Change means museums addressing their past

Original artilce published in Evening Standard on 20th July 2020

My late father, the first Muslimheadteacher in the UK, would regularly take me and my sister to museums from a young age, to broaden and enrich our cultural horizons. This wasn’t common for minority communities in the early Eighties and unfortunately things haven’t changed much today at the national museums, as many still feel these institutions are not for people “like them”.

Museums and galleries are beginning to welcome back visitors, and doing so against the backdrop of Black Lives Matter. As the first Muslim trustee of the Natural History Museum, I have been thinking about what it means to have museums that are truly for everyone.

Most museums have looked at ways to address the feeling that some are excluded, and the lack of diversity in their collections. Sandy Nairne, the former director of the National Portrait Gallery, made special efforts to promote black icons like Mary Seacole and bring in paintings such as the Ayuba Suleiman Diallo portrait, the first British oil portrait of a freed slave. Tours were organised for harder-to-reach communities.

The Natural History Museum has looked at how parts of their historical collection were built on the slave trade and how “cultural institutions have a history of denying and ignoring the violence… that this desire to collect inflicted upon others”. Slave ships were used to collect specimens — and slave owners would whitewash contributions of people of colour to science. Understanding our shared histories is important to shape our shared futures.

Real change means addressing past injustices. Let’s have paid internships for the under-represented

We also need to see better diversity throughout our cultural institutions, from trustees to senior management; BAME paygaps published; and senior management undertaking not only diversity training but also unconscious bias and anti-oppression training. To reach out to diverse young visitors we need to establish links with schools with higher BAME student populations and provide resources to help them to visit.

Real change means addressing past injustices, and we can do that via paid internships and scholarships for under-represented communities. We can also build stronger relationships with countries of origin. The next step is to address the change we need in society and that only comes by providing equal opportunities for everyone to succeed.

Harris Bokhari is a trustee of the Natural History Museum