Museums need to take radical action to address the “woeful” under-representation of disabled people in their workforce, a parliamentary event has heard.
The call was delivered by Esther Fox, the disabled leader of the Accentuate programme, at a House of Commons event held to mark the end of the three-year History of Place project, which has charted the lives of disabled people across eight heritage sites and 800 years.
Accentuate also called for moves to ensure that deaf and disability history becomes part of the country’s collective history, with more museums and heritage attractions giving this “equal prominence” in their displays and exhibitions.
Fox (pictured) told the Commons event: “Sustained change takes time and we believe it will not happen unless there are deaf and disabled people working as part of our cultural organisations at all levels.
“However, deaf and disabled people are woefully under-represented in the workforce of our cultural sector.”
She told guests of “some rather shocking statistics” that showed that disabled people made up only 2.6 per cent of museums’ workforce, and contrasted this with History of Place, where 49 per cent of staff were disabled people.
She added: “This demonstrates that change is possible in the cultural sector if the right opportunities are there and those with specialist knowledge and experience are leading them.”
In a report on the project, Accentuate delivers a 13-page “call to action”, which includes recommendations to improve employment and volunteering opportunities for disabled people within the heritage sector, and for organisations in the sector to include the “hidden histories” of deaf and disabled communities in their displays, exhibitions and events.
Accentuate, which works to create opportunities for disabled people in the cultural sector and is part of the cultural development agency Screen South, is now working on a professional development placement programme for a group of disabled curators as a contribution to the changes needed in the sector.
It says in the call to action: “We believe it is particularly important to have deaf and disabled people in decision making roles in our cultural institutions.”
Fox told Disability News Service (DNS) afterwards that it was now important to take this message and “really hammer it home”.
She said: “People should really start to take responsibility. It’s not good enough to have organisations being [publicly] funded if they are not addressing these issues.”
She said Arts Council England was starting to address the issue through its Creative Case for Diversity, and was making funding dependent on addressing issues of diversity in recruitment.
Fox said: “We are at that point where we need to be quite radical. Just saying, ‘Oh well, we’ve tried,’ is not good enough.”
She said she was not that surprised that the problem was worse in the museum and heritage sector than the arts sector because of the politicised history of disability arts.
She said there had not been the same level of politicised engagement with museums, which were “often seen as shrines to preservation rather than social hubs”.
Fox said the History of Place project, which worked with more than 100 volunteers to “excavate the archives” of the eight sites, had been recognised as a “nationally significant” social history programme and demonstrated that disabled people are “integral to the UK’s heritage and culture”.
It also worked with 111 museum, heritage and archive institutions, including three high-profile exhibitions and displays at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London, M Shed in Bristol and the Museum of Liverpool, each of which was visited by more than 140,000 people.
Fox told guests at the event: “We have uncovered rich and unexpected stories about the lives of deaf and disabled people who not only impacted on our communities but also on our built environment, from a blind nurse in a medieval alms house… to the amazing pioneer Maggie Davis, who was determined not to be incarcerated in an institution and worked with architects to build the first fully wheelchair-accessible home.
“These pioneers were intrinsic to the world around them and they left a mark which is only just beneath the surface, requiring only a small amount of excavation to uncover.”
Each of the eight heritage sites had a significant connection to disabled people, including Maison Dieu, in Kent (a medieval alms house and hospital on the pilgrimage route to Canterbury); the Guild of the Brave Poor Things, in Bristol (opened in 1913); the Grove Road housing scheme, in Sutton-in-Ashfield, Nottinghamshire (commissioned in 1976); and the Royal School for Deaf Children, in Margate (founded in 1792).
Fox told DNS that the nature of archives, collections and records relating to disabled people meant there were rarely any documents from the perspective of people with lived experience themselves, with records usually created by “gate-keepers”, such as doctors and teachers.
She said she hoped the project would now persuade the heritage sector to “start diversifying their collections”, to ensure that the voices of deaf and disabled people are heard.
She said: “There is more stuff to be discovered. I think there have got to be things in their own collections where they are maybe not aware of their significance or have been hidden away in a box somewhere.”
In the call to action, Accentuate says: “If a museum only has a small number of artefacts relating to deaf and disabled people’s history we would suggest they consider making new acquisitions, to provide a more well-rounded reflection of the communities they represent.”
Fox told DNS that she would like to see museums become more radical and accessible to all and become a “hub for social activity and cohesion”.
She said: “The museum partners we work with have been incredibly supportive.”
But she said it was frustratingly difficult to produce even small change in the largest institutions, because there are “so many levels you have to get through before anything can be done”.
She suggested the opportunities to be more radical lay in the “middle range of museums, because they have a bit more profile, more money [than smaller museums] but they have more freedom than a really large institution.
“So I think it can happen and there is a will and I think now is the right moment to really galvanise more people around this sort of movement.
“I think there’s a will there. There are enough people that do want to see change happening.”
Ros Kerslake, chief executive of the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), which funded History of Place, had earlier given Accentuate’s “call to action” a “ringing endorsement”.
She said the project had started to fulfil the pledge made by her organisation in 2015 to support more disabled-led heritage, and both put “deaf and disabled people’s heritage in the spotlight” and “demand change from heritage organisations”.
She said: “We are determined to continue this commitment and inspire and support more projects like History of Place, projects that create a more diverse workforce and ensure that people who visit and benefit from heritage are truly reflective of the UK society.”
Damian Collins, the Conservative MP and chair of the Commons digital, culture, media and sport committee, who sponsored the meeting, said Accentuate’s work was “genuinely ground-breaking and refreshing”.
And he welcomed HLF’s willingness to fund “different perspectives on heritage and tell different stories, maybe stories that weren’t told about before”.
Picture by Christopher Lanaway Photography
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