Written by Anna Cottle, ITP Coordinator

We are all complicit in systemic oppression: What can a museum worker do?

Tuesday, November 9, 2021

Natasha Trotman, Equalities designer, researcher and lecturer, RCA
Selene Burn, Access Lead, Wellcome Collection
Teresa Cisneros, Inclusive Practice Lead, Wellcome Collection

Teresa Cisneros and Selene Burn from the Wellcome Collection share their experiences of working to achieve the organisation’s commitment to embed access, diversity and inclusion across the museum. They focus on enabling staff to learn to become more inclusive and to embed a critically reflective practice by creating opportunities for everyone to develop a deep understanding of access, diversity and inclusion. They share what it is like to work in this way with a specific focus on the Social Justice Curriculum, a significant personal, professional and collective mandatory learning journey for staff, with modules focusing on anti‐racism and anti‐ableism developed with external professionals. 

Selene Burn starts by giving context to the work of the Wellcome Collection on access, diversity and inclusion which is shown in the slide below.

Selene describes the incredible commitment of staff who were involved and were afraid of getting things wrong but had a high level of engagement with the project. The Social Justice Curriculum was developed to help staff really understand accessibility, diversion and inclusion and first of all a ‘roadmap’ was developed to connect this to previous inclusion work. You can read more about this here on the Wellcome Collection’s website. The Inclusion Team aimed to create space to talk about racism and disability in order to make people more familiar with these areas and develop understanding. The first phase included surveys, conversations, workshop sessions and homework for staff – it was not about how you do your job differently but about paring everything back and rethinking. Selene says it was about gaining some understanding of the history of how we got here and the role of ableism in positions of power.

The pilot model of learning was rolled out to staff in June/July this year, followed by working with external evaluators who developed and tested a theory of change model and did one to one interviews with some staff participants for feedback such as the guidance having ‘too much academic language’, for example.

As inclusive practice lead at the Wellcome, Teresa gave some background to the anti-racism and Social Justice Curriculum, telling us how she went about starting her role. First of all she did a ‘talking tour’ to meet all staff and to understand why they were working at the Wellcome Collection and was often asked why she was focusing on this subject, to which she responded that she didn’t know yet, she had just arrived. The first few months were essential to introduce herself and learn, and to ensure staff knew she wasn’t just there to ‘tick boxes’. Nearly 40 percent of staff took part in the first phase of workshops and activities set out to find out more about them and their thoughts and opinions, and the team learned that staff needed leadership in order to embed inclusive practice. Time, energy and cost restrictions were named as barriers as well as the fear of failure and fear of using the wrong language.  Staff needed to feel safe and have consistent commitment to the project. The COVID-19 pandemic hit just as the results of this work came in and so Teresa initiated online ‘race conversations’ with front facing colleagues and this led to an anti-racism curriculum being developed for staff in May 2020.

Teresa explored what it would mean for an institution like the Wellcome to have an anti-racist curriculum – the institution had to be open to this, including taking responsibility. The work was split into five phases:

  • Talking
  • Learning
  • Unlearning bad practice
  • Applying anti-racist practice
  • Accountability

The next step was ‘anti-ableism’ and how to create a social justice system that they could continue to add to in the future which resulted in months of lobbying with leadership and thinking beyond the 150 staff at the Wellcome Collection and to the whole Wellcome trust. Teresa asked the Wellcome to take a risk and asked staff to consider contracts they had signed and what they had promised to sign up to in terms of inclusion, already. To create the Social Justice Curriculum, Teresa and Selene each found experts to work with and researched what was needed and why it was needed – Natasha Trotman was one of these experts. It took a lot of time to create the handbook and many reviews. Natasha says that as a black person who is neurodivergent and disabled, how important this kind of work is, to feel included in a space. Teresa describes how they worked with academics for advice and knowledge but specifically chose those who are teaching, learning and/or activists and several from the Black Lives Matter movement. It was important to take from academic thinking but from those who are doing the ‘work on the ground’, whose critical thinking they wanted to bring to the table and from a variety of different cultural backgrounds and both disabled and non-disabled contributors.

When asked what initial hopes for the Social Justice Curriculum were, Teresa says she wanted people to recognise their complicity. Selene wanted to create something that was the opposite to a ‘tickbox’ after being to many diversity workshops that didn’t even touch the surface of the subject. Teresa says the process taught her that if you are persistent, people or institutions might be more willing, new language can be learnt from new work places and it is important to question yourself if you are asking colleagues to do this – its ok to get it wrong and important to show vulnerability. On that subject, Teresa talks about how they supported staff when asking questions that ‘dig deep’ by having a therapist in the room to deal with ‘pain points’ as an expert.

This is long term work and Phase 2 will focus on Institutional Practice. The anti-racism and social justice guides were made specifically for the Wellcome Collection but you can get in touch with Teresa and Solene for a copy to adapt for your own institution/work and the email address to use is in the slide below.

Useful links:

https://wellcomecollection.org/pages/Wvmu3yAAAIUQ4C7F