Citizen Curators: Diversity as process

We were interested in recruiting people because of their ideas about museums and diverse life experiences, not in spite of them.

In the first instalment discussing the findings from Citizen Curators I talked about how this curatorial community was developed. Today I take a closer look at how diverse the cohorts were, and what factors were at play.

Citizen Curators had two goals, to diversify the voices that interpret museum collections, and to be a credible start of an alternative pathway into museum work. Underlying these goals were the main causes of exclusion from curatorial opportunity that I had identified while establishing the Rural Diversity Network, namely, time and cost, particularly of travel.

This means that many people’s social radiuses are that much smaller, simply because it takes so long to get anywhere.

Geosocial challenges

The geosocial context in Cornwall is rural and remote from major centres of connectivity. Although map distances appear short, the time it takes for both road and rail travel far exceeds much of the rest of the country. This means that many people’s social radiuses are that much smaller, simply because it takes so long to get anywhere. Couple this with limited public transport options, the time and cost barriers multiply if you simply do not have the time to dedicate to a curatorial opportunity even if you wanted to, and/or did not have the means (money) to have your own transport.

My research suggested that scenario is experienced because of, and independently other factors such as financial independence, care responsibilities, mobility and disability, social background (e.g. class). Cornwall’s permanently resident population of nearly 570,000 people is dominated by older and retired age-groups (50+), with this group increasing in size, while those aged 39 or under are in decline (UK Population Data 2022). This population swells dramatically in the summer and holiday months with tourists accounting for most annual museum visits.

High deprivation levels and low stable employment opportunities which meet basic costs of living are constant challenges in Cornwall as is the spectre of a housing crisis meaning that even when time and cost barriers are alleviated at the point of access, it is becoming increasingly difficult to impossible to find an affordable place to rent (or even an expensive one) near to your place of work or education. This situation worsened in the final year of Citizen Curators in 2021.

Most Cornish heritage sites and museums are closed or have reduced opening hours in the winter (approximately end October to mid-March). The added weight of people in Cornwall in the long summer means that many local people reduce their social radiuses even further to avoid traffic, overcrowded buses and trains. This means, unless they are museum actors themselves, for example volunteers who run museums without the help of paid staff, the opportunities for local communities to enjoy museums on their own doorsteps can be severely limited by multiple time and cost barriers.

Citizen Curators was run October to March in each year except the final digital-delivery year when it ran January to June 2021.

Rethinking diversity and inclusion monitoring

The main aim of diversity and inclusion monitoring of Citizen Curators was to make sure we had a detailed, honest, and nuanced view of participants and the programme’s effect on attracting people traditionally experiencing barriers to cultural participation and training. Citizen Curators was not a positive action training scheme and as such no singular group of people was targeted in recruitment.

Understanding the whole-life backgrounds of Citizen Curators: where did Year 2 participants grow up?

What I attempted to do with diversity and inclusion monitoring for Citizen Curators is get closer to understanding the whole-life backgrounds and current needs of participants, and to find out if time, cost and related barriers were overcome. Binna Kandola believes, “diversity is about behaviour and outcomes. It’s about how relationships are enacted. It’s about how we perform in everyday situations, based on how we think — and how we think about how we think. In other words, diversity is a process, not a structure” (2009).

Singular affirmative action programmes tend to create siloes and echo chambers which simply add to the growing polarisation in the curatorial sector, as well as society at large.

This idea of process rather than outcome is important. Too often diversity and inclusion is presented superficially and rigidly with singular labels and headline statistics that grab attention but actually do very little to aid understanding of what is really going on, or challenging the power structures that support inequalities.

Diversity is so much more than representation in the workforce or audiences. Having a diversity of people in any group will always strengthen mutual understanding and enable meaningful two-way conversations that Citizen Curators programme aimed to foster. The nature of that diversity was never pre-determined. Singular affirmative action programmes tend to create siloes and echo chambers which simply add to the growing polarisation in the curatorial sector, as well as society at large.

Timing is everything

The first difference compared with other museum training programmes was the timing of collecting diversity and inclusion data. I collected this information in a survey during a dedicated activity in the core session entitled “Curators in the Community” which took place midway during the programme.

Using diversity and inclusion monitoring as a discussion point and learning outcome, I was able to gauge group feelings about the process, whether the sharing of this information was felt to be intrusive or irrelevant and to what extent participants wished to mis-declare as a gentle protest. In one session the question of misreporting became a topic of discussion, and it is very likely a small minority of participants did not declare honest responses as a result.

This is different to choosing not to declare a particular aspect of their identities or life situation, the choice to do so was entirely theirs. Most participants, however, participated in these surveys generously and understood that this was an opportunity to highlight the importance of understanding how differences in background, identity and needs affects people’s desire to participate in museums.

Understanding the social background of Citizen Curators: who looked after Year 2 participants when growing up.

The contextual approach also resulted in a high response rate, ranging from 69 to 90% of total recruits who started each year’s programme. The survey canvassed legal protected characteristics as well as key indicators of wealth, care responsibilities, education, place and environment when growing up. Overall, the aim was to help us learn whether our goal to alleviate time and cost barriers was well-targeted, the results were reviewed annually and adaptations to recruitment, although limited, were attempted. This was particularly the case for Year 3 when we were forced to switch to redesign for digital delivery, and the seven participating museums, Cornwall Museums Partnership and I were in agreement that opening up recruitment nationally was an opportunity that should be taken.

Multiple choices

The questionnaire permitted multiple choices of response, and none. Across the programme we saw changing scenarios in each year. The full D&I reports for each cohort are available and downloadable here.

Age diversity of Citizen Curators Pilot+Year 1 cohorts.

In summary, participation was highly dominated by women, averaging 75% female to male; the age range was more diverse, and overall, younger, than traditional museum volunteers; cultural, religious and ethnic diversity increased marginally across all the years and it is notable that 13-14% of years 2 and 3 grew up in multiple places outside the UK, adding a different dimension to lived experience and affinity for other cultures that cannot be understood from simplistic declarations of race and ethnicity.

Cultural background, ethnicity and nationality diversity in Citizen Curators Year 3 cohort.

39-50% of each cohort identified as working class; between 48-60% reported living with disabilities and other conditions affecting daily life; financial dependence on another person or the State increased significantly by year 3 with 33% relying on others, with just 13-14% in previous years.

Financial independence/dependence in Citizen Curators Year 2 cohort.

The year 3 cohort was noticeably younger perhaps accounting for this result. Following this trend, reliance on public transport (in daily life not just participating in the programme) increased to 38% in year 3 from approximately 20% in years 1 and 2 – this may also reflect the conversion to a digital programme making it more accessible in the final year.

Travel preferences/options in Citizen Curators Year 3 cohort.

29-40% of participants came to the programme with a high level of education at Masters level, in a variety of mainly arts and social science subjects. A significant number of participants came to the programme from outside the arts, from professions such as accountancy, social work, medicine, law, farming, and IT.

Highest qualifications of Citizen Curators Year 2 cohort.

Both the gender (im)balance and academic background of Citizen Curators echoes that of the wider UK museum workforce and suggests that there is something more fundamental at play when it comes to museums’ relationships with society at large. It should also be noted that all museum leads in each year, bar one, were women and Cornish museums are particularly dominated by female workforces.

Gender diversity of Citizen Curators Year 2 cohort, the most extreme imbalance.

The high proportion of participants declaring a disability or condition affecting daily life vindicated the flexible design of the programme and method of recruitment. Conclusions beyond these are much harder to come by because of the poor publicly available data on museum volunteers.

Disability, neurodiversity and life-affecting conditions in Citizen Curators Pilot+Year 1 cohort.

Cornish diversity

Another drawback of nationally-based statistics is that they iron out the geosocial elements specific to different places, rural or big city, remote or well-connected, as well as what geohistorical factors are at play, such as national identity, languages and migration. This is why, for example, idealised equity in the workforce, for example in gender or race, will struggle if you don’t understand the actual make-up of the communities on your doorstep, and also some of how they have come to be there. I would certainly recommend monitoring for specific geosocial and geohistorical context that are not hidden away in national statistics.

A specific dimension to diversity and inclusion in the Citizen Curators programme was Cornish identity. In 2014 the UK Government recognised the Cornish as a National Minority with similar status to the Welsh, Scottish and Irish under the Council of Europe’s Framework Convention for the Protection of National Minorities.

Prior to this recognition museums in Cornwall were sluggish about their support of Cornish identity and so in an effort to increase awareness and confidence the Citizen Curators programme included the topic of Cornishness in its content, provided opportunities for participants to explore Cornishness by taking part in the Cornish National Collection project, and monitored Cornish participation.

Cornish identity in Citizen Curators Pilot+Year 1 cohorts.

As participants were able to choose multiple cultural and national identities in the survey, it provided an even more interesting lens onto the complex topic of cultural, racial and ethnic identity. Across the cohorts 12-38% of participants identified as Cornish, of those 10-60% identified only as Cornish, while others chose ‘Cornish’ and ‘English’, ‘Cornish’ and ‘British’ or ‘Cornish’ and ‘White’. Other variations included ‘Cornish’ and ‘Celtic’, ‘Cornish’ and ‘European’, and ‘Cornish’ and ‘Welsh’.

Cornish identity in Citizen Curators Year 2 cohort.

The results for data on Cornishness across the three years paint a complex and contradictory picture from which few reliable conclusions may be drawn at present. It is notable that participants from years 1 and 3 contributed the least to the Cornish National Collection component of the Citizen Curators programme while both cohorts comprised more significant numbers of participants declaring their Cornish identity.

Cornish identity in Citizen Curators Year 3 cohort.

Some additional context comes from the question on formative geographic origins i.e. asking where people grew up until adulthood (age 16-18). The final year’s cohort perhaps reflected the wider reach of the digital programme with 29% of the cohort declaring growing up in Cornwall until age 16-18. Comparatively in year 2 the figure was just 25% and in year 1, 50% did their growing up in the Duchy.

Where Citizen Curators in Year 3 grew up.

How diverse and inclusive was Citizen Curators?

There is no perfect inclusivity or perfect diversity. We may have a particular ideal in mind, or instinctively know when just a narrow group of very similar people end up being recruited to a programme or organisation. For Citizen Curators I was much more focused on alleviating barriers to participation: money and time. The profiles of each cohort certainly included significant numbers who would not have taken part or been able to take part if, the programme was not flexible or free. Money was made available to cover transport costs and materials. We couldn’t magic up more time but we could flex session timings, e.g. to accommodate school runs, hospital appointments, and when Citizen Curators chose to volunteer at their museum.

Data on diversity in the museum volunteer workforce are non-existent. Agencies such as Museum Development on behalf of Arts Council England collect figures for numbers of hours volunteered, but not the nature of the roles or anything about who those people are. So comparison with the Citizen Curators data is near impossible.

However, by focusing on the opportunity and really understanding those time and cost barriers from the start, enabled us to design a curatorial training programme that valued diversity in all of its forms, supported confidence-building and centred the work at hand – learning how to curate collections and having a say in their host museum – rather than the labels imposed on participants by museums and funders for their own good.

A year 2 Citizen Curator reflected in their evaluation, “I wanted to thank you for everything; this entire experience has been really inspiring and I’ve never felt so confident to speak up. I’ve felt engaged and involved in my community.”