Diversifying and decolonising museums


Diversity Arts Australia (DARTS) invited participant writers to reflect on the Stories from the Future project, which gathers culturally and/or linguistically diverse creatives from across Australia to imagine equitable alternative futures for the arts. This project is a partnership between DARTS, the University of Sydney and state partners and receives core support from the Australia Council for the Arts, Create NSW, City of Parramatta Council and Liverpool City Council.

Last year, I was able to attend the Stories from the Future workshop on Ngunnawal country/ Canberra with a number of culturally diverse artists and arts workers. In it, we imagined that by 2050 cultural diversity would be fully represented across the arts. What would it take to reach this goal?

I felt privileged to share this space with a number of artists from refugee and migrant backgrounds. Their frustrations with lack of recognition and remuneration by mainstream institutions mirrored the experiences of many others whom I have worked with in the past as a social history curator who is the daughter of migrants. However, imagining the future and the steps we needed to take as individuals and as a society towards a more representative future gave me hope. I have incorporated some of those thoughts here with my own, particularly in relation to galleries, libraries, archives and museums (or, GLAM).

According to Diversity Arts Australia’s Shifting the Balance report, Culturally and Linguistically Diverse (CALD) Australians were underrepresented in leadership roles across the cultural sector despite making up 39% of the population. Specifically, 64% of organisations in the museums and heritage sector had no CALD leaders at all, and just 7% of the leaders of museums and heritage organisations had a CALD background. The Report on the inquiry into Canberra’s national institutions delivered in April last year recommended that “boards of national institutions should include representatives who reflect Australia’s cultural diversity.”

So how are Australia’s cultural institutions responding to the deficiencies in CALD representation in their workforces and content, and how might they do more?

At the end of last year, GLAM Peak, which is a group of peak representative national bodies for galleries, libraries, archives, museums, historical societies and humanities research in Australia, developed a draft set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) based on recommendations from the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. The GLAM Peak SDGs include ‘Access’, ‘Diversity’ and ‘Collaboration’.

‘Access’ as defined in the SDG concentrates on clarity, ease of navigation and the accommodation of different abilities as well as digital access. For CALD audiences, some GLAM institutions already include languages other than English in their interpretive text and maps. For CALD donors and custodians though, collection databases can be culturally insensitive. Languages other than English are more difficult to include in collection databases because they often don’t have the capacity to read non-Roman text, and collection categorisation is English in language and in culture. Documenting objects and associated stories also requires documenting associated language. GLAM institutions can make accurate translations which are attentive to the original language and culture of the owner, or of the historical document/recording.

‘Diversity’ refers to supporting diverse perspectives with a culturally diverse workforce. This includes initiatives to “improve entry level opportunities; to recruit younger people as well as culturally and linguistically diverse staff; to increase the number of Indigenous professionals and to look at gender equality issues in terms of pay, terms and conditions and promotion prospects.” There is also a desire to support the decolonisation of GLAM institutions through cultural competence training of staff regarding Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander history and culture. These are worthy goals, and demonstrates that the GLAM industry recognises that they should improve the cultural diversity of its workforce.

One could also add that the GLAM industry needs to improve the cultural diversity of people in leadership roles. This could be done by providing mentoring and executive training to people of culturally diverse backgrounds already in the industry or adjacent industries. It also means re-thinking community engagement strategies and enabling people of culturally diverse backgrounds to lead projects and have agency in representing themselves in GLAM workforces, collections, exhibitions and other programs. But, as Nathan Sentance notes, efforts to be inclusive of diversity won’t dismantle and transform the colonial structures of the museum.

It would also be useful for institutions to understand the layers and intersections of colonisation which come with being a migrant or descendant of migrants on this continent. While all non-First Nations people benefit from on-going colonisation, there are different degrees of privilege. Some of us have ancestors whose places of origin colonised or attempted to colonise other parts of the globe. Others have ancestors whose homes were colonised and were then exploited and/or displaced. Some people come from places that Australia colonised, while other people arrive here after being displaced by wars that Australia participates in. Some people have heritage that is mixed, others are unaware of their origins. These histories and experiences interact with the specific British colonial–First Nations structures and relations in Australia. Some people of culturally diverse backgrounds have more awareness of these complexities than others and are using their shared experiences of colonisation to work in solidarity with First Nations peoples. GLAM institutions can support this work by providing spaces for these relationships to develop, challenging us all to understand our positions in relation to each other, and by being prepared to be challenged and transformed themselves. This is in addition to the recommendations outlined in the Indigenous Roadmap.

This brings me to the final goal, which I will deal with here, ‘Collaboration’. This goal is about how GLAM institutions work together across the nation as well as with our neighbours in the Indo-Pacific region. This mostly focusses on sharing knowledge and education initiatives. There is a space here for people of CALD backgrounds with international networks to mediate relationships and lead collaborations between institutions in neighbouring countries, as well as within Australia.  The independent art gallery, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, works (and successfully so) in a similar way.

GLAM Peak has sought responses from members of the sector’s individual peak bodies, with further discussions to follow with the aim of confirming priority areas of focus by mid-2020. While these are some of my thoughts, I still retain hope from the Stories from the Future workshop that the arts industry and its institutions can change, but I don’t expect a smooth ride as we move toward 2050.  Changing, dismantling and transforming will take work and will be resisted by those in power. However, the workshop participants knew that, and are ready.

Karen Schamberger

Author: Karen Schamberger

Karen Schamberger researches and writes about Australian museums and cultural diversity. Her thesis Identity, belonging and cultural diversity in Australian museums examined the way that objects mediate relations between people of culturally diverse backgrounds in Australian history and the way that museums have used these objects in processes of inclusion and exclusion in Australian society. She has previously worked in curatorial positions at the Immigration Museum, Melbourne and the National Museum of Australia, Canberra. She has a particular interest in material culture, migration history, transnational history and race relations in Australia.

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