Racism and anti-racism in museums

Maya Sharma, Programme Manager at Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Education Trust (AIUET) and strategic advisor on the Re:Collections programme outlines the importance of developing anti-racist approaches across all aspects of a museum’s work. 

Click here to read this article in Welsh>>


In summer 2020, the racist murder of George Floyd in the USA – only one in a long list of similar murders – sent a shockwave around the world. In the UK we saw slaver Edward Colston’s statue being pulled down in Bristol, against a backdrop of anti-racist and Black Lives Matter protests. The heritage sector responded with statements of support and solidarity, and many heritage organisations made public statements acknowledging their lack of progress in terms of building multi-ethnic workforces and reaching Global Majority communities. Many made statements of their intent to ”do better”, and in conferences and meetings across the sector conversations about diversification, decolonisation, anti-racism were commonplace.

Many felt invigorated by these discussions and that they gave a new direction and purpose to their work. Some felt wearied that what they had been advocating for, for decades had seemingly become buzzwords. Others felt bemused and bewildered by the conversations, unsure how it related to the work of their museums or unsure how to approach these new (to them) waters. Some were resistant.

As the sector support organisation for independent museums, we know that these conversations are complex and can be confusing for those who’ve only recently started thinking about the issues. Our aim here is to present some introductory guidance on anti-racism in museums, setting out what this is, why it’s necessary, introducing a few different approaches and pointing towards useful resources.

Understanding racism 

Racism is, fundamentally, the belief that white people and their ways of thinking, culture, political systems and histories are superior to that of other “races”. There are a complex set of racist beliefs, with different “races” seen as inferior in different ways, but with Blackness often judged most inferior, primitive or dangerous. Racism is based on a power-imbalance, where white people, institutes and nations hold far larger amounts of power.

It’s important to understand the different forms that racism takes. Most commonly recognised is interpersonal racism; this is where white people hold negative, stereotypical or discriminatory beliefs about people from other ethnicities. These beliefs can lead to them behaving in obvious and overtly racist ways, such as name-calling, racist harassment, discriminatory behaviour or violence. Unconscious bias is a less overt aspect of interpersonal racism, but still results in racist actions. Unconscious bias is where we act or make judgements based on our subconscious and ingrained biases, assumptions or interpretations. These biases and assumptions are not individual; they are deeply influenced by, and conform to, societal racist beliefs and ideas.

Microagressions are a common form of interpersonal racism. These are acts or interactions that to some appear innocuous or well meaning but embody racism in seemingly subtle ways. Examples include repeatedly mispronouncing someone’s name despite correction, or telling a person of colour wearing non-western clothes they look “exotic”. However unintentional or well intentioned these acts are, their individual and cumulative impact can be substantial – often described as “death by a thousand paper cuts”.

Racism is not simply interpersonal, and other (arguably) more powerful types of racism exist. The Macpherson report (the report of the legal enquiry into the murder of Stephen Lawrence) brought the notion of institutional racism into mainstream public discourse.

Ambalavaner Sivanandan, then Director of the Institute of Race Relations, draws a direct link between personal beliefs and institutional behaviour: “Institutional racism is that which, covertly or overtly, resides in the policies, procedures, operations and culture of public or private institutions – reinforcing individual prejudices and being reinforced by them in turn.”

This is the racism that is embedded in institutions and how they behave, resulting in policies, procedures, culture and practice that work better for white people. Institutional racism leads to structural racism: this is the cumulative impact of institutionally racist organisations and systems, on a societal level. It encompasses political, social, cultural, economic, educational and legal systems.

In most organisations there is a complex interplay between the different types of racism. Unfortunately, most anti-racist training and action focuses on interpersonal racism.

Racism and museums

Many of the collections we work with are colonial in their origins, and we often uncritically draw on catalogues that preserve colonial thinking.  Global histories are often invisible, other than during Black or South Asian History Month; they seldom feature in permanent exhibitions.

Data shows that museums have failed to engage Global Majority audiences and that the sector’s workforce is disproportionately white, especially in more senior and more specialist roles. This has not improved in any significant way, despite initiatives, targeted funding programmes and pressure from funding bodies.

This uncomfortable picture of the sector was captured in the Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Education Trust’s 2021-research project looking at Equity, Diversity and Inclusion (EDI) work in the heritage sector. The research report If Nothing Changes, Nothing Changes, sets out findings that document the depth of the problem for our sector.

We can react to this data in different ways. One is to accept that we are, in some way, preventing Global Majority people from joining the workforce and stopping those who do from progression to specialist and/or senior roles.  Equally, that our programming doesn’t reflect the interests and experiences of GM communities and that we are putting up barriers that prevent their comfortable engagement with our offer.

It is uncomfortable to confront this reality, especially when most of us see the sector playing a vital benevolent and educational role. However, it is unsurprising when we remember that many museums were founded to hold and display the spoils of colonialism, and to promote British (and European) culture, history and ideologies as superior. Many of our collections were gathered by those who made their fortunes from the Trans-Atlantic Slave trade and by extracting resources from colonised countries. Additionally, the sector is not isolated from wider societal views and beliefs, and with a disproportionately white workforce, it is likely the contemporary racist and stereotypical views will permeate.

If we don’t accept this, what is the implication? At best, we are refusing to acknowledge that we / our institutions play an active role in this picture and that there is some other reason, beyond our control, for our unrepresentative workforce and audiences.  At worst, we are implying that Global Majority people don’t have the skills or the interest to be part of the workforce and at all levels, and that Global Majority people aren’t interested in museums. This is clearly racist thinking.

Why museums must take anti-racist action

If we accept that there is interpersonal and institutional racism in the sector, then there is a legal and ethical imperative to take action, and if that action doesn’t bring about the desired changes, to evaluate and keep taking action until we have a representative workforce at all levels, and our audiences reflect the population.

The bottom line is that there is of course a legal imperative to take active anti-racist action. The Equality Act 2010 states that it’s unlawful to discriminate directly or indirectly in employment and the provision of services. There is also a business case for active anti-racism: diverse audiences means increased support from different parts of the community; it also makes museums more attractive to funders. There are also several studies from the private sector that show that companies with diverse teams have higher financial returns.

Diverse workforces and audiences, creative and forward-thinking programming also results in creative excellence. Our work as a sector is simply better if we present diverse histories in new and thoughtful ways, and show braveness in how we confront colonial histories. Lastly, there are ethical reasons: how can we continue to over-serve certain parts of the population and others poorly, given most of us rely on public funding? In the interests of fairness and equity, then, we must take action.

Many heritage organisations “opt out”; thinking that because they are located in predominantly white areas there is little or no need to engage in anti-racism work, especially when it comes to programming and working with collections. We encourage you to shift your thinking: we live in a country with a colonial history. If we want to tell accurate and nuanced stories about our histories and find relevant uses for our collections, then we can’t exclude global histories nor assume that white audiences have no interest in these. Re:Collections, AIM’s anti-racist programme in Wales, has demonstrated that a country often thought of as “white” both in terms of its history and population, has a wealth of fascinating international stories to tell. Click here for more on the Re:Collections grants>>

Anti-racist approaches

Historically, the sector has worked with different approaches with names such as multiculturalism”; “equal opportunities”; or “diversity and inclusion”. These are well described in An Introduction to an Anti-racist Wales, by the Welsh Government, which also touches on the limitations of some of these approaches.

More recently, diversification and decolonisation have become widely used terms, (though often used incorrectly and interchangeably). Diversification refers to a practice of diversifying the status quo. Diversifying collections could involve identifying missing voices and histories and seeking to address that gap. Many museums are working to diversify their audiences, identifying who is absent and trying to address this through engagement, programming and partnerships. Some museums are taking active measures to diversify their workforces, trying out schemes and activities to recruit and retain people from under-represented backgrounds and to ensure representation at all levels. This is important and valued work can be piecemeal and as a result, doesn’t often result in significant structural change, nor fundamental shifts in direction or ways of working.

Decolonisation, on the other hand, if correctly applied is a radical practice, which seeks to dismantle and rebuild the structures that are upholding the status quo.  Decolonising collections means recognising the role that colonialism may have played in creating and managing these collections, recognising the trauma caused not only in the way they were acquired, but also in the way they are managed and displayed. It calls for a dismantling of the power structures that uphold and perpetuate colonial thinking and that centre whiteness. A truly de-colonial approach would encompass the whole organisation – a project focused on one aspect of a museum’s work will not bring about the radical change that decolonisation requires.

Alongside a confusion about terminology, language in general has become a source of anxiety for the sector. However, If Nothing Changes, Nothing Changes describes that while sector workers reported feeling held back by fear of causing offence by using the “wrong” language, this was not something that community organisations report – they were far more concerned about poor engagement practice.

The Welsh government, in An Introduction to an Anti-racist Wales, offers a useful description of historic approaches to anti-racism. It describes anti-racism as “….about changing the systems, policies and processes which for so long have embedded a negative view of ethnic minority people.”

Wellcome states “Anti-racism is the active work to oppose racism and to produce racial equity – so that racial identity is no longer a factor in determining how anyone fares in life. Being anti-racist means supporting an anti-racist policy through your actions. An anti-racist policy is any measure that produces or sustains racial equity between racial groups.”

Both definitions refer to action and change, to bring about positive changes and racial equity. If Nothing Changes, Nothing Changes (p15) offers a useful outline of anti-racist approaches and ways of working for the heritage sector:

  • Building ethnic diversity at all levels of the sector workforce and across different roles
  • Ethical and respectful collaboration with community groups
  • Creating spaces that are welcoming, inclusive and well-used by Global Majority people
  • Programing and curatorial work that treats Global Majority histories as of interest and relevant to everyone, as well as more targeted and specific work focusing on specific histories and experiences
  • An honest and unflinching examination of the origins of our collections, houses, and heritage assets
  • Exploring the repatriation of items
  • A willingness to address the destructive nature of colonialism and the transatlantic slave trade
  • Recognising and decentring Eurocentric and colonial perspectives
  • Actively building more representative collections that include diverse voices and perspectives.


Taking action

Anti-racism is about outcomes not intent. The summer of 2020 saw a plethora of statements of intent pledging to “do better”, but there have been few statements about the subsequent positive changes. What you think and believe is important, but the actions you take (and their impact) is what really matters.

If Nothing Changes, Nothing Changes sets out a comprehensive series of practical recommendations. We recommend any heritage organisation wanting to take practical anti-racist steps take time to consider these recommendations and how they might apply them in their context.

We recognise that no organisation, however well resourced, is likely to be able to take action on all fronts. A good starting point, therefore, is to arrive at an understanding of where you are now. Carrying out a review of your organisational practice and culture will show you where you are doing well and highlight the areas for most attention. This review doesn’t have to be a major undertaking requiring significant resources, but having some kind of external support may be useful. A skilled consultant or “critical friend” can guide you through the process and provide external challenge if needed.

It’s important, once you have an idea of the current state of play, to make realistic and actionable plans and allocate some resources for this work. If Nothing Changes, Nothing Changes found that while 75% of survey respondents had some kind of equal opportunity statement, only 55% of these had a supporting action plan. Only 14% of respondents had any kind of dedicated budget for anti-racism or EDI work.  Museums are unlikely to make any progress without a plan or budget, however simple and modest.

It is also important to take a whole-organisation approach. Many heritage organisations limit their anti-racist work to short-term community engagement or learning projects, or temporary exhibitions for specific events or initiatives such as Black History Month. Such projects can often produce excellent work, but a holistic approach will always bring about more significant and sustained impact. It’s important to think about anti-racism across the whole organisation. For example, you may be putting a lot of work into building ethical relationships with community partners, but have you looked at whether your financial systems allow you to pay them for their expertise and support? Does your café offer kosher or halal food, meaning you can confidently welcome their community members?


While it’s deeply uncomfortable to recognise that our sector maintains racist ideas and structures, there are also exciting opportunities in the action we can take to counter these. Museums may need to put time and resources into doing this work, and it may require fundamental shifts in thinking and operations but will result in creative, business and ethical benefits.

Building an anti-racist organisation won’t happen overnight, but it’s important that as a sector we remember that this work isn’t optional – it should be at the core of our work, along with other anti-discriminatory actions. Above all, we need to move from statements of intent to actions that bring positive change. 

Useful resources

Anti-Racist Description Methods by Archives for Black Lives Philadelphia. Very practical recommendations for anti-racist cataloguing.

Words Matter: Word Choices in the Cultural Sector An interesting exploration of language and contested terminology in the heritage sector (Africa Museum, Netherlands)

Wellcome Trust have shared their anti-racist framework for leaders. This offers a whole-organisational approach to building an anti-racist organisation https://wellcome.org/what-we-do/diversity-and-inclusion/wellcomes-anti-racist-principles-and-toolkit

An interesting exploration of the challenges of a museum’s attempt to take a decolonial approach in developing a new exhibition The museum will not be decolonised – Media Diversified

Hold On. Diversity and Management in the Arts offers valuable insight into unrepresentative cultural sector workforce, and what can be done to tackle this. https://static1.squarespace.com/static/5c18e090b40b9d6b43b093d8/t/5fb6967ab3db4d4323bf1f77/1605801598364/Hold+on+Inc+Arts+V19+FINAL+FULL+REPORT.pdf

The Museums Association’s anti-racist action plan and other resources Museums and anti-racism – Museums Association

This document, from Museum Development UK, offers a range of resources relating not only to race and racism, but also other forms of discrimination. Equity and Diversity for Museums https://mduk.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2022/01/Equity-and-Inclusion-Resources-FINAL.pdf

Click here to read this article in Welsh>>

Reflections on Re:Collections

This conversation between AIM Head of Programmes Margaret Harrison, Maya Sharma, Programme Manager at Ahmed Iqbal Ullah Education Trust (AIUET) and strategic advisor on the Re:Collections programme and consultants Isilda Almeida and Stephen Welsh explores questions around decolonisation, anti racism, organisational change, and co-creation that have arisen as part of AIM’s Re:Collections programme. Click here to listen>>

Participants in the Re:Collections programme discuss their work to date. Click here to watch the video>>