Issues for diversity
We cannot assume that diversity issues only interest people from backgrounds which are seen as somehow marginal. It is myopic to presume that such issues have a limited relevance or appeal beyond the concerns of marginal or BME constituencies. By the same token, we cannot make the assumption that collections that do not specifically relate to the culture of diverse communities will not be of interest to them. Those identified as BME, disabled or LGBT do not exclusively limit their focus to learning about their histories and cultures, but have a broad range of interest.
The point here is that they expect their histories and cultures to be properly acknowledged and represented after decades, if not centuries, of ignorance, distortion and marginalisation. In any case, such histories are often an intimate and integral aspect of local or (inter)national history. As such, the diversity issues which they broach should be incorporated as a structural requirement rather than simply as an afterthought for museum collections.
There are several other problems in raising these concerns about social inclusiveness and representation. There is an issue about imposing contemporary concerns onto earlier periods, which could lead to a possible distortion of the realities of the times. Signs of diversity could easily be read as an indication of the early presence of ‘minority groups’ as if there had been no historical movement or social differences between various time-space contexts. This is a valid point to bear in mind in thinking about diversity, but not a sufficient reason to discard issues around diversity.
It is for the curators/project team/group of consultants to evaluate whether such historical occurrences should be highlighted and, if so, in what manner, with which framework, and to what ends. The question to remember is would past communities have the same kind of status as minority ethnic populations today? Surely, the idea of minorities and majorities developed after Census figures across large areas were recorded.
Nonetheless, even if the period under consideration doesn’t allow for a conclusive representation of diverse communities, it could still be a point of departure to engage people from diverse backgrounds in contemporary public debate and other participatory activities.
If we were to consider the case of homosexuality, for instance, this is a term that only gained currency in the 1890s. Before this period, derogatory terms such as ‘ganymede, pathic, cinaedus, catamite, bugger, ingle, sodomite’ (8) were prevalent. Notably, these terms tended to be a description of the act of male-male sex, not of homosexual identity as a whole. Thus, the terms in which we now speak of homosexuality cannot readily be translated into those of earlier centuries.
However, rather than brushing these problems under the carpet, they could be raised for further public engagement and debate in an enlightened and sensitive fashion. Projects could research and compare the character of prejudice, the nature of moral universes, what these say about people’s fashioning of identities, the symbolic and political contexts of the time which placed the ‘other’ alongside conceptions of disorder, evil, deviancy, and of course, how such thoughts and practices were and continue to be challenged.
The point is not to bury vital information when confidence and know-how fails, but to contextualise the evidence with more research, and to consider how such information or materials could be treated for public consumption today in a manner that is sensitive to the well-being of minority communities. Just as we need to allow objects to speak in their own language (with translations and interpretations as guidelines where necessary), we also need to have a firm grip on how context and settings can channel the information to positive ends.
A case in point is the subject of satire, of which material there is plenty in the Paintings, Prints and Drawings collection at the Museum of London. If the material under review is strongly racist or homophobic, the easiest thing would be not to raise the dust on such imagery. However, to put it aside is also to do a big disservice to the wealth of social historical information contained in the works. There are a number of strategies we could adopt to deal with the satirical matter where imaginative talents are harnessed and put into the service of understanding:
- Contextualise or re-contextualise the imagery in enlightening, illuminating and perhaps even surprising or idiosyncratic ways.
- Do a comparative study which looked into the nature of prejudice, politics and representation in differing time-space contexts.
- Be interactive in employing contemporary satirists from similar backgrounds to engage with the subject in a further journey of satire on satire.
- Invite audiences to join in decision-making and public debates around the imagery where the subject acts as a catalyst for dealing with the nature of social barriers and ignorance, then and now.
These varied strategies enable a welcome move away from the ‘museum as temple’ with its collections to be venerated, to the ‘museum as forum’ where the collections are respected, interrogated, confronted, experimented with and debated in a democratic space. (9)
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