May 28th 2021

A Neurodiverse Experience of Citizen Curators


Citizen Curators is a free work-based training programme in museum awareness and modern curatorial practice aimed at volunteers from our community. The programme is provided by Cornwall Museums Partnership in collaboration with seven museums, with the main goal of providing a new form of meaningful museum participation.

The programme is led by Dr. Tehmina Goskar, Curator and Director of the Curatorial Research Centre. In this guest blog by Joana Varanda, a 2021 Citizen Curator with a placement at Wheal Martyn Clay Works, we hear about her reflections and experience of the programme  from a neurodiverse perspective…

This year, we will say goodbye to Citizen Curators – a programme delivered by Cornwall Museums Partnership and the Curatorial Research Centre for the past four years, which gave people who had little or no experience of working in museums a chance of experiencing this sector.

In my case, all my life I had known that I wanted to work in a museum or a library, but had found myself impeded from fully accomplishing that for multiple reasons such as a working-class background, migration, and disability. Similarly to Katie Sawyer, one of last year’s Trainee Curators, I am diagnosed with Myalgic Encephalomyelitis/Chronic Fatigue Syndrome – also known as ME/CFS, a post-viral long term illness akin to what we know today as Long Covid.

I am also Autistic, which means that despite having equivalent experience in the sector through paid work, volunteer work and internships in both heritage sites and museums (as well as a BA with Honours), I have never gone beyond a large number of failed applications to entry-level roles. In fact, when I eagerly contacted Dr Tehmina Goskar, Programme Leader and Director of the Curatorial Research Centre, thinking Citizen Curators would be the perfect opportunity for me to finally break into the sector, she initially deemed me over-qualified to undertake this programme. I have also been told on occasion I am over-qualified to study for a Master’s degree and there is no reason why I shouldn’t be working in a museum right now.

Except that, according to last year’s Office for National Statistics (ONS) Annual Population Survey, Autistic people have the lowest employment rate from a range of those with various disabilities, as only 21.7% of Autistic people were found to be in any kind of employment. Autistic individuals who are in work are also prone to be under-paid, under-employed, and poorly supported, meaning that this percentage could be significantly different considering the amount of Autistics who might be in some kind of work, yet are too weary of disclosing their diagnosis – as well as those who have struggled through neurotypical life with no idea they were actually Autistic.

A bar char entitled 'Disabled People with Autism were among those disabled people with the lowest employment rate'

I am the latter, as I did not realise I was Autistic until last year, when I started to experience difficulties in adult life such as finding skilled work. I developed application-fatigue due to filling out form after form, and an increased awkwardness at interviews due to social anxiety. When I was diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder, everything finally made sense, and I naively began to disclose my circumstances early on in applications, in order to avoid repeating past traumas such as bullying. And here I was, exactly the same person as I had been before, capable of always landing the first and only job I applied to, waiting, and waiting, and never hearing back from anyone. Becoming aware of my boundaries had suddenly stigmatised me, as some recruiters still believe Autistic people are childish, unprofessional and incompetent.

But thankfully, the Citizen Curators programme had none of that stigma. For one, due to the pandemic, this year’s final instalment of the course was delivered remotely, with sessions taking place online on a work-from-home basis – something which disabled people had been trying to attain for decades. The programme was also delivered completely without pressure of achieving something, except to learn as and when participants felt capable of doing so, as lockdown has been hard on everyone. But most importantly, all of the small adjustments that I asked for in order to accommodate both my ME/CFS and Autism were immediately heard by Dr Tehmina, such as an additional break dividing the two-hour session into three parts instead of two, and being able to keep my camera off for the most part and participate in discussions via chat instead.

A panorama landscape image showing the exterior buildings of Wheal Martyn Clay Works - a large round white visitor centre as well as historic stone remains of the clay works.

Wheal Martyn Clay Works, where Joana is working as a Citizen Curator

Participating in Citizen Curators and being heard and valued despite my need for adjustments brought me a sense of accomplishment I had not felt in a really long time. As Katie Sawyer demonstrated in her blog post, it isn’t that hard to accommodate someone disabled in a workplace, and being neurodiverse is no different. For instance, adjusting noise and light due to sensory sensitivity, providing a place to rest and recuperate from activity, and reducing social interaction (which are overlaps that happen to coincide with both ME/CFS and Autism) have been proven to be easily achievable by Bodmin Keep.

Likewise, Citizen Curators has demonstrated that it is perfectly possible to diversify workforces and change judgements. And although we are saying goodbye to this programme, we are also saying hello to a wealth of new job applicants with various skills and viewpoints that will make museums even more inclusive and accessible to both their visitors and staff. Now that the pandemic has left so many with long-term conditions, it is also the perfect moment to let go of stigmas and stop equating disability with incapability, incompetence or lack of dedication.

 

Joana Varanda, 2021 Citizen Curator at Wheal Martyn

 

Further Reading:

MuseuDiverse, A Citizen Curators’ Blog: https://museudiverse.wordpress.com/

Katie Sawyer’s blog post on the CMP blog: https://www.cornwallmuseumspartnership.org.uk/chronically-katie-my-experience-as-a-disabled-trainee-curator/

ONS Annual Population Survey 2020: https://www.ons.gov.uk/peoplepopulationandcommunity/healthandsocialcare/disability/articles/outcomesfordisabledpeopleintheuk/2020#employment

National Autistic Society on the ONS Survey: https://www.autism.org.uk/what-we-do/news/new-data-on-the-autism-employment-gap

Autistica on the ONS Survey: https://www.autistica.org.uk/news/autistic-people-highest-unemployment-rates

BBC on Autistic workers: https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20160106-model-employee-are-autistic-individuals-the-best-workers-around

Ann Memmott, Autistic Activist: http://annsautism.blogspot.com/2018/04/autism-mythbusting-employment.html

Autism in Museums: https://www.autisminmuseums.com/

Fair Museum Jobs: https://fairmuseumjobs.org/

Show the Salary: https://showthesalary.com/