Wellcome Collection is on a journey to becoming an anti-racist and anti-ableist organisation

Wellcome Collection is on a journey to becoming an anti-racist and anti-ableist organisation

Wellcome Collection is on a journey to becoming an anti-racist and anti-ableist organisation 1920 1280 Karishma Puri

Wellcome Collection is a free museum and library in Euston exploring health and the human experience. Through exhibitions, collections, publishing and more, the Collection creates opportunities for people to think deeply about the connection between science, medicine, life and art.

Last year, leading on from the Collection’s 2018 Strategic Direction for Access and launched in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, the Collection released a frank statement on anti-blackness and racism, stating: “Museums are built on a foundation of white supremacy and Wellcome Collection is no exception.”

Wellcome’s Access Lead, Selene Burn and Inclusive Practice Lead, Teresa Cisneros, built on this strategic work by collaboratively designing a curriculum for Collection employees centred around anti-racist and anti-ableist principles. We Make Camden spoke to Teresa and Selene to find out how they worked together to devise this programme.

“Ableism and racism are built up over years of a person’s lifetime. You can’t erase it in an afternoon.

Selene Burn, Access Lead at the Wellcome Collection

Going beneath the surface

Selene explains their process, emphasising that a lone workshop – without any follow-up – is often the endpoint of diversity work: “Ableism and racism are built up over years of a person’s lifetime. You can’t erase it in an afternoon. We knew that this work had to be something that’s sustained. We ask people to do some deep work which goes beyond the surface level.”

The approach they take is compassionate but proactive, attempting to tackle the racism and abelism we are all conditioned in. Selene says: “We get patterned – how we’re socialised, how we’re educated, who our friends and networks are. If no one’s ever asked you to do something differently, why would you know how to? I’m not going to give you the answers. So much of the work that we’ve done is about designing questions, about stepping back and critically thinking.”

Looking to the past allows for a deeper exploration of our current context. Teresa says: “What I’m going to do is show you why, historically, we are here. And the role you play in that today.”

As well as delving deep, this curriculum is centred around a few core concerns. There is a neat crossover between the Collection’s emphasis on science, medicine, life and art – as well as health and the human experience – and the areas the curriculum will be concentrating on. Selene explains: “The Wellcome Collection have identified Deaf, disabled, neurodivergent, and racially-minoritised communities as their priority focus. [It’s made us] really think about the connectivity and intersectionality between race and disability. That connectivity has been really important for the Wellcome Collection, because of the nature of the collection that is held here.”

Looking within can be uncomfortable. Serene and Teresa recognise this and have built counsellor support into the curriculum. Teresa says: “There is a need for there to be psychological safety in the form of somebody actually holding the emotional labour. It’s our responsibility as an institution to ensure our colleagues are able to have a space to process, to talk.” The Wellcome Collection Inclusion Advisory Group and internal staff members also provide critical feedback to the curriculum, and there are layers of support and people to challenge thinking.

Success means shifting power

Teresa and Selene believe the success of the curriculum will be demonstrated when their colleagues are thinking about their practice differently and asking themselves critical questions, for example about power in decision-making processes and about how they will bring other people in.

Teresa sees this approach to power as central to their work. “In the change that we’re seeking, it also means shifting who has power. Because one of the things that is fundamental and core to this is power. Who holds the power? Who’s willing to give up the power? And what does giving up power look like? I think this is one of the things that challenges people,” she says.

This focus demonstrates how conversations around diversity have progressed, as Teresa explains: “I think we’re in a different era now, and people are coming for people very publicly now. They’re demanding accountability, and in that people are going to have to think about power differently. It’s not just about bringing a black, brown or disabled body to make decisions, but it’s about how they’re making those decisions and the information they have. Also to acknowledge that shift doesn’t mean losing power either.”

Inspiring other organisations in Camden

Wellcome is committed to making real and deep changes to create a more equitable and diverse place for visitors and employees.

We hope its work will inspire other organisations in Camden to offer more inclusive spaces and training in order that we can increase diversity in positions of power across the borough and beyond.

What needs to change in Camden?

Across Camden, there is a mission to increase diversity and representation for those in positions of power. Reflecting on the learning from the Wellcome Collection, Teresa recommends that Camden create “dialogue with both sides – the people who are affected by these things, and the people that are not doing the work”. Selene adds: “Diversity needs to be thought about differently, not how it is currently thought of, and not as a tick box exercise.”

The curriculum is part of a wider programme of work led by the Wellcome Collection Inclusion Team as well as many other staff. Selene and Teresa hope the curriculum enables staff to be critically reflective and inclusive, to attempt to shape a more inclusive organisation.

Teresa says: “We all have a different lived experience and are all socialised differently. It is important not to assume anything about others, but to be open to asking questions both of yourself and others to better understand one another.”

“However, if you are a white person, remember that the society we are in has been designed for white people to succeed. With that in mind, it is important to acknowledge this and ask yourself what you are doing about white supremacy.”

Would you like to find out more about the Wellcome Collection?

Take part and collaborate, the Wellcome Collection offers a range of ways that you can get involved.

Photo credits: Karishma Puri

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