the ongoing problem of how to categorise. I look forward to more work being done in this niche, but vital area of museum work, and seeing the differences small, thoughtfully deployed, changes can make.

The title of this post was inspired by Ross Gay’s poem about Eric Garner.