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By Ian Blatchford on

If not now, when?

In the first of a new regular blog series launched in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, Chief Executive Sir Ian Blatchford describes how the Science Museum Group is focused on meaningful and ongoing change.

We are determined to stand against racism. We acknowledge that we could and should have done more in the past.

We now want to do much more than make an empty gesture or performative show of solidarity, and instead chart an inclusive way forward that builds on the positive foundations of science capital.

The regular blog we are launching today reflects that determination and will explore the Science Museum Group’s actions to live up to our organisational value of being Open for All.

The killing of George Floyd has unleashed global anger, grief and introspection about the problem of racism that scars centuries of our shared history around the globe.

By focusing on our actions through this blog we hope, in our own small way, to play a constructive part in a much bigger search for solutions to the deep issues highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement.

What haunts someone of my age is that there have been too many false dawns, too many speeches and broken promises.

From the casual racism of what passed for ‘normal life’ in the 1970s, to cries for change in the 1980s and – more than two decades ago – the publication of the MacPherson Report into the murder of Stephen Lawrence.

My title for today’s blog post is drawn from one of my favourite novels, by the great Italian novelist Primo Levi, and is about the struggle of Jewish partisans and resistance fighters against the Nazi war machine.

Those words have been in my mind again in the wake of George Floyd’s death.

In recent days, I have been transfixed by listening to thoughts of veteran campaigners for black rights and social justice in South Africa, USA and here at home.

I was moved by one describing recent days as a ‘moment of possibility’. Yes there is anger, guilt, and fury but also hope if we seize the moment.

I also found myself recalling how I watched the extraordinary hearings of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission led by Desmond Tutu in 1996, an era of leadership that still takes the breath away.

I stand against racism now and always, but uttering the phrase is far from enough. Now is the time for meaningful change, both in society and our organisation.

As a group of museums, we must start with our collection and the stories we tell. The Science Museum – and therefore the collection we share – has its origins at a period when the British Empire was still expanding and collecting, and the stories and objects to be valued was bound up with the mindsets of that era.

We need to reflect deeply on our practice and are reviewing our draft Collection Development Policy to ensure it properly reflects our commitment to working in a more inclusive way.

We have also started to review content and interpretation where we know we need to do more across our group.

One example is our Textiles Gallery at the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester which does not yet do enough to explore the deep connection between the cotton trade and the transatlantic slave trade.

Textiles Gallery at the Science and Industry Museum in Manchester.

The current gallery is a precursor to a more in-depth “Cottonopolis” gallery, which we are already researching and will develop in the coming years. This new gallery will explore the links between empire, imperialism and industrialisation.

Our ambition for “Cottonopolis” is to tell deeper, more diverse and personal stories about Manchester’s involvement in the transatlantic slave trade and crucially, to reflect how profoundly this part of that city’s history continues to shape black lives today.

But new galleries take time and money to develop and we need to act now.

So this week we have begun a project to rework the daily demonstrations in the Textiles Gallery to include the story of the slave trade and raise awareness of the diversity of Manchester’s textile workers.

This will involve working in partnership with our local black communities. We will launch the new demonstrations as soon as we can.

There is plenty of fantastic work to do that will enrich audiences, such as revealing the stories of scientists and engineers whose contributions to innovation have been neglected or suppressed.

The wonderful film Hidden Figures about Katherine Johnson, Mary Jackson and Dorothy Vaughan whose work was crucial to the U.S. space programme, which we showed to school groups visiting the Science Museum in partnership with the Royal Academy of Engineering and others, is a great example. And we need to get this history on the floor of our galleries.

And as visitor attractions we need to reflect deeply on what more we can do to become truly inclusive. Social justice sits at the heart of our practice, which is guided by science capital.

But we need to go further, faster.

This summer we will publish our equity framework, in this Open for All blog, setting out our approach. If we are to avoid the pitfalls of so many false dawns, it is vital that our path to change is rooted in our values.

While the focus of this blog will be on action, we must also use it to acknowledge challenge.

Our workforce is not reflective of our communities and increasing diversity within our own teams is tough during the recruitment freeze we have brought in because of the financial challenges of the coronavirus pandemic.

We are already reviewing our internal monitoring of diversity to measure progress. To write about such a small step might open us up to mockery, but the road to freedom is a long one and I hope that step by step, month by month this blog will reflect meaningful change.

Ultimately we want to be judged by what we do, not what we say because, as the Suffragettes put it: deeds not words.