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The Barbican Centre is racist; here’s why we made a book about it

After compiling a book on racism at the Barbican Centre, the Barbican Stories collective explain the long journey to publishing their stories.

18 Jun

This article is collectively written by different members of the Barbican Stories team – organisers, contributors and designers. It is important to us that in reflecting on the project and documenting its process, we include a multiplicity of journeys through the making of the book. The ‘me’ changes and shifts through the piece. gal-dem is using coloured text to help differentiate between the voices.

As in many workplaces, 2020’s summer of protest – triggered by the murder of George Floyd – brought increased visibility to the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement which meant conversations about “diversity and inclusion” could no longer be tabled.

The Barbican’s response was bureaucratic at best, and gaslighting at worst. For me, it felt like BLM was a “comms issue” for the institution, it was not about change but image. Barbican Stories was a way to cut through this delusion, and hold a mirror up to the institution. It breaks systemic racism down into everyday occurrences to show the Barbican that it is not in a position to simply comment on racism, it needs to recognise itself as an organisation that is currently racist. 

Making the book 

At the time, the Barbican felt like an oppressive, impossible place to work. It was clear that we needed a space of care and the Barbican wasn’t going to provide it for us. We have always viewed the creation of the book as a process of care and listening. We started this project because it felt cathartic to share our experiences and talk with each other. The final product feels different – but first and foremost we wanted to create a space and a process that provided the care that the institution did not give us. 

This work feels like the result of a legacy of resistance. Learning about how previous cultural workers resisted before us felt like something bigger. I felt as though despite our anxieties and our fears we were doing something for the collective and it’s this knowledge that made it possible for us to push on even when we knew it would be difficult. We are so underestimated, for being people of colour, for being in lower-level jobs, some of us for being women, and this book is kind of a huge fuck you to the institution. 

“It felt like delivering the project in a veneer that spoke the language of the institution”

We began this project by reaching out to contributors and funders quietly and with discretion. There were always parallel processes happening at the same time. We were inviting colleagues to contribute stories while fundraising for the book to be made; we then researched, recorded, wrote the framing of the stories and planned the book’s release. 

The book and the delivery of the book always felt performative to us – very early on we played out the moment of it being received: the mistaken identity with the staff book (the design of Barbican Stories is based on a pre-existing company sanctioned policy book that was written collaboratively by Barbican staff in 2016 called ‘Everything you always wanted to know about the Barbican’), the whiskey in the study of the Directors, their leather chair. It felt like delivering the project in a veneer that spoke the language of the institution. By basing the layout and format of Barbican Stories on the handbook, we were wrapping up our collective HUMAN complaints in pre-made INSTITUTIONAL DESIGN. 

Everything you always wanted to know about the Barbican (left), Barbican Stories (right)

This work would not have been possible without humour. For many of us, the only way to exist within the oppressive structure is to make light of it, to laugh at it, and to feel some level of agency to do this. Re-doing the book was subversive and that felt good. 

The voices of cleaning, catering and security staff were always important ones in the book and we did try reaching out. Unfortunately, we did not get as much of a response as we wanted, partly because all of these teams are outsourced and are on precarious contracts which in many ways makes them more vulnerable to being exploited. 

Senior management sees these groups and front of house staff as expendable, which is reflected in the contracts and benefits that they are offered. It was important for us to make this clear and to show that cultural institutions have a creative upper class that is kept separate from other workers, this is not yet something that the Barbican has confronted and the element race plays in this is undeniable. 

We found and substantiated information by using resources from Independent Workers Union of Great Britain (IWGB) and United Voices of the World (UVW) actions. It is important here to say that too many people in these positions have too much to lose by talking about their experiences publicly. Hopefully this will be different when we collect stories for the next print run of the book.

Getting the full text to layout was a heavy exercise for me; I wasn’t part of the year-long work putting this together and got the full tsunami of experiences all at once. I could relate to so many of the stories, having had similar experiences personally or been witness to them in my professional life as a migrant person of colour working in the cultural sector. I am glad to lend my skill set to the project, in support, in solidarity. 

“This project showed me what it looks like to share the burden of exhaustion. I learned how to resist, endure and care as a collective”

Personally, my anxiety worsened at multiple points of the project, but knowing that what we were doing was right pushed me to not allow my fear to stop me being involved. The City of London is famously well resourced, so legal action was a real fear. However, the Barbican is obsessed with their image and legal action would have only brought more attention to the systemic racism of the centre. We tried to prepare ourselves for the worst by consulting legally literate people and speaking to unions. 

The fear of covert retribution is real. I knew that despite the book not being about individual stories – the aim was to use the number and repetitiveness of these stories to highlight systemic problems –  there would still be people who either through white guilt or defensiveness would try to identify contributors. All of my experiences of racism at the Barbican came from senior staff members, the sort of people who make and break careers. 

We mention intersectionality in the book and it was definitely a guiding principle of the project but it’s not something we were able to delve into as much as we wanted. It is so important to be able to talk about how racism and discrimination works across so many different lines like gender, class and disability. In fact it seems essential in how we can shape our understanding of oppression. However, as much as this book was for us we also knew that in being about racism it also demanded a lot and to complicate it might make it inaccessible to the power we are speaking to. At the same time, it is a power that will only be dismantled when we connect the different oppressions and find a future where none of them exist. 

Releasing the book

We’ve been working on Barbican Stories for a year. There were long periods of passive activity punctuated with proactive periods of action. The making of the book was my whole world for a while. Now that it is an object, living independently of the process of creation, it sits within a much wider context of internal and external pressure. It is one of many things that need to happen simultaneously for the mountain to move. 

Right now it’s hard to discern exactly what I’m feeling but I’m sure of two things. The first is that this project began from a point of exhaustion. This project showed me what it looks like to share the burden of exhaustion. I learned how to resist, endure and care as a collective. This is everything.  I’ve also started to understand that the publication is just one part of a larger process of healing. And in some ways, I think it’s a kind of healing I didn’t know I needed. 

Since the book, the workspace is charged a little – I can hold space like never before. The healing will only start once the staff force and higher roles accept they could do better, rather than find a scapegoat. How can we adorn the walls with art, the air with music and stage with theatre if we cannot protect the very spirit of us that we project?

Reactions

Some people have come forward with more stories which we will be adding to a second print run of the book for distribution to public records and archives. The Barbican’s experience mirrors those of pretty much every major institution in London and probably the UK – it’s definitely not an ‘if’ other organisations will make their own book, it’s when.

What we do know in terms of the impact of the book is that the Barbican is giving refunds to audiences who want them, that cultural workers are pulling out of the Barbican’s programme and that some people understand the architecture of the building in a different way now. 

While the Barbican Centre is putting out sympathetic press statements, we’re aware that some senior white employees are still seeing these stories as allegations rather than fact.

The future

For us to feel like the Barbican is dealing with institutional racism, they’d have to make Barbican Stories irrelevant. Our demands and our vision would have to be commonplace and not radical. The fact that our book made such a big impact on the sector was in and of itself “sad and shocking” – is racism really still news? We don’t view our role here as the people to lay out a plan for the Barbican, they have access to people and organisations who can do this and who have been doing this internally. A social media comment rings in our heads here – someone said that it sounds like we’ll never be happy with what they do – why can’t we just settle for what’s being done? Well… because it’s not good enough! And we deserve better, we deserve to be demanding and they owe it to their staff, to their audience, and to their colonial histories to make this a priority. 

The purpose of the book was to record and archive stories and experiences that the institution didn’t want to confront as a reality. So in some way, the book’s very existence fulfils its purpose. By sharing the book with the public, we just wanted to let our audiences, members, funders, and artists know this was happening as an act of transparency.

Barbican Stories is so many things. Among them, it’s a record of pain. Readers are bearing witness to the system of institutional racism that people of colour must navigate everyday. I want people to feel enraged and I hope that Barbican audiences take action and tell directors that they stand in solidarity with Barbican workers. 

I have always thought the Barbican’s ability to refract the whiteness of its staffing through its ethnically diverse programming was slightly evil genius-like. This outward diversity has always frustrated me, it’s what allows the Barbican to project a vibrant and diverse image while still being a racist workplace.

I think it’s important to talk about what the book can’t do. The book can’t ballot for resignations and this seems like something that can make long-term impactful change, particularly when those in power at the Barbican are yet to take on any accountability. Many white staff at the Barbican are feeling ‘lost’ and unsure of what to do, and this is what they can do: remove the people in power who have let this happen. This can also mean giving up their own jobs and stepping down.   

Barbican’s response

A Barbican spokesperson said:

“The Barbican has been made aware of allegations of racist behaviour towards some members of our current and former staff. 

The Barbican has always strived to be an inclusive, welcoming and open organisation. We are shocked and saddened to hear about these allegations, and will immediately launch an independent review into them. 

Although we have not received formal complaints, all staff will be able to contribute to the independent review so that their experiences can be heard and those impacted can get the support they need. We want everyone’s voice to be listened to and respected.

We fully recognise the pain and hurt caused by these experiences. We are committed to pursuing the ongoing programme of action which we have laid out to advance anti-racism in the organisation, and to achieve necessary change.”

If you would like to make a book about your institution or if you are a colleague of colour at the Barbican and you’re in any way being affected by the release of this book (including queries from other colleagues), please get in touch with us at [email protected]

Barbican Stories is also taking donations for a second print run of the book for distribution to archives, public records and libraries. We welcome donations from everyone, but particularly from people who have not experienced racism. Donate HERE if you can!”