It's almost 12 months since I wrote my first reflective piece following the murder of George Floyd in Minnesota, which led to people of all backgrounds coming together to demand change. The phrase ‘Black Lives Matter’ was seen across our screens and streets, but our Black communities did not care for performative statements – they wanted to see what organisations like National Museums Liverpool would do to tackle this head on. How would we demonstrate and put words into action that we are committed to being an anti-racist organisation? We’ve all had a lot of time to think about the overt injustices that happen everyday, and to reflect on our own privilege.
I wrote a blog in July 2020, which started to answer this question, and as we are in the middle of the UK’s first Black Inclusion Week, it seems a good moment to share with you what I have personally learnt over the last 12 months and what we as an organisation have done to speak up, take action and contribute.
This change is not immediate or short-term. There are a number of things we have progressed with, but as I stated in my blogs last year, we need all of you to hold me and NML to account. I am grateful to those of you who took me at my word last year and have done just that. I am particularly grateful to my NML colleagues, our RESPECT group and members of the public who have emailed us directly and trusted us by sharing their thoughts and opinions. I promise that we have taken on board what each of you have said – this has not gone unnoticed or ignored, but this is change that will not happen overnight. This is about pragmatic change, not performative.
The power of listening is not to be underestimated and my biggest take away from the last 12 months is just how important listening is. Yes, at times this can be difficult, but discomfort leads to change. Within NML we have had an Equality, Diversity, and Inclusion Staff Group for a number of years, but following the events of May 2020 we set up an anti-racist steering group – which included colleagues from across the whole organisation, irrespective of seniority. Included were also colleagues from various staff groups including members from our Black and Ethnic Minority staff group. We also invited a number of external speakers who passionately spoke about how to implement effective change – and what this means for an organisation like ours.
At times, certainly at the beginning, these discussions weren’t easy but it’s really important to give colleagues space to explore issues, however hard it is to hear. I mentioned last year that I had also been speaking with ex-colleagues from NML about their experiences within our organisation; some good and some not so good. I would recommend this to all leaders of big or small organisations - whilst your colleagues will tell you so much, there is a lot to be said from speaking to people who you no longer employ and therefore there is no power relation in play.
The steering group has been the driving force behind the Anti-Racist Commitments that we will publish following our board meeting in June. They have been an important part of holding me and the organisation to account. I am not blind to the fact we have a long way to go before all my colleagues believe this to be true, but I thought you might be interested to hear from one of the group about how they feel things have developed over the last 12 months.
Jennifer Abrahim is an administrative coordinator at NML –
“The murder of George Floyd in May 2020 was the catalyst for a large number of organisations across the world to pledge their support for the Black community and the Black Lives Matter campaign, and, rightly so. However, as is often the case, it was difficult to distinguish performative allyship from genuine and sincere intentions.
"To lead by example, one must address and eradicate the inequities and discrimination within one’s own workplace - something that NML enthusiastically champions through the organisation’s Equality, Diversity and Inclusion policy.
“I am proud to work for NML- an organisation that has been visible and pragmatic in its approaches, while taking decisive steps such as establishing an anti-racist steering group – a safe space where colleagues across the organisation share resources, best practice and convert words to action. “I am a part of NML’s BAME steering group, BLM response group and the Liverpool Arts Regeneration Consortium’s (LARC) equality task force. Each of these organisations comprise members throughout NML and LARC organisations - regardless of seniority. As a contributing member of each of these groups and a minority ethnic member of staff, I feel listened to.
“It is imperative to discuss race in order to mitigate racism in all of its forms. Treating it as the ‘ elephant in the room’ is problematic and only serves to manifest exclusionary environments.”
External voices have been vitally important over the last year as well. We are lucky in NML that we have what we call our RESPECT Group. The RESPECT Group was established in 2008, leading on from the Liverpool Slavery Remembrance Initiative Steering Group. The group was set up by NML when the International Slavery Museum (ISM) opened in 2007, creating a need for broader strategic support and direction already provided by the steering group for the annual Slavery Remembrance Day commemorative events on 23 August.
Over the last 12 months we have reviewed the group and it has developed a much wider role across NML, focusing on race equality issues, community engagement and inclusive practices. To help us do this, the community reps on the group appointed Sonia Bassey MBE to be the co-chair alongside myself. For me, the RESPECT group is all about NML working with our community partners to make real change. A large part of our focus will always be Slavery Remembrance Day and the development of the International Slavery Museum, but we also discuss bigger issues such as recruitment and NML policies. For me, success will be about positive changes across the whole of NML. When I asked my co-chair Sonia what success looked like for her, she said:
“I joined the Black Leaders network to impact direct action as a result of the death of George Floyd. The trauma and pain were immense for many of us and having led the Black Lives Matters march in Liverpool, I was left with a feeling of ‘what next?’ So having joined the network Black Inclusion Week is what came next for me. Success is seeing everyone taking part in Black Inclusion Week and this becoming an annual event that showcases Black leadership and how organisations can get involved. At the same time, I also joined the RESPECT Group as I really want to work with the museums to affect real change. Success for me in the RESPECT Group will be about action. I want to see the NML policies delivering real change that will be a lasting legacy, representing diversity being practiced and seeing it in action.”
We have also been involved in more active discussions with our museum colleagues across the UK who are actively involved in telling the UK stories of Transatlantic Slavery. We are working together to set up a Transatlantic Slavery and Legacies in Museums Forum and will be able to say more about this and how others can get involved this summer.
NML, as Jen mentioned above, is also part of the Liverpool Arts Regeneration Consortium’s (LARC) equality task force. This was created to share best practices amongst the arts and cultural organisations within Liverpool for a united and collaborative city-wide approach to really bring about meaningful change within our sector. This is a positive and holistic approach to ensure we are doing everything we can to combat oppression. The organisations involved all have a platform, and it needs to be used to speak on anti-racist issues.
Finally, we also encouraged our visitors to let us know what they thought we should be doing or to raise any concerns with us. We created a special email address (firstname.lastname@example.org) and put signage in all our galleries encouraging people to get in touch. One of the people who did get in touch was Amy Konate who also wrote this blog for us to explain why she did.
What we’re doing is hard work, but it’s vital and necessary to take us well out of our comfort zones. Those of us in this sector have an important role to play towards justice. I am really grateful to everyone who has taken the time to speak to me. Listening to your lived experiences was harder than I thought it would it be. Listening is the first (and an important) step, but people want to see change – and action. So here is what we have done, and what more we must do. This is a journey that will never end.
• Announced our commitment to transforming and developing the International Slavery Museum as the leading voice for telling stories of the transatlantic slave trade and its legacies, as well as contemporary forms of slavery. As part of this transformation, we have also recently announced ambitions of transforming public spaces on Liverpool’s waterfront to ensure we respond to its unique history, engaging and representing our Black communities.
• Working in partnership with our historian in residence to help us self-evaluate and become more transparent in our interpretation work across collections in our venues.
• Instigated a cross-NML project to look at the history and legacies of the transatlantic slave trade, as evidenced in our collections, buildings, patrons, founders.
• Developing a charter which outlines our commitment to being an anti-racist organisation and intensifying our efforts to improving inclusivity and representation of Black, Asian, and Minority Ethnic people in all our work.
• Continued to re-examine our recruitment process to ensure we are being inclusive and diverse.
• Continued to redevelop and reinterpret the World Cultures gallery at World Museum to make it a much more diverse, inclusive, and tolerant gallery space.
• Started an audit of the Walker Art Gallery’s collection to see how many artworks have direct links to individuals associated with slavery and empire. This has led to further research and reconsideration in terms of their display and interpretation.
• Worked collaboratively with partners to understand the links to slavery and empire of the Lady Lever Art Gallery collection.
• Developed and implemented cross-organisational action plans to help us deliver on our anti-racist commitments and to address the issues raised during our internal and external discussions.
• Actively worked (and continue to work) with organisations to identify and understand their histories, understand its legacies and to make an honest appraisal of slavery, colonialism, and racial inequality.
• Working with Liverpool City Council, and community partners, to establish and install plaques on Liverpool streets to explain their slavery links.
• Created a Black Lives Matter resource page which is continuously updated, along with a dedicated email address where members of the public are encouraged to get in touch should they have any ideas or material that we should be promoting.
• International Slavery Museum and Museum of Liverpool are third party Hate Crime Reporting Centres, and so we have continued to expand our training to include more staff.
• Funded and currently developing a dedicated Equality and Inclusion post within NML.