Nat Hawrylak is a Welcome Host at Whitchurch Silk Mill, and last year undertook one of the Mill’s heritage traineeships working on an Inclusivity and Diversity Audit of the museum. Here Nat takes us through what we have learnt as an industrial heritage museum and business, on our journey to becoming more inclusive and diverse in our work…
It’s 2021. More than ever, inclusivity and diversity is something that is at the forefront of everybody’s mind. From the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement in 2020, the annual LGBT+ History Month, to the developing ‘Mental Health Crisis’ as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic, the media covers numerous topics when it comes to inclusivity and diversity. Cultural institutions such as museums are hyper aware of different types of audiences that walk through their doors, and in some cases have adapted their museum experiences in order to be more inclusive or more diverse in their engagement with visitors.
Here at Whitchurch Silk Mill, we always try our best to accommodate everyone’s needs – but we still have things we need to learn. That’s why we’ve been spending our time in lockdown undertaking an Inclusivity and Diversity Audit looking at what we’ve done, and what we can do to make experiences at the Mill even better for everyone. Here’s a few of the things we have learnt along the way…
Improving accessibility = improving inclusivity
The first aspect we looked at is physical disability, as this is often what people first think about when trying to be more inclusive. At the Mill, we have implemented a fully-functioning lift, which enables those with less mobility to access all three floors. However, you don’t need to build a lift in order to be more inclusive of those with physical disabilities. Simply changing your language when it comes to those with disabilities can have a profound effect. For example, some people find it patronising when other words are used to describe their disability, such as “physically challenged,” “special” and “differently-abled”. Despite these often being attempts at making disabilities seem more ‘positive’, such terms are often perceived as unnecessary, drawing unneeded attention to the disability. The key thing to remember is that those with disabilities are just like every other person, so they should be treated with the same respect.
However, physical disabilities are not the only thing to consider when looking at accessibility. There are many other forms of disabilities that aren’t directly visible, often called ‘hidden disabilities’. These range from learning difficulties and mental health conditions to speech, visual and hearing impairments. Often, the best way to accommodate those with hidden disabilities is to be educated on the conditions. A Google search offers a variety of educational pages, such as Autism Society (www.autism-society.org/), Mind (www.mind.org.uk/), Louder Than Words (www.louderthanwords.org.uk/) or British Dyslexia Association (www.bdadyslexia.org.uk/), to name a few – although there are many more out there. The first step in inclusion is to be aware, as it is then possible to work out what an individual may need.
So, how does this link to accessibility? Well, accessibility covers a great deal of our inclusivity work at the Mill. From including captions on audio clips and videos, to providing multi-sensory experiences in our exhibitions, there are lots of ways we are improving the Mill experience. However, it is important to consider that each individual is different. One size does not fit all, meaning it is often best to ask a person directly what they need, as this is the voice that gives a true representation to their disability. Consider Autism. ASD (Autism Spectrum Disorder) in an individual can manifest itself as needing more support when it comes to engaging in social situations, but it can also mean a person is highly sociable, engaging in vivid conversation when discussing a topic of interest. This is why it is so clear to see that disabilities come on a spectrum. This can make it difficult to predict what an autistic person may need – but this isn’t a reason to give up. Autistic people contribute so much to everyday life such as high levels of creativity and focus…perfect for a museum visit or even working in a museum! As with every disability, every individual has a valuable new aspect to bring, and this is what makes including everybody so important, and makes a museum visit so enjoyable for staff, volunteers and visitors alike!
This is another aspect we are looking at in more detail, as we evaluate how we are running Whitchurch Silk Mill. In the past, the workers at the Mill were a mixture of men and women, doing different jobs from winding bobbins, to warping and weaving depending on their skills. Fast forward to 21st century and the Mill is still a functioning business, but also a museum, and we are now a predominately female workforce, doing a variety of jobs, from Welcome Building Hosts, to Mill Director, and no doubt the gender ratio will change again as society becomes more equal and diverse. There are lots more younger people working and volunteering in and around the Mill than ever before, with a number of staff aged under 35. At the Mill we pride ourselves on preserving the skills of heritage weaving, and passing this onto the younger generation. All our trainee weavers are young people that undertake an intense trainee programme gaining expertise in industrial heritage weaving techniques, to ensure the survival of this trade and craft. It’s really important to involve a variety of people, when it comes to running a business, project or even simply in everyday life. We have found that involving young people in projects, and including them in the Mill Team has been hugely beneficial. Our eyes have been opened to new ways of engaging younger audiences, even trends, language, and tone of voice. A blend of ‘generational variety’ has contributed to much richer engagement, and a future where Whitchurch Silk Mill will remain relevant for generations to come.
Sexual orientation (and/or gender) is a massive part of inclusivity and diversity work. Although, this obviously does not have an effect on the way someone performs their job, it is still important to feel included in the workplace, as a member of the LGBT+ community. The ways to include those with different orientations can seem subtle, but they can make a huge difference in terms of making a person feel comfortable. This is something I can speak of from personal experience. Working at the Mill has shown me how much it’s the little things that matter. It’s not necessarily about putting on an entire exhibition on LGBT+ history; it’s as simple as asking how my girlfriend is doing, or consulting me for my opinion when talking about LGBT+ issues. It’s about employing open-minded, accepting people – about being able to form those bonds with other colleagues which make you feel comfortable enough to even consider contributing to those workplace chats about relationships, or identity. Whitchurch Silk Mill is run by such a welcoming, supportive group of people, and I feel proud to be a part of that.
It’s so clear to see there are many things you can do to support minority groups, whether that’s BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and other People Of Colour), LGBT+ individuals or other groups that I haven’t mentioned here. (For example, being inclusive of religious beliefs – here’s an article we’ve found which suggests some ideas: https://howarths-uk.com/religion-in-the-workplace-tips-on-being-an-inclusive-employer/). At the Mill we have been celebrating and showcasing ethnic cultures and weaving through our digital media platforms, and developing ideas for future events and exhibitions with this in mind. In our case, we’ve learnt that it doesn’t have to be something huge…a simple share of an article, or a spotlight on a specific culture, raises awareness. Our learning suggests that simply…it all starts with a conversation. By bringing those different voices right into the discussion, you kickstart the process of learning and adaptation. Not everybody knows how to be inclusive, just like that. Nobody gets it all right the first time. But it’s important to listen, and to educate ourselves when we don’t have all the answers right away.
At the Mill, we still have plenty of learning to do, and plan to reflect our inclusive ethos through our actions, events and activities. We want everyone to feel comfortable when they visit our site, and that extends further than just greeting people at the door. We will continue to educate ourselves on inclusivity and diversity, as we believe that every action has the potential to make a difference. We want to share our ethos with everyone when they visit us, and hope it brings us closer to living in a world where everyone feels seen and accepted for who they are, no matter what characteristics they may have. Now that’s really something worth celebrating.
Written by Nat Hawrylak, Welcome Host and Heritage Traineeship Intern 2020.
Nat’s work on the Inclusivity and Diversity audit is ongoing, so keep an eye out for our audit report coming soon.