Black Lives Still Matter and Museums: What has been done and what still needs doing?

 In observance of the Juneteenth holiday in the United States as well as the one-year anniversary of the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, our volunteer Tess participated in a symposium run collaboratively by the Museums Association and Culture& which discussed the effect of the BLM movement on the heritage sector. The discussion centred around the way in which the museum circuit reacted and what steps need to be taken now. Read her article here to find out more about what the esteemed panellists had to say and what thoughts Tess came away with. 

Note: This article discusses sensitive topics of violence such as the murder of George Floyd. Additionally, I am an Asian woman from a middle-class background, and thus am writing this article from that point of view. I have written this article both from the perspective of a BIPOC who has a keen interest in the decolonisation of museum spaces as well as a museum audience member who wants the heritage sector to reflect our global community accurately by dismantling systemic racism and colonial narrative of museums. 

The month of June is one of celebration for many reasons: it is Pride Month, National Smile Month and the month when we celebrate our dads. However, just across the Atlantic, the month of June holds a special significance for the African American community. The nineteenth of June, known as Juneteenth, commemorates the emancipation of slaves in America. This year’s Juneteenth is especially significant, as President Joe Biden declared the day a federal holiday. Despite the steps we have taken as a global community towards ending systemic racism and racial injustice, there is still an underlying question of whether we are doing enough to keep this movement towards equality going. 

The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement was first formed in 2013, however the movement gain reinvigoration following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year. The pandemic had only served to highlight the social inequality in America, and this violent act set fire to one of the biggest protests against police brutality and racism. The movement expanded beyond America, with marches taken place in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Australia and many more countries across the globe. While the issues faced by minorities may change from place to place, the underlying point being conveyed was clear: enough is enough. Racism, whether overt or subtly woven into the social framework of a society, needed to go. 

How do museums fit into such a movement then? This was a question posed to the panellists of Black Lives Still Matter and Museums, a symposium run collaboratively by the Museums Association and Culture& on the second of June 2021. Almost a year since the resurgence of BLM, the panel reflected on the statements and changes made by museums, discussed where some institutions fell short and presented to the audience what needed to be done to ensure that the heritage sector restricted itself to become more culturally diverse and inclusive. The discussion was led by Errol Francis, the Chief Executive for Culture&, and it involved individuals from both side of the Atlantic. From the United Kingdom, there was Hassan Mahamdallie, a diversity specialist, and former Director of the Muslim Institute; Arike Oke, the Managing Director at the Black Cultural Archives (BCA); and Rachael Minott, who is the Chair of the Decolonising Working Group for the Museums Association. American panellists included Monica O. Montgomery, who is the Curator of Special Projects + Programming at the Smithsonian Institution Arts + Industries Building; and Ian Damont Martin, the Executive Director of Inclusion and Belonging at the Art Institute of Chicago. Each panellist provided a unique perspective to the questions posed by Dr. Francis, as their backgrounds and fields were so diverse. I think Martin’s answer regarding the connection between the BLM movement and museums was interesting, as he linked the idea of violence with museums. The BLM movement helped to bring specific questions about creating a diverse museum space to the forefront of discussions regarding the future of museums, and it is now our job to change museums from repositories of colonial violence and white supremacy into spaces with historical narratives that present the full, honest, and culturally appropriate truth. 

Another one of the questions posed during the panel which struck me was this: is it possible to decolonise a western museum? One may think that restoring remains and cultural assets to their home countries may leave museums in the UK barren, seeing as many collections acquired before the 20th Century tended to be colonial bounties stolen from their indigenous lands. Therefore, wouldn’t the act of decolonising museums strip a western institution of all their valuable cultural artefacts? Dr. Francis pointed out that the idea of decolonisation at its core is a shift of power between the occupied and the occupier; however, there seems to be a revisionist perspective on the word now with heritage institutions in which the term includes the act of repatriation, the rewriting of cultural narratives and the removal of inherently racist portrayals of indigenous peoples. I think that western museums, especially in countries that have an overtly imperial history, can be decolonised in the sense that they can provide a space for the truth of colonisation and its effects to be accurately explained to local audiences. This line of thinking was very much drawn from Montgomery’s answer to this question where she aligns the idea of decolonisation with resilience and resistance. Museums need to understand that to display and discuss issues such as the Black Diaspora, slavery and consequences of imperialism, they have to remember ‘nothing about us, without us.’ This phrase was used by Montgomery to emphasise the point that we have to question conventional wisdom and who holds the authority to speak about such history.  

The final point I kept thinking about following the symposium was the idea of performative actions versus actual change. It’s always easy to release a statement regarding your institution’s stance on racism, but it is much harder to put such a stance into practice. I wholeheartedly agreed with Montgomery’s observation that museums are in service to society and should therefore reflect the past, present and future of our humanity; however, to do this in a manner that is anti-racist and culturally sensitive, it means that they may have to tackle certain topics that aren’t necessarily easy to speak about. The idea of a ‘clean’ history is not possible because history has not been clean, and it is something that current audiences must reflect upon. If only the easy narratives are being perceived, it is no surprise that, as mentioned by Minott, a dichotomy between those who have the privilege of perceiving museums as a safe space and those who are only presented with narratives of erasure and epistemic violence through exhibits. This links back to the violence which reignited the BLM movement in 2020, as George Floyd’s death was not unique in the violence itself, but rather unique in the response it garnered. Violence against BIPOC is interwoven in colonial history, but the issue is now it is also woven in the silence and lack of change in museum narratives. 

The takeaway from this discussion was twofold: first, there are some institutions that are already making big changes to the way they operate and portray narratives. An example close to home is the University of Aberdeen, who recently repatriated one of the Benin Bronzes because they had concluded that it was obtained in a questionable, colonial context. Another example is the skulls recently returned to Sri Lanka by the Anatomical Museum here in Edinburgh. These are only two examples of the action being carried out across the UK with regards to decolonising museum spaces. The second takeaway was this: while there is some movement towards repatriation and restructuring the historical narrative of museums, there is still much work to be done. As Oke mentioned, violence and museums go hand in hand because of the colonial roots of museum collections, however education and museums are also intrinsically linked. It would be more problematic to remain silently complicit to the underlying racism of museum origins, instead institutions should accept that part of history as exactly that: history. To acknowledge the past is important, and ensuring the narrative becomes inclusive and transparent is the key to ensuring museums become a safe space for all. 

If you want to watch the entire symposium, you can do so here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uarMUygLK38&ab_channel=MuseumsAssociation 

If you want to read Culture&’s Black Lives Matter Charter, you can do so here: https://www.cultureand.org/news/black-lives-matter-charter-for-the-uk-heritage-sector/  

By Tessa Rodrigues

Beyond Salacious: How Museums Can Tailor LGBTQ+ Events for a Younger Audience

This recent online seminar by Sacha Coward and Museums Galleries Scotland was a fantastic introduction into the potential of LGBTQ+ museums events aimed at young people.

(Above image incorporates free-use photo by Denin Lawley on Unsplash)

[Please note that this article uses the word queer as an umbrella term to describe LGBTQ+ identities. Whilst some may understandably be uncomfortable with this word (this is a good article to get an overview of why people use it), it has been reclaimed by many queer individuals including the author of this piece and Sacha Coward who stated this at the start of the seminar.]

Museums have a long history of hosting events for families. They’re a proven way of engaging young people with our shared heritage and gently introducing them to new or challenging concepts. So why is it that the majority of LGBTQ+ events are geared exclusively towards adults? These events fall into two categories: the more academic daytime talk, dense conversations about heavy topics; and alcohol based late night events such as silent discos in museum spaces. Neither event is suitable for young people and yet across the board, museums have been slow to introduce family-friendly events, or even to acknowledge queer narratives explicitly in their collections. It’s especially saddening when you consider that young people are more likely to identify as LGBTQ+ than older generations; so many current queer museum events are actually excluding their largest audience.

The recent online seminar Beyond Salacious by Sacha Coward (@sacha_coward on twitter) and Museums Galleries Scotland provided an excellent insight into this phenomenon, deftly dissecting why museums may be hesitant to introduce children to queer history and exploring how events can be geared towards them in a safe, fun, and above-all educational way.

Of course, not all historical topics are suitable for children. But the consensus for what is acceptable should be applied consistently whether the subject is queer or not. Young people are more able to understand difficult subjects than we often give them credit, but you continuously see pushback against teaching them about queer identities because it would “confuse” them. Yet you rarely see the same outcry when children are exposed to mature non-LGBTQ+ history – Horrible Histories, for example, is one of the most popular children’s book series in the UK and it discusses all manner of violence. Young people are also taught about heterosexual historical figures and relationships; that these are seen as more acceptable than queer content reflects a pervasive, homophobic misconception that anything LGBTQ+ related must be inherently sexual.

Contrary to what critics may believe, museum events dealing with queer themes don’t just sit kids down in front of a bunch of sexualised objects, but instead carefully introduce them to queer history by exploring such things as what the stripes on the LGBTQ+ flag mean (kids love colours!) and how different families are made up (e.g. with two mums). Coward also discussed the importance of normalising queer identities within collections that aren’t explicitly related to queer history. Natural history museums can use the animal kingdom – rife with queer behaviour – to introduce same-sex relationships like that of Tango the penguin (a famous example found here). Gender variance and queer relations can be explored using real historical figures – such as Mary/Mark Reade – or historical mythology like the story of Apollo and Hyacinth.

The seminar didn’t state any hard rules for teaching queer history to museum-goers. But there were plenty of principles for museums to take away and consider when designing exhibits and events.

  1. Aim at a wide audience rather than assuming every young person attending LGBTQ+ events will be part of that umbrella or come from LGBTQ+ families.
  2. However, be aware that many of the young people visiting museums will be LGBTQ+ or at least beginning to explore their own identity. Museums can be a place – for many the only place other than the massively unregulated internet – where these individuals can learn about their history. And in a time when 1 in 3 LGBTQ+ teens has a recorded mental illness, this kind of openness and discussion in public spaces like museums is vital.
  3. Make sure any sensitive topics or objects are put into context. This applies more to teenagers, with whom it’s possible to start discussing more mature queer history like the AIDS epidemic.
  4. In order to be sensitive to LGBTQ+ audiences, it can be helpful to speak to real people who embody these identities whilst designing events and exhibitions.
  5. Don’t let fear of backlash stop you. Museums may decide that LGBTQ+ family events are not worth the hassle of dealing with homophobic criticism, or may say they are politically neutral whilst queer identities are, at this point in time, inherently political. But museums are inherently political too, so it’s simply not acceptable to hide away so much history because of modern politics.

Overall though, the seminar was really positive and Coward made sure to emphasise how the LGBTQ+ events he’s hosted have been well received by families. Whilst negative feedback is often loudest, the positive feedback is more numerous.

After Sacha’s presentation, everyone was put into breakout rooms to try their hand at designing LGBTQ+ content around random museum objects. It would be interesting to see how these principles could be applied to our own collections here at the University: there is already a handy list of the LGBTQ+ resources in the CRC which can be found here, but if anyone has any queer interpretations of any other collections items, I’d love to hear them! Do feel free to drop us a line at voiceed@outlook.com or on our social media.

Written by Connor Wimblett

The Dissertation Festival 2021: A Review

From the 8-19 March, the University of Edinburgh’s Library ran an online Dissertation Festival, highlighting the resources available and providing advice on the modes of academic research. The information sessions ranged from broader topics such as using the library remotely and reference managing, to more specific advice on utilising digital historical newspaper archives. 

The Academic Support Librarians coordinated the digital historical (or archive) newspaper session. Guidance was offered on the availability of newspaper databases at the library alongside useful search techniques and common issues which can arise when utilising the online archives. The library offers over 60 newspaper databases covering local, regional, national and international titles from the 1600s onwards including broadsides and pamphlets. In regard to historical newspaper research, the librarians noted that background reading and the identification of key search terms are essential. Indeed, giving consideration to alternative spellings, terminology and abbreviations contemporary to the time period in study is also critical. The session also covered areas of evaluation in newspapers, for example, the publishers and the intended audience. In practical terms, guidance was offered on advanced search techniques through the utilisation of Boolean operators: the term ‘or’ to broaden the search along with ‘and’ and ‘not’ to narrow the results. Warning was also given to the common issues found in the use of historical newspapers, primarily that the quality of scans can inhibit the researcher’s ability to read the print alongside gaps in certain titles, countries and years. Overall, this session is a comprehensive guide to the use of archival sources, with essential guidance on approaching, accessing and analysing historical newspapers. 

The session on the introduction to literature searching which was directed at College of Arts, Humanities and Social Sciences students was instructive. It evidenced the importance of a search strategy alongside providing an insight into reference managers and the acquisition of material and literature. When approaching a literature search, the librarians emphasised the importance of the research question, which can be refined and reframed with consideration to time periods, geographical location and particular aspects of interest. Essentially, it is from the research question that the keywords and search terms stem from. In identifying relevant literature, the support librarians recognised that although DiscoverEd and Google Scholar are a useful starting point for research, the university databases allow for a more comprehensive search. The session also recommended that students utilise a reference management system to store references and input or style references in work. Endnote is the university’s supported software; this means that students can benefit from the Digital Skills and Training team’s introductory courses. Alongside the supported software, Zotero and Mendeley are referenced as alternative programmes. Essential advice was also provided in the session on the acquisition of materials not available at the library. The Request a Book service enables the requesting of such books and the Inter-Library Loans facility enables the obtaining of digital copies from other libraries. Although the pandemic has undoubtedly had a detrimental impact on the accessibility of resources, this session was especially useful in providing some reassurance that many materials are still available albeit through alternative mechanisms. 

The Dissertation Festival, despite operating in a very different climate to previous year’s in-person event, still provided the opportunity to learn about how to make the most of the facilities the library has to offer. With insights into primary research and secondary literature searching, the sessions are invaluable to those commencing their final year dissertations.  

For more information on the Dissertation Festival, visit the website: 

https://edinburgh-uk.libguides.com/dissertation

To access session recordings: 

https://media.ed.ac.uk/playlist/dedicated/137338511/1_kb33ohp2/1_ouhn7175

Written by Daisy Collins 

Decolonising Museum Spaces: Live Discussion

Decolonisation: Moving Towards a More Holistic Perspective and Relational Approach was a ‘live discussion’ that is a part of A Meeting Place: Online Global Discussions for Museum and Gallery Professionals series organised by the Museum Association, British Council and ICOM UK. The discussion explored issues with decolonising practices in museums, the opportunities and challenges of decolonisation and the changes in leadership that are needed to fully decolonise museum spaces. Read on to hear more on Tessa’s thoughts of the discussion.

Hosted by the London Director of Arts Council England, Tonya Nelson, the panellists included Miranda Lowe, a principal curator at the Natural History Museum and co-founder of Museum Detox; Rachel Minott, an artist, curator and researcher; Professor Shahid Vawda, the Archie Mafeje Chair in Critical Humanities and Decoloniality Director of School of African and Gender Studies, Anthropology and Linguistics at the University of Cape Town; and Peter White, the senior manager of Aboriginal Strategy and Engagement at Create NSW. 

The big question that faces many museums today is what does the post-colonial return of objects look like, and what is decolonising the museum space? The panellists made the answer clear from the beginning: we must change the way we display, talk about, and participate with artefacts and exhibitions. What does this mean? According to Minott, it calls on museums to develop a policy that supports the decolonisation of their collections. White developed this further, stating that the understanding of decolonisation should focus on the indigenising of collections rather than decolonising. By doing this, museums are acknowledging the existence of different world views and interpretations beyond the dominant west perspective. This helped to segway the discussion into the first question: ‘what do people often get wrong when approaching decolonisation?’ 

Professor Vawda’s answer to this question provided a lot of context to the idea of museums being a colonial practice. The idea of colonisation, especially with regards to the British Empire, is associated with heavy truths of subjugation and white supremacy, which is why it can be hard to accept that spaces such as museums were used to reinforce such racist practices. However, we must understand that the museum was very much a part of the colonial process. Many of the artefacts that now sit in western museums were taken in a colonial context, stolen from their indigenous countries, and brought back as spoils of the colonial era for display. One such example is the alleged Gweagal Shield in the British Museum (you can read more about the controversy of repatriation here or alternatively listen to the Gweagal Shield episode on Marc Fennell’s podcast ‘Stuff the British Stole’). Taken by James Cook when he invaded Botany Bay in the 1770s, there has been an ever-growing demand for the return of the shield by Aboriginal people such as Rodney Kelly, whose ancestors resided in the Sydney area.  

According to Professor Vawda, exhibits of colonial spoils created an evolutionary hierarchy which structured how the ‘other’ came to be understood in Europe. Steeped in the belief that the West was the pinnacle of human progress, this dismissal of other knowledge systems and clear exploitation of colonised cultures for the profits of the coloniser are unfortunately at the foundations of museum history. It is a hard truth we must acknowledge to move forward. In accepting that European progress rested on the practice of colonisation, the decolonisation of museum spaces will no longer be seen as a loss. Instead, it creates opportunities for the introduction of objects to a descendant community through repatriation and taps into new knowledge systems. Museums can then create a shared and integrated world history, rather than displaying different, separate strains. As White put it: The Indigenous culture needs to stop being a cultural commodity, and instead the Indigenous community must be welcomed as a cultural authority to remove the binary opposition of the ‘other.’ 

Following this discussion was the question: ‘as museums get back to normal, what are the opportunities and challenges that have arisen with regards to decolonisation?’ This was the question that piqued my interest as a woman of colour hoping to work in the museum industry post-COVID. What opportunities now lay at my feet to help this process of decolonising museum spaces? Minott had previously mentioned the role of creativity, which Nelson agreed brings a sense of excitement to the serious idea of decolonisation. The idea of digital spaces being utilised, especially in the current COVID setting, was the most obvious opportunity to me.  

However, Minott started the conversation with an interesting point regarding the role of algorithms and the more oppressive exclusive side of technology was brought up. It was never something I had considered when designing digital outreach programmes through VOiCE. Nevertheless, she encouraged us to approach such roadblocks creatively, a sentiment which was seconded by Lowe. The digitisation of museums is a fantastic opportunity to create cultural narratives at home, especially with younger generations who may find digital outreach more engaging. The current ‘we’re all in this together’ mentality has created a sense of empathy, and it is with this empathy that we can embrace accessibility. White emphasises that decolonising museums means no one gets left behind, and in that we must ensure that everyone has access to digital spaces. 

The penultimate question posed towards the panel was one that I think addresses one of the most important caveats of decolonisation in museums: ‘what needs to change in leadership to capitalise on opportunities and address challenges?’ White immediately began the conversation by stating that courage is needed. Museums must question the colonial practices and challenge the current cultural paradigms by embracing innovative ideas and practices. Especially in the current political climate, if we don’t stack up the current realities of these oppressive structure, then museums will lose relevancy. The meanings of artefacts to Indigenous people need to be understood in their own indigenous terms; this then calls for new curatorial systems that consider knowledge systems beyond Western understanding.  

Again, he mentions that decolonising museums is reliant on empathy and requires a system which leaves no one behind. Someone in the chat of the webinar had mentioned the idea of a ‘Curator of Discomfort,’ which Lowe agreed was the core aspect of decolonisation. Museum leadership must embrace the discomfort, a feeling that Black, Indigenous, and marginalised groups have felt for hundreds of years. She seconded White’s call for the inclusion of indigenous involvement, citing that it is key to go out and work with these communities to create cultural change. Professor Vawda also highlighted that the return of human remains to their communities of origin is a key task for museum leadership and called for remains to no longer be seen as objects. There needs to be a new relationship between museums and the Indigenous groups that is more balanced than the current negotiations. 

The talk concluded with a question regarding new work methods and how one can share collections from a different perspective. The panellists discussed options such as personal tours, where museum goers get a perspective that goes beyond the usual narrative of exhibits. Another option is to explore who the experts are and to ensure that the communities of origin are worked into the narrative.  

Overall, this discussion was a great first experience for someone who hadn’t really had a chance to understand what decolonising museums really meant. Despite being from a country that had been previously colonised, I had never considered how my perception of history was shaped by the subversive hierarchal exhibiting of museums. It was a conversation that also made it noticeably clear to me that the museum sector does have voices advocating for systemic change to create an environment of equity. There is a tendency to create a false oppositionality when it comes to decolonising museums and repatriation, a binary created of those who profit and those who lose. However, if we approach this with empathy and with courage, it’s clear that we will all benefit from the new world history that is completely intersectional and completely inclusive. 

Written by Tessa Rodrigues

Museums Association Conference 2020 Review

In early November, the Museums Association – a membership organisation for museum, gallery and heritage professionals – hosted their much-anticipated annual conference. Topics including Black Lives Matter, decolonisation, restitution, diversity and accessibility featured prominently.

Modern Museums Challenging Tradition: 

The largest event of its kind in Europe, this year attendance was rather different. For the first time in its 130-year history – and in true 2020 style – the conference was delivered virtually over Zoom. 

The week proved to be a great success, and enabled wider participation than a traditional conference setting would permit. This was fitting, as the conference – entitled World Turned Upside Down: Exploring the Future of Museums – encouraged delegates to reflect on how to encourage and develop inclusion and representation within UK museums while challenging prescribed narratives. Topics including Black Lives Matter, decolonisation, restitution, diversity and accessibility featured prominently, in addition to discussions about the place of museums in 2020 and what the future holds in a post-pandemic world. 

Born in the 21st century: New museums doing things differently was one of the most thought-provoking webinars I attended, and embraced many of the overarching themes of the conference. Panelists from three different grassroots organisations discussed the challenges of establishing new museums and how their ethos and practices differ from traditional titans of the sector such as the British Museum or the Ashmolean.  

The first speaker was Rachel Crossley, director of the East End Women’s Museum. Crossley spoke of the challenges of running a museum without a permanent building and the misconception that only physical, tangible artefacts lend legitimacy to an institution. The East End Women’s Museum was set up in response to the controversial Jack the Ripper Museum, which opened in East London in 2015 after purporting during the planning stages to be a museum of women’s history. The EEWM is currently a pop-up museum which presents exhibitions in different locations, but has now found its own premises in Barking, East London. It is scheduled to open next year; further info can be found at East End Women’s Museum .

Kinsi Abdulleh, founder of Numbi Arts, spoke of her mission to address the under-representation of the Somali community within British historical narratives. Based in London’s Tower Hamlets, Numbi Arts has been archiving British-Somali heritage since its foundation in 1998. The grassroots organisation is now working towards the opening of a Somali “living museum”, after a successful crowdfunding campaign. According to Abdulleh, the purpose of the Somali Museum is to reclaim British-Somali stories. Too often, Somali objects have no interpretation or are otherwise misunderstood. To discover more about the organisation and what they do,visit Numbi Arts.    

The final panellist was Olivia Windham-Stewart, co-founder of the Museum of British Colonialism. This is a joint UK and Kenyan initiative founded in 2018 to promote greater visibility of cultures and histories under-represented within the wider narrative of British Colonialism. Windham-Stewart emphasised that the MBC has no building or collections. Anything the museum creates must be exhibitable anywhere, and everything is digital, shareable and accessible. This means nothing is “centred” or geographically tied to one place.  To access the exhibits go to Museum of British Colonialism.

It was fantastic to learn about unique organisations challenging traditional ideas of what a museum is, and to consider the future of museums during a time of reflection and change in the sector.  

Thinking of attending next year’s conference? Visit https://www.museumsassociation.org/join/individual-membership/ for details on how to become a member.  

Written by Evie Stevenson

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