Tackling inequalities – The Ashmolean Museum of Art & Archeology

The Ashmolean Museum of Art and Archaeology at the University of Oxford has harnessed passion amongst staff to put equality and diversity firmly on the Museum’s agenda. As part of our commitment to help AIM members tackle inequalities, we spoke to Rachel Davies, Director of Operations and Emily Jarrett, Digital Communications Officer, to find out more.

What was your starting point for the equality and diversity work you’ve been doing?

RD: Myself and the Director of Public Engagement had been aware and concerned about issues of equality and social responsibility for some time. She found a convening in Minneapolis in October 2018 called MASS Action and we travelled together to attend. The situation in the US is very different to the UK, politically, historically and socially and they were much more advanced in this area of thinking than us in the UK. The event was challenging and eye-opening and we returned to the UK with a new appreciation of the issues.

EJ: Whilst there had been discussion about equality and diversity within the organisation prior to 2020, the plans had yet to unfold and find their way into the day-to-day lives of staff and visitors to the Museum. In May 2020, the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent Black Lives Matter movement compelled museum staff to speak up. Harnessing the power of this movement and the increased awareness of racial inequality not only in the US, but in the UK as well, a small working group was formed to try and support and reinvigorate the equality and diversity initiatives within the museum.

Tell us about the work you’ve been doing.

RD: In March 2019 we undertook an all-staff survey on the issue of “Ashmolean for All” – our flagship strategy to encourage diverse audiences and a diverse workforce. The feedback we got was very encouraging. Our staff wanted to know more and to get involved, so the next step was to set up a steering group to agree how to take this work forward. The steering group drafted a Statement of Intent and this was discussed and agreed at an all-staff forum, approved by the senior management team and the Board. The first all-staff meeting where we undertook the survey and the second forum resulted in staff coming forward and offering to be EDI Champions. The Director of Public Engagement and myself reached out across our Division (GLAM: Oxford University’s Gardens, Libraries and Museums) to see what our colleagues were doing and arrange a programme of speakers who could share their experiences in this field.

EJ: With the Coronavirus pandemic and the closure of the museum, these initiatives naturally slowed as staff were furloughed and the inevitable yo-yo of reopening and closing the Museum took over remaining time and resource. A few months into lockdown, members of staff began to meet informally to share their experiences and discuss ways to raise issues of equality and diversity within the organisation more broadly. After speaking directly to senior management, we partnered with Rachel and Abi to pick up where the EDI initiatives had left off prior to closure, and to reinvigorate the movement within the Ashmolean. In this way, the initiative is both top-down and bottom-up, originating from management but also from staff within the museum, which we think will help to bolster its effectiveness and uptake.

What response have you had from the wider organisation?

RD: Many staff are passionate about the issue of equality and diversity in our museum. The senior management team have had bespoke training and online training has been made available to all (but is currently not mandatory). The new Chair of our Board has created a sub-committee to formally address and increase diversity on our Board. As an institution with an Equality and Diversity Unit, Oxford University’s policies and procedures are already framed with EDI in mind, but we are committed to further progress and moving the dial in the areas of recruitment, retention and professional development.

EJ: With a solid plan in place, we look forward to opening up participation and bringing more members of staff on board this EDI programme. As Rachel says, there is a great deal of passion and enthusiasm for the issue within our organisation, and with our staff’s highly varied skill set, we think we will be able to create lasting changes.

Can you share any examples of what you’ve done so far?

RD: We have a Decolonisation Group who have already started programming with the multiple voices and perspectives of our audiences in mind. For example, two of our recent free exhibitions – Nice Cup of Tea and Owning the Past – were put together with the input of local communities.

Our Division of the University (GLAM) includes the Pitt Rivers Museum, who are doing ground-breaking work in this area, both internally with staff but also externally with its programming and its audiences.

EJ: The Decolonisation Group recently hosted their first forum on the subject, open to all Ashmolean staff and volunteers and members of the GLAM team. Here, Professor Dan Hicks from the Pitt Rivers Museum discussed the issue of anti-colonialism as a curator of an Oxford collection, with the opportunity for Q&A afterwards.

We’re also working on pulling together an extensive list of EDI and anti-racism resources that we will share on our staff intranet. So far, the list includes a number of books, articles, podcasts and social media accounts that people can engage with to start their own anti-racism learning and to spark conversation on the topic within our teams.

Do you have any advice you can share for AIM members facing a similar challenge?

RD: Take it to the staff. Discuss with the staff. Talk to your visitors. Empower the staff to set the agenda and targets. Attend an AIM course! It’s very positive for staff morale, for the visitor experience and our continued relevance to the society we serve.

Knowledge is power. Educate yourself. Reach out to your network and find out what they are doing. Visit other museums – when you can!  Invite speakers in to talk to you and your team to increase awareness. Share resources. This can be part of staff training even if staff are furloughed.

We’ve found that decolonisation work focussing on our collections and programming and equality and diversity work with our colleagues are two sides of the same coin, so it’s important to work as a team across the Museum to ensure your work is joined up.

EJ: To reiterate what Rachel has said, it’s crucial to have staff be a part of your EDI process and to educate yourself on these issues. We don’t think you can ever be ‘finished’ learning about equality and diversity – it’s a deeply complex issue and one that we can only make progress on by having tough conversations.

The goal is not to be ‘experts’ on creating a safe and equitable working space, but be open, to listen to staff and visitor feedback, to respond to that feedback, and to embed our learnings throughout the organisation.

What are your future plans?

  • The Ashmolean will build resources for staff and continue to get more staff actively involved. We are hoping our EDI Champions will curate the next series of speakers.
  • The GLAM Pro-Vice-Chancellor has assembled a group to consider how Oxford can best use its collections in the light of continuing inequalities, with representation from the Oxford University BME Staff Network.
  • The Ashmolean and Pitt Rivers Museum hope to roll-out their EDI and decolonisation work across all the GLAM departments in a consultative, inclusive way to impact at every level from staff to organisational culture.
  • We are hoping to gain funding for a 6-month part-time post (in first instance) dedicated to co-ordinating EDI activity across GLAM, building links and ensuring alignment with the wider university and city partners. We hope that this investment will make the case for future investment in this important area.

We’ve made a good start, but there is still a lot of work to do; the Museum is on a journey. As the Champions actively promote EDI within their departments, we want EDI to be treated as a standing agenda item in all our internal meetings to ensure it remains a priority.

Tackling Inequalities is AIM’s newest Hallmark, launched to help members address inequalities. Through the Hallmark, we are working with sector partners to help members identify and address relevant areas of their work, tailoring programmes and resources accordingly. You can read more about the tackling inequalities Hallmark here: Tackling Inequality Hallmark – AIM – Association of Independent Museums (aim-museums.co.uk)