Double Lammy

The final event of the conference was the address by the English Culture Minister, David Lammy (that’s Minister for Culture in England, btw, not Minister for English Culture). He was down to speak for twenty minutes, but overran by a further twenty. A sort of ‘buy one, get one free’. It was very interesting. Of course, it’s hard to tell with politicians - I’m always reminded of the old Bob Monkhouse joke:

“The most important thing is sincerity. Once you can fake that, everything else is easy.”

However, I’m more than willing to give the minister the benefit of the doubt here. He certainly seems to be one who thinks culture is important. His speech ranged across the spectrum of issues facing museums (perhaps with the intention of showing us he was on top of his brief?), including non-visitors (the missing 63%) - something I have touched on before - and (we knew it was coming) workforce diversity.

This is an interesting, but by no means straightforward, issue. It is not merely a question of ethnicity, but is intimately bound up with matters of class and gender, and also has a relation to the question of non-visitors. It is quite clear that, taken as a whole, the workforce, and especially the professional workforce, in museums does not reflect the make up of the general population. I can’t say to what extent the same is true in other professionalised sectors, but it matters not. What is clear is that suitably qualified people from some groups do not consider museums as a career option in anything like the same proportions as other groups. And this matters both because museums are missing out on a pool of talent and because the situation is one which if not addressed will remain self-perpetuating.

I’m not sure that I buy the idea that any sector of the workforce nationally must exactly match the general population (this is to ignore the influence of cultural drivers operating within sections of the population). The corollary of under-representation in one area is over-representation in others. But we shouldn’t expect the substantial imbalance we see in the (admittedly small, which makes such skewing more likely) museums sector. But it’s not just a matter of ethnicity. The profession is hardly awash with people from working class backgrounds. I’m not sure where I personally fit in this. I was the first person in my family to go to university and my parents came from solidly working class backgrounds, but had ‘bettered themselves’ - but I think what was most important in this for them and for me is that they came from backgrounds that had always valued learning. Which leads me to…

The non-visitor problem. As I’ve said before, no public institution can cater for or appeal to everyone (hospitals for the healthy?), but that doesn’t mean being satisfied with the current audience. We can be sure that there are people who don’t currently visit, who nonetheless are interested in the kind of things museums have to offer. We have to find ways of reaching them, because they are missing out on something they’d like and value and we are missing out on the insights into our collections that come from new audiences. And of course it’s people who visit, use and enjoy museums who are going to consider museums work as an employment option. Which leads back, with nice circularity, to the workforce issue.

In the end this is something to be tackled from both directions, but I suspect it’s the visitor end which will prove the more significant and effective in the long run. So don’t hold your breath. Unless you can hold it for about ten years (in which case, please contact Guinness World Records).

A final note - I wonder what the figures are for Scotland…?

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