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An international conference exploring the shifting roles and increasing significance of diversity and equality in contemporary museum and heritage policy and practice.

This groundbreaking international conference took place on Wed 24 - Fri 26 March 2010 in the Sackler Centre at the V&A . Museums, heritage, cultural and community organisations were brought together to explore equality and diversity in all its aspects. This timely and significant event was a place for dialogue and reflection on how far diversity has become core to what we do, the interconnections between equality strands and what drives change.

Keynote speakers included Guardian journalist, Gary Younge and U.S. artist, Fred Wilson. Mat Fraser, leading UK disability performer entertained with his piece From Freak to Clique and other contributions came from museum and heritage sector professionals working in national, regional and local museums both in UK (England, Scotland and Northern Ireland) and abroad, National Trust, English Heritage and community/BAME (Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic). There were also independent consultants, politicians, funders, trustees, publishers, general public, academics and students from universities across the UK and abroad and from such organisations as the MA (Musuems Association), MLA (Museums, Libraries & Archives) and ICOM (International Council of Museums). We were disappointed that contributors from India and South Africa pulled out within weeks/days of the conference.

Just under 700 delegates participated over three days from the USA  (New York, Illinois, New Jersey, Chicago and Boston), Canada (Ontario and Vancouver), Australia, Europe (Germany, Sweden, Poland, Switzerland, Portugal, Finland, Holland and Italy) and the UK (England, Scotland and Northern Ireland) taking advantage of the unique opportunity to share good practice, difficulties encountered and lessons learnt, informing future directions and asserting the importance of this work given the social, economic and political challenges we face.

The four conference themes were:

Embedding Diversity

How far have organisations moved from addressing diversity through one-off projects to incorporating such issues into strategic planning and the core business of all staff and spheres of activity? Has the emphasis on reaching diverse audiences been at the expense of exploring how diversity affects other areas - who we employ, what we research and collect, the narratives we tell, how collections are classified and made accessible? How do these different spheres of activity interrelate and what are the barriers to developing a more holistic approach? What, if anything, do we risk in 'embedding' diversity across our organisations?

Connecting or Competing Equalities?

How interconnected are the different diversity strands - disability, gender, race, sexual and gender identity, age, socio-economic status, religion or belief? Do we emphasise one at the expense of another and is class often the poor relation? How feasible is it to move forward on all agendas simultaneously or is there a case for identifying priorities depending on the specific local or global context? How are strategic objectives arrived at and what is the impact of the different political, social, cultural, local, national and international contexts in which we operate?

Social Justice

What is the role of the museum and heritage sector in promoting equality, social justice and mutual understanding and in countering extremism and prejudice? Where is the evidence for contributions in these fields both in the UK and abroad? How able and prepared are museums and the heritage sector in dealing with controversial topics and divisions within communities?

Drivers for Change

What are the key external drivers for change and, in particular, what role does policy making play at an international, national or local level? What are the most effective institutional drivers for change - leadership, ethics, governance, strategic policy and planning, resource allocation, staff development? How democratic are we at listening to staff at all levels within the organisation? How effective are we in consulting externally and developing sustainable and equitable partnerships which encourage collaboration and build capacity of various stakeholders?

Keynote speakers

Gary Younge

Gary Younge

Gary Younge

Gary Younge is an award-winning author and columnist for The Guardian based in New York where he is also the Belle Zeller visiting professor of public policy and administration at Brooklyn College. His book Who are We and Why does it matter will be released by Penguin in June.

The Margins Define the Mainstream
At any given moment an identity's borders may shift and blur according to prevailing attitudes and political realities. Those who were black, Jewish or British yesterday may find themselves differently designated tomorrow. The recent case of South African sprinter Caster Semanya illustrates even sex is not as definite a category as many assume. It is precisely in those borderlands - the margins - that the mainstream is defined. Gatekeepers, both official and popular, attempt to police these frontiers. But humanity, ever dynamic and evolving, finds ways to evade their grasp. So what is marginal and what is mainstream are both relative to each other and in a constant state of change within themselves.

Video: Gary Younge - Margins Define the Mainstream

View transcript of video

Mat Fraser

Mat Fraser

Mat Fraser

Mat Fraser is one of the U.K.'s best known disabled performers. From recent drama Cast Offs on Channel 4, the smash hit violent action film Unarmed But Dangerous, he also has a wealth of his own stage shows, such as the award winning Thalidomide!! A Musical. Please visit www.matfraser.co.uk for more information.

From Freak to Clique
From Freak To Clique?, whilst seeming to be an alternative title to this conference, is actually the title of Mat Fraser's new show. It cheekily charts the history of disability portrayal on stage, screen, and ridiculous real life, including his own career. Using his trademark blend of un-PC comedy, poignant words and songs, poetry and characters, this will challenge and entertain in equal measures. From Tom Thumb to Top Gun, from freak shows to clique ho's, from Sandy (Crossroads) to Andy (Little Britain), it covers all the major players in the classic one man show format.

Not for the easily offended, or under 16's.

Video: Mat Fraser - From Freak To Clique

View transcript of video

Fred Wilson

Fred Wilson, photography by Barbara Thompson. © Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College

Fred Wilson, photography by Barbara Thompson. © Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College

Fred Wilson is a conceptual artist who currently lives and works in New York City. His work has been featured in over 100 group exhibitions, including the 50th Venice Biennale (2003) as the American representative, the Whitney Museum of American Art Biennial Exhibition (1993), and the 4th International Cairo Biennale (1992). He has had over twenty-five solo museum exhibitions internationally, and has been the recipient of numerous honors and awards. Among them, the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation Award (the 'Genius Grant'), Chicago (1999). Fred Wilson is represented by Pace Wildenstein Gallery, N.Y.

A Change of Heart - Fred Wilson's Impact on Museums
Fred Wilson presents his 1992 project Mining the Museum at the Maryland Historical Society and demonstrates how it changed the relationship between the staff and the community, the historical society and other local museums, the professional staff and the support staff, black and white. Wilson's collaborative process has been shown to contribute to a new museum ethics by shaping individual and institutional values and has helped move institutions towards greater diversity, equality and social engagement.

Video: Fred Wilson

View transcript of video

Feedback on the conference

The feedback was overwhelmingly positive and we plan to hold smaller seminars throughout the year to continue some of the debates and discussions started at the conference.

'Having the communication support that the V&A kindly provided for me, meant that I was able to understand and participate fully at the conference. I, as a result, enjoyed my two days there being at the core, rather than in the margins!'
Jenny Winterbottom, Community Liaison, Equality & Access Officer, National Army Museum
'I was at the 'Margins to the Core' conference and myself and my colleagues found it so inspiring and influential in our work.'
Andrea Cunningham, Head of Informal Learning and Access, National Maritime Museum
'Great conference! I've returned to Bradford with a bagful of interesting contacts and a book full of ideas. Organisation faultless. Friendliness and efficiency of V&A staff.'
Irna Qureshi, Heritage Consultant
'Thank you for all you did to make the conference a success! It truly was memorable. It was one of the top two conferences I've attended in my thirty year career.'
Professor Amy Levin, Northern Illinois University, US
'I feel inspired, troubled and challenged - a heady combination.'
Conference delegate

See the full comments board (PDF file, 61KB)


Programme information

Conference reflections, papers and comments

The conference was jointly organised with University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies. The annual Sackler conference for arts education is generously funded by a grant from Dr.Mortimer and Theresa Sackler Foundation.

For further information please contact:
Eithne Nightingale, Head of Diversity Strategy, V&A
e.nightingale@vam.ac.uk or telephone 020 7942 2208

International Training Course

The Victoria and Albert Museum welcomes applications for ‘Creating Innovative Learning Programmes’, its new one week intensive course. This is a unique training opportunity for museum professionals from overseas who are interested in attracting and programming for a range of museum audiences.

Find out more