The only ethnic minority museum trustee in the village?

| 11 November 2007
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Becoming a museum trustee seems like a good way for minorities to shape policies, so why are the opportunities available not put to better use, asks Sara Wajid? 11/11/07

Having an ethnically representative board of trustees has become accepted as a given good in the diversity world. But as the only non-white trustee in the village myself, I often wonder if it should be. In three years on the board of a national charity I didn’t increase its ethnic diversity at all. Apart from one: me. My doubts about the value of representative boards were compounded recently, when a museum director confessed to me that the black governors on his board were disappointingly timid on diversity issues.

This month sees the results of the MLA workforce diversity audit. I’ll be amazed if black, Asian and minority ethnic trustees total more than 1 per cent (compared to 7.5 per cent of the population as a whole) given that we comprise 2.8 per cent of senior museum management. Why? Perhaps the bleat that non-white citizens aren’t queuing up to spend our spare time poring over the finances of provincial museums and shaking funders’ hands is true. But who can blame us? After all, what’s in it for us? Well actually quite a lot, as long as you like your gratification deferred. In short, boards have power so joining one brings you closer to the centre. A canny effective trustee can influence the direction of an organisation for the better.

So if you are in the market for the mysterious unpaid job of museum trusteeship how do you go about getting one? Try trustee speed-dating through the GAIN scheme, a board development programme aimed at individuals from Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic groups. The Museum of London has become the first museum in the country to sign up for GAIN. In April responsibility for appointing the museums’ governors will transfer from the Department for Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) to the Greater London Assembly. Director, Jack Lohman says he welcomes the change and that DCMS have been too slow to diversify boards.

I spun the GAIN bottle myself a few years ago. It was a surreal afternoon – a mixture of social engineering, coy flirting and racial tension all played out in ‘London’s living room’, that egg-shaped meeting room at the top of City Hall. About forty Black, Asian and Chinese middle-aged professionals circulated amongst the white chief executives and chairs of various London’s arts organisation with too-white boards. Afterwards nods were given, CV’s discretely exchanged via the fixer and matches were made.

But once you’re a museum trustee how should you operate? Don’t squander the opportunity by treading too lightly. If an unrepresentative board have recruited you it’s at least partly because they want and need to become more diverse. There’s no point being coy about why you’re there, even if they are. I found myself focussing on issues other than diversity for fear that I would be lumbered with all the responsibility for it and other trustees would feel let off the hook. I vaguely hoped the sheer fact of my being British Pakistani was having an impact in some intangible way. But while there is some symbolic value in having brown faces on the board, museums haven’t yet evolved to the point where BME trustees can just ‘be’ – we need to actively ‘represent’.

The best trustees are radical enough to initiate change but patient enough not to expect it overnight. Most museums rely on short-term projects to attract diverse audiences, which in turn means BME staff are concentrated in short-term projects. All the more reason why boards should be ethnically diverse – trustees hold institutional memory over time and are in a position to challenge.

Advisory boards for specific exhibitions or projects are increasingly plugging the gap and while they make ideal recruiting ground for BME museum trustees, it’s not enough. The Moving Here partnership project about migration to England since 1800 benefitted hugely from the Jewish Museum representative on the board. They were the final word on the interpretation of collections. But working as an editor of the online South Asian galleries, I felt the lack of any Asian representative at board level keenly. There simply wasn’t an Asian-led partner available to champion the digital collection amassed from across 30 museums and archives.

The new London Sugar Slavery permanent gallery at Museum in Docklands is a testimony to the impact advisory boards can have. There is an uncompromising emphasis on the role of enslaved Africans in abolition. But you need only visit the Atlantic Worlds Gallery (a new permanent space that includes displays marking the the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade) at the National Maritime Museum, to realise why we also need representative museum boards of governors. The same names reappear on the advisory panel, but the gallery is far less radical. Advisory panels are only that. The buck stops with the board.

This article has been re-printed by kind permission of Museums Journal.

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