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“You need local experience to get a job here in Australia”

These were the words I was told over and over again from so many people after I moved to Melbourne in 2015 to pursue my PhD in museum education at the University of Melbourne. I was, honestly, incredulous. I thought to myself that this cannot be true, at least not in the museum industry, right?

How naïve was I to think that? Despite having already had, back then, over 15 years of professional experience working in museums in the Philippines and the USA, plus a master’s degree in museum studies from the University of Florida, and a long list of fellowships and scholarships in the museum field, I still was not good enough to even get through to the interview phase of the museum roles for which I applied. This brings to mind the chicken and egg conundrum: how will I gain local experience if no one will hire me first?

Where are the Women of Colour in Australian museums?

Museums in Australia are home to a wealth of tales and treasures that help enrich the country’s cultural and artistic landscape. Nevertheless, the stories of women of colour who work in the museum industry are not often highlighted. This essay delves into the unique experiences and challenges faced by women of colour in Australia’s museum industry. Our objective is to bring to light their contributions and amplify their voices, which are often marginalised and overlooked.

In the realm of Australian museums, the visibility of Women of Colour is often overshadowed by the historical narratives and artworks curated and preserved by these institutions. This disparity is particularly evident at the executive level of the organisation. The broader issue of representation within the cultural sector is underscored by the insufficient diversity among those occupying leadership positions in museums. Where are the Women of Colour in museum leadership positions?


Concerns have been raised about the challenges that people of colour, particularly women, experience while trying to advance their careers in the museum field. The Museums & Galleries New South Wales paper “Invisible Curators” emphasises the challenges that frequently arise as a result of the “invisible biases” and “glass ceilings” that impede curators’ professional development.

The hidden labour undertaken by Women of Colour in museums is frequently overlooked, despite its importance. Even though their roles may not always be highly visible to the public, they serve as the essential foundation for the daily functioning of the museum. Their responsibilities span a wide range, including curating exhibitions, developing educational programmes, and overseeing the care and management of museum collections. While their contributions are invaluable, they do not always receive the recognition they rightfully deserve.


The global museum industry is witnessing a growing movement towards decolonization and inclusivity, which continues to gain momentum. Museums are starting to re-evaluate their collections and practices in light of the realisation that they have historically played a role in the propagation of colonial narratives. The fight for these changes and questioning the status quo are significantly aided by the presence of Women of Colour working in museums.

Initiating Positive Transformations in Australian Museums: Where do we start?

If we hope to obtain a deeper understanding of the challenges faced by Women of Colour working in the Australian museum industry, it is imperative that institutions, museum professional bodies, and relevant government sectors actively listen to the perspectives of those who have traversed this path. Seeking the insights of Women of Colour employed in diverse roles across various museums can offer valuable perspectives on their experiences, the ongoing challenges they face, and the transformations they aspire to witness in the future.

Perhaps we can begin with the following questions:

  • Finding Your Way Around the System: What are some of the specific obstacles you have had to overcome as a Woman of Colour working in the museum industry in Australia, particularly with regards to advancing your career?
  • Representation and Voices: How important is it for museums to have diverse representation, and how does a lack of diversity affect the telling of stories and the curating of exhibits? These are some of the questions addressed in the article “Representation Matters.”
  • Decolonization and Inclusivity: In what ways have you been involved in initiatives that seek to decolonize museum collections and practices, and how do you envision the role of Women of Colour in this transformation?
  • Unseen Labour: What are the important but frequently unrecognised responsibilities that Women of Colour play in museums? How may their contributions be better acknowledged and celebrated?
  • Professional Development: In the course of your career in the museum industry, have you benefited from the guidance of an experienced colleague or the assistance of a support network? If so, how have these interactions impacted your professional development and your advocacy for diversity and inclusion?
  • Imagining a Future of Australian Museums: What is your vision for the future of museums in Australia, particularly in terms of inclusivity and representation? This question is paramount as we seek to push for museums to accept and present more diverse narratives.

How can we foster a culture of change?

Last month, I participated in a focus group discussion (FDG) organised by Museums Victoria that sought to understand barriers faced by migrant community members in joining the workforce. One of the objectives of the research study is to identify the hurdles faced by individuals from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds in securing employment in both the museum industry and government sectors in Australia.

Listening to stories so similar to my own was a mix of thrill and heartbreak. While all of us are now in well-established roles, we shared common frustrations and disillusionment stemming from our personal experiences in our initial job search as we were trying to get our foot in the door. While it was comforting to realise I was not alone in feeling inadequate, it was infuriating to discover the prevalence of such narratives within the industry.

Women of Colour employed in the Australian museum industry play a critical role as agents of social transformation. Our points of view challenge conventional narratives and we contribute to the movement towards a cultural sphere that is more inclusive and diverse. Our voices and experiences are essential to the processes of story formation that our museums engage in as the cultural landscape in Australia continues to undergo significant change.

Joining the FDG sparked my optimism for the industry. Perhaps they are finally willing to listen and take action? As we, women of colour, persist in striving for a place at the table, one can only remain hopeful.


Dr. Ethel Villafranca

Ethel Villafranca is an accomplished Academic Engagement Manager in the Museums & Collections Department, an Honorary Researcher Fellow, and a casual academic at the University of Melbourne. Born and raised in the Philippines, Ethel holds a Ph.D. from the University of Melbourne, a master’s in Museology (with a focus on education) from the University of Florida, and a bachelor’s in Philippine Arts (with a major in arts management) from the University of the Philippines-Manila, Her Ph.D. research, titled “Curated Learning,” delved into teaching strategies in museums that benefit school teachers and students, contributing to the Innovative Learning Environments and Teacher Change project. 


In 2013, Ethel co-created and co-facilitated UNESCO-Philippines-funded workshops on museum establishment. These workshops evolved into “Making Museums Work: A Zero-In Handbook,” the first comprehensive guide for establishing and managing museums in the Philippines, with Ethel as the principal author.