Thinking across diversity
Diversity in this essay is considered in terms of three main intersecting branches: race/ethnicity, sexuality and disability. This is not to ignore the other constituent elements of diversity described above. Rather the arguments and action plan developed here could be seen as a toolkit which could be widened to encompass broader interests. We will notice that each of these categories, whilst sharing several features and concerns, also diverge from each other at various points.
There are a number of precedents which inform this approach on the theme of race/ethnicity neatly summarised by the complementary essay, Our Lives, Our Histories, Our Collections. The key reports relevant to this essay are Holding up the Mirror London Museums Agency, July 2003 and Delivering Shared Heritage, the Mayor’s Commission on Asian and African Heritage July 2005. Parallel research conducted by ALM London, Revisiting Collections, is also a useful resource with which to read this essay.
On the subject of disability, there is the commendable report conducted by the Research Centre for Museums and Galleries at the University of Leicester, Buried in the Footnotes June 2004. Whilst there has been no conclusive report on sexuality, there have been several smaller studies conducted on the subject, including one by Angela Vanegas. (2) The complexity of identities under the umbrella term ‘sexuality’ may be referred to as LGBT, that is, Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgendered.
Considering the history and issues surrounding gender equality is instructive. Following decades of feminist struggle, we have now reached a situation where at least at the level of collections and representation, gender is acknowledged throughout the breadth of museum collections.
We could look to the history of gender politics as a paradigm for progression – where it was once deemed a ‘minority interest’, (ironically a term that applied to a ‘majority’ group’), it has now become a feature of virtually all collections, documentation and representation. Certainly, the struggle is not over in terms of other areas of social and political life, but recognition of gender issues has become the norm. It has entered into what Lola Young has described as a ‘post-diverse’ phase, although a lot of work still needs to be done in moving away from heterosexual assumptions about gendered identities.
Recently, distorted representations of non-white communities and their artefacts in the West have been justifiably put on trial. Historically, images of black or tribal communities, if acknowledged at all, were shown as either demonic or barbaric on the one hand, and, on the other, as the epitome of a nostalgic civilisation in the guise of the ‘noble savage’. (3) Regarding ‘Orientals’ – that is people from the Middle East and the various countries in Asia – representations ranged from irrational fanatics at one end of the spectrum to those who espoused their mystical and sensual delights. (4) No matter what the details were, they conjured up an image of alterity, Otherness – that is, the cultures were represented as the opposite of the supposedly rational and modern West.
A parallel argument has also been made for the case of people with disabilities. They too have been either ignored for being seen as somehow deficient, abnormal, inadequate or viewed in terms of extremities – that is, either as ‘freaks’ such as ‘Tom Thumb’ (Charles Stratton) and the ‘Elephant Man’ (Joseph Merrick) or as ‘heroes’, with figures such as Napoleon who are seen to have surpassed the blanket of disability to become like ‘normal people’. (5) The disabled artist Alison Lapper, discusses the ‘unfashionability’ of disability in social life where so often disabled people’s work and issues are marginalised. She comments:
'Museums are potentially very powerful places that can expose people to the issues around disability and can represent disabled people within the mainstream.' (6)
Barriers need to be first identified both in the museum and in society – whether they be sensory, intellectual, attitudinal, social, cultural, or financial – before they can be tackled.
The report, Buried in the Footnotes, provides an excellent starting point from which to broach these issues. From an investigation of museum and gallery practice, the report notes:
'Our findings were that wide-ranging collections of all kinds do, indeed, contain a wealth of relevant material but that its significance to disability is not generally considered or understood by the curators who hold it in their care. This material is infrequently displayed, its links to disability is seldom made explicit or is poorly interpreted and, in only a few noteworthy cases, does the interpretation resist stereotypical and reductive representations of disabled people which are commonplace in other media.
'A range of factors – specific, practical, resource-based and personal ones as well as more generic societal influences – conspire to contribute to the cultural invisibility of disabled people in museums and galleries
'However, we found no evidence of deliberate attempts to suppress or distort evidence of disabled people’s history in museums. There is, instead, among curators, both a lack of consensus about the significance and importance of these issues, and a level of anxiety and concern about how to display and interpret the material, which results in inertia. There is also the continuing risk that the knowledge which gives the objects meaning will be lost – including information held in archives, databases and the memories of individual curators.' (7)
The case for sexuality is similar, although it differs in that this is an identity that is not always visible. Here, the problem is that alternative sexual identities are overwhelmingly associated with sex, and not contextualised in the three-dimensional aspects of everyday life.
Perhaps more so than other identifications, class variables also have a far greater impact on sexuality, for instance, working class gay men have a very different experience from those from well-to-do backgrounds.
See essay pages: