Breaking Down Barriers to Access the Profession – Katie Murphy

Despite numerous attempts at a reversal of fortunes, the heritage sector still has one of the worst records for attracting staff and visitors from diverse backgrounds. A report produced by the Museums Association in March 2013 entitled, “Diversify: Reflections and Recommendations” stated that:

“Historically the museum sector has been largely monocultural, with a workforce and governing bodies dominated by the white, educated middle classes. People from minority ethnic background have been starkly under-represented at all levels and particularly in senior management.”

There are a number of reasons for this imbalance, but perhaps the most crucial are:

  • The financial outlay needed for continued university study (which is a problem faced by the majority of graduates) and
  • Because people have not routinely seen people like themselves represented in exhibition materials, staff groups and volunteer circles

As such, in this article I’d like to express my support for promoting new routes into the profession, which I feel will have a positive impact on both of these factors.

The Museums Association’s Diversify Scheme made several ongoing recommendations in its concluding report. The report noted that there were four interconnected barriers to workforce diversification, these were:

  1. Leadership and institutional responsibility
  2. Entry routes and recruitment practices
  3. The current economic downturn
  4. Changes to higher education funding

The sector has control over points 1 and 2 and no control over points 3 and 4. The current funding climate undoubtedly presents challenges for workforce diversity, and the impact of cuts on public sector employment have been shown to disproportionately affect women and people of Black and Minority Ethnic (BAME) origin. Furthermore, the impact of the introduction of higher tuition fees for undergraduate degrees has narrowed the pool of prospective applicants for all degree programmes by 5% in the past year alone. Given that the traditional routes into museum entry lack a diverse pool of applicants, the reduction in undergraduates is likely to have an even greater impact. Notwithstanding these acknowledged limitations, my argument focuses on point 2. Point 1, in my opinion, is within the remit and responsibilities of individual organisations.

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The Black-E Centre on Great George Street in Liverpool has records and artefacts relating to arts and cultural items which have been created by people from BAME backgrounds.

Having a post-graduate qualification is by no means a guarantee of gaining employment in heritage, and it certainly isn’t the only possible route into a job. My argument, and that of many others, is that any advantages it does provide shouldn’t be available solely to the lucky minority who can afford the privilege of working for free whilst also funding a master’s degree. One idea that I have heard discussed in a number of forums is the promotion of apprenticeships within heritage institutions, rather than the master’s/diploma route.

This approach would have a number of advantages, including the increased promotion of hands-on training alongside the study of theory. As I envision them, apprenticeships would be more structured than a lot of currently available volunteering roles and could be undertaken at a pace and level which the person feels they can handle. It could then be “topped-up” if new skills were required, rather than students having to guess what skills might be most useful to their later career, before it has begun. If someone wanted to eventually progress to PhD, apprenticeships could perhaps be formalised into a degree-level qualification, and as such, the two systems could complement each other.

This apprenticeship or “vocational” approach also levels the playing field to a degree, in terms of putting people in the networking loop, allowing for connections to be made with peers, senior staff and maybe (just maybe!) getting someone that all important foot in the door for longer-term employment.

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A number of museums have sought to address the difficult historical imbalance in their buildings and host cities, such as the Merseyside Maritime Museum in Liverpool which also hosts the International Slavery Museum.

If such routes into the sector were made more widely available, representatives of more diverse groups would feel they could take a role in its development. This in turn would have a positive effect on visitor numbers, as museums and archives visibly become places that are open and available to everyone.

In summary, the archives and records management profession is well suited to the wider implementation of apprenticeships and Continuing Professional Development. The process would promote career-long learning and could be integrated with existing volunteer placements, to make for a better trained, connected and, vitally, a more inclusive workforce – from entry-level volunteer to senior manager. I accept that these changes might be an upheaval to implement, but I firmly believe that if the heritage profession is to continue to meet its own high standards, such wide-ranging changes are needed from legal, moral and practical perspectives.

Kate Murphy, Archives and Records Management Student, University of Dundee

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