Accessing Heritage Post Covid

By Alex Foster, Access and Participation Officer & MA Collections Care and Conservation Management Alumna

West Dean College of Arts and Conservation is considered a hub for conservation and arts professionals, whether emerging, seasoned, or somewhere in between.

Many will tell you that it is a particularly small world working in heritage, and not a sector that’s proportionately diverse. 

As a graduate of one of the College’s newest degree programmes, MA Collections Care & Conservation Management, I returned the following summer for a refresher course on Environmental Monitoring and Control. It was there I met Riza Hussaini, who worked in conservation with special collections based in Manchester.

About eight months later, working for the College as Assistant House Steward, I bumped into Riza quite by chance on a tea break. She was back for a short course on cutting-edge plastics conservation. Over tea, we got talking, topics jumping from the “diversity crisis” within the heritage sector, and general precarity associated with forced reliance on things like fixed-term contracts, to Duolingo and Star Trek!

Now of course, that seems a world away. The pandemic has changed everything. With this change, the sector shortfall still remains, and it is with this backdrop of change in mind that I frame the question: Can the events of 2020 spark real structural change?

Thanks to subsequent encouragement from colleagues following a knockback in the late summer of 2019, I began looking into work in the areas of disability rights, advocacy, and heritage access, out of a sense of not quite fitting in enough - a feeling of coming up against barriers. I felt a change of direction was perhaps worth a go. 

If my master’s degree taught me anything, it was to push myself out of my comfort zone, to be constantly looking to learn, reflect, and improve. In looking into roles which campaigned for disability equality, I saw that opportunity. Very quickly I realised this kind of role was one where I didn’t have to hide my disability to be considered worthy of it. Since that initial watershed moment, I’ve become more involved in disability advocacy locally, while continuing to work at West Dean College in collections care, and, most recently, in a new capacity, as Access and Participation Officer. 

The pandemic has exposed all kinds of divisions and stigmas long held by society, and those in minority or marginalised groups find themselves among the most severely impacted. Yet, the Black Lives Matter movement has also sparked a hopeful conversation about social justice and allowed us to evaluate how we enable inclusion and equality in our own lives.

Without leaning too much on my own experiences as a disabled woman, I wanted to discuss the issue of access to heritage with Riza, and better understand her perspective as a Southeast Asian woman working in conservation. I asked her some difficult questions and got some candid answers, over zoom, when I interviewed her in the autumn of 2020:

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Alex: Do you feel the sector is inclusive and accessible?
Riza: Yes and no. My experiences are that on a surface level, it is inclusive – there have been many initiatives and programmes to include a wider audience, but there are always agendas behind the plan. Considering the wealth of collections held in UK museums and archives, not many exhibitions or performances showcased are diverse. Why not? Are institutions ‘saving’ these collections so they can roll them out once, twice a year for impact?

Regarding access, many of these spaces have yet to make it wholly inclusive. I have been followed by guards and invigilators on occasions. There are also not many places offering any or enough interaction for deaf and blind visitors either.

Alex: In what ways are you privileged or oppressed? 
Riza: Define privilege. Everyone has a level of privilege that places them at some advantage. Now, during this time of uncertainty, I am employed in a sector that I love which makes me privileged. 

Prior to securing this role, I was like many other people working in the sector, on fixed term contracts, moving across the country for the few paid opportunities that become available, if you get it. I feel privileged that I am not necessarily tethered to any one place for example. There are moments where I wish for some security; to find employment in a supportive and encouraging place, doing a job I love, that I can reasonably commute to. Alas, that does not happen easily.

Alex: How much of your career is built on privilege?
Riza: Coming from a non-traditional background and late into the sector, there is a feeling of being disadvantaged. Absolutely. Therefore, I do not personally consider that my career is built on privilege. Hard work and tears, but not privilege. In conservation, there is a huge emphasis on credentials. Compared to a student or fresh graduate, I am not appealing to many organisations.  

That stock paragraph one sees on job applications, “We welcome applicants from yada, yada, yada” has become just that, a statement placed at the end of the description. A HR box-ticking exercise, however, there have been active improvements in changing this - on a purely human resource side.

I also think conservation is largely perceived as a Western rather than Eastern pursuit; for example, established and prestigious conservation training is in the West. We are working on Western contexts and ideologies which may not necessarily work culturally in some regions.

My experiences are not unique - after studying several job descriptions outside of Europe, there is a lot of work to be done there about opening up opportunities too. 

Alex: What barriers do you/others face?
Riza: Credentialism. Please, do not get so hung up on this.

The people who have the authority to make decisions such as writing job descriptions, shortlisting, hiring and even making criteria for further education need to put into action their focus on wanting to be more inclusive.

A vast proportion of my skills were gained through volunteering and on-the-job training. The rest were made up from my own drive, desire to learn, and update/top-up the knowledge. What I am trying to stress is that it can be learnt. If you are committed to opening doors for under-represented peoples in heritage, understand that this sector is not presented, easily accessible or known in some communities as somewhere you can go to visit, let alone work in.

So many courses and jobs list some form of qualification as a prerequisite.

In the last five years there has been a shift in wording for some to replace or include “or equivalent experience”. What does this even mean? Many times, it is a polite way of saying, “We want a graduate so if it’s down to a graduate and you, even if you have X amount of years’ experience, it is likely that we’ll pick the graduate over you”. In addition, these statements are prevalent in entry-level positions so there is a ‘risk’ of appearing overqualified once you have detailed your experiences to prove your suitability. A catch 22.

Alex: What positive experiences have you had? How can these be built on?
Riza: Recently, I went on a series of workshops organised by a large national museum. This was the first time in a long time that I have felt the learning environment to be almost everything a CPD [Continuing Professional Development] course ought to be. It was an inspiring, collaborative and safe space to share knowledge and exchange ideas. For now, these workshops stood out and have upstaged the rest.

I suppose, when I get the opportunity to lead or organise a training workshop, this experience can form the baseline. 

On a professional side, during the pandemic, I have been seeking out other areas where Collection Care may be included. Working with IT and Facilities have been a big learning curve which highlighted some of my conservation ‘biases’. It offered me the opportunity to review and strip back my knowledge so I may express the gamut of Collection Care in the most accessible way. 

Alex: How can we/the sector break down these barriers and empower others?
Riza: This is a hard one to express. We do not want people to feel that they are forced to act. At the moment, it is difficult not to be sceptical however, as there have been so many knee-jerk reactions where organisations clamber to issue statements and amend policies to appear they are committed to making changes in the culture. 

Recruitment needs to change. If you can’t make changes on the ground, how can you make them at the top. It’s about winning hearts and minds. Everyone’s insecure in their jobs, you can’t be inclusive if you’re fearing for your own existence. 

Engaging with colleagues/staff whom you consider are under-represented would be a good first step. Many of them do not hold positions of authority so it can be difficult for them to get their voices heard. However, this may be unrealistic because how willing are organisations to implement and follow this through?

Breaking down barriers: remind the sector that it is not special. In conservation, let us harness the power of people. The more people we get interested and engaged in the work, the easier it can be to highlight the need and importance for it. We as conservators have the privilege of working with materials unconnected to our own heritage, imagine the impact we can make when we enable interaction of the objects we care for, to the communities that have that connection.

I began this blog with the question: Can the events of 2020 spark real structural change? We all feel different now, and our approach to life must change. What about the way we work is impeding others from equality of opportunity? As Riza suggests, the ‘power of people’ is vital in effecting change, and in embedding it. So too is involvement at every level of an organisation, not just the top. This kind of discussion was a positive first step. It helped Riza and I to feel understood in relation to the challenges we face in gaining fair access and participation in the heritage sector respectively. Building on this step takes practical action and plenty of support.

On an organisational level, I’m looking forward to continuing work at the College in 2021 as part of a Diversity and Inclusion working group. The group, as well as an accessibility audit, is the start of tangible steps to make the College a more diverse and inclusive place to learn, create and advocate, for years to come.

Useful information:

You can read more about diversity and anti-racism at the College here: https://www.westdean.org.uk/about/who-we-are#diversity 

Funding is also available to help make conservation study accessible for more students, find out more here: https://www.westdean.org.uk/study/student-information/funding

A group of sheep grazing in the grounds at West Dean College. Three sheep are grouped together and one stands alone to their left, separately eating, but within the same field
A group of sheep grazing in the grounds at West Dean College. Three sheep are grouped together and one stands alone to their left, separately eating, but within the same field. Alex says, "This is a picture I took back in 2018. By happy accident it nicely illustrates integration as opposed to inclusion - I always feel the sheep on the left seems rather separate! The same principle can be applied to underrepresented groups within the sector."