Re-imagining museums as decolonised repositories of all our stories.

Re-imagining museums as decolonised repositories of all our stories.

By Tot Foster, 17th June 2021 

Black South West network (BSWN), one of the key partners for Connecting Through Culture, held a seminar ‘Beyond Museums in the Aftermath of Colston’ on the 7th June. This marked the anniversary of the murder of George Floyd and Black Lives Matter protests, including those in Bristol which reflected the wider movement but also highlighted debate about colonial objects. 150 people joined the seminar online and a panel of scholars, activists, and community members discussed the present role and potential futures of museums in larger conversations and movements around race and racism and the decolonisation of cultural heritage. The whole event is available to watch on BSWN’s YouTube channel at 

The very same day, on a personal level, I started work as a Research Associate on Connecting Through Culture. Whilst looking forward to my new role and the opportunities it offers to understand and act on digital inclusion, the seminar underlined the huge responsibility such a post carries; the absolute need for humility, deep reflection and action on decolonisation that comes with being involved in a cultural project that aims for true inclusivity and accountability.  

Rob Mitchell, from Firstborn Creatives, chaired the event which opened with Sado Jirde, Director of BSWN, reminding us that “we need to change the types of questions we ask and the outcomes we want” to achieve sustainable action and racial justice in cultural organisations. She raised the question as to whether museums, as they are currently constructed, can hold and tell the stories of racially minoritised people. She asked us to dream together about something that isn’t simply ‘slight tweaks’ that aim for assimilation, but instead offers a ‘third space’ that encapsulates intangible heritage; a solution that is dynamic and community-led, not necessarily focused on objects in a building. 

Dr Errol Francis, CEO of Culture&, was the keynote speaker. He expanded on museums complicity in maintaining colonialism and imperialism, with statements of solidarity with BLM being tokenistic and lacking clear commitment, and for Bristol it being “not enough to say their digital offering is going to reflect real stories”. He talked about Bristol museums failure to return Benin bronzes, their obfuscation of the city’s colonial past, and how traumatic memories can be re-opened on visiting museums. He called for intangible heritage, the stories that objects cannot tell, to be at the forefront of a radical new approach. 

As a researcher myself, working with communities, cultural institutions and Bristol University, it was then fascinating to hear Matt Branch from Brown University talk about the BSWN research project; Examining the Situation of Decolonisation Within the Culture and Heritage Sector in The South West of England’ (2020) This research involved in-depth conversations with many community-based organisations and staff from over 15 cultural heritage institutions in the region. Matt Branch went through the findings of the project (available on the link above). He related how senior staff in mainstream organisations are comfortable with defining and explaining inclusion using ‘hospitality’ language but are less engaged with decolonisation and addressing fundamental injustices in power and resourcing. He talked about a tension between values and actions, the latter being stymied by concerns over losing core audience; ‘How do you bring along an audience who love you the way you are?’. He pointed out that the fall of Colston through direct action changes the question that mainstream institutions should be asking themselves to ‘How can you risk not taking action? Matt Branch, in critiquing outreach-based partnerships as not being genuinely collaborative nor long-lasting, suggested that mainstream institutions should be leveraging institutional power and resources for those who have none and then ‘getting out of the way’. From community organisations’ points of view mainstream organisations have an ‘unwillingness to give up power’ and a lack of trust and diversity in the workforce, exclusion, and extractive relationships prevent meaningful partnerships developingLimited capacity in mainstream cultural organisations is a problem too; expertise in community engagement tends to be ‘ghettoised’ within bridging partnership organisations rather than being held within the mainstream institutions that are not placing community engagement at the heart of their offering.A panel discussion followed with:

  • Dr Errol Francis – CEO of Culture& 
  • Asher Craig -Deputy Mayor 
  • Edson Burton – Writer, Historian, Curator and member of Come The Revolution 
  • Lisa Graves – World Cultures and Archaeology Curator 
  • Kelly Foster – Historian  
  • Cleo Lake – Black Artists On The Move 
  • Tom Morris – Artistic Director of Bristol Old Vic
  • Sado Jirde – Director of BSWN  

There was general agreement that pressing conversations are needed across Bristol around decolonisation, reparations and the allocation of resources. In short there needs to be an acknowledgement of power relationships in the heritage and cultural sector, and action taken to move power and resources into the community. Cleo Lake reflected on the purpose of museums and re-framed them as ‘centres of remembrance’. Ed Burton asked ‘what is the nation now?’ as he described museums as needing to tell a new national story, talking about the importance of archiving community assets in alternative spaces. Kelly Foster underlined that it is impossible to disengage decolonisation from restitution and reparations and raised issues of top-down classification in museums as creating structures that perpetuate exclusion. Lisa Graves talked about the new Colston display at M-shed where the recovered statue of Colston is being displayed alongside placards from the protests. She articulated some of the challenges for the council which can slow down change. Tom Morris spoke from the perspective of being on a journey towards decolonisation at the Old Vic theatre. He described the need to counter the ‘concerted act of suppression of conscience’ which has supported injustice over the centuries. He reminded us that this journey involves learning and making mistakes but that powerful storytelling is a catalyst for change.  

As I left the Zoom call I felt inspired, and perhaps a little daunted. It is absolutely clear that Connecting Through Culture needs to be part of an urgent sea change in empowering all communities to control how their heritage is remembered and communicated. As a research team we must ensure that co-production methods bring community and university partners and closer together, that there is a movement of power and resource into the community and that our work does not further assimilate people’s stories into existing or new problematic institutional structures. The project needs to create spaces beyond the museum and beyond objects, where intangible heritage is recorded and celebrated; given its rightful place at the heart of our understanding of the past and present and our shared humanity.  


Creating the void: collective change in shared isolation – Farrell Renowden in conversation with researcher Karen Gray

Creating the void: collective change in shared isolation – Farrell Renowden in conversation with researcher Karen Gray

Karen Gray, 25th May 2021

Farrell Renowden is Head of Cultural Partnerships at Age UK OxfordshireAge of Creativity Director, Equality Diversity Inclusion Champion at Age England Association and one of our ‘Connecting through Culture’ project’s expert advisors. We spoke at the end of April 2021 and amongst other things, we discussed what COVID has taught us about digital or ‘blended’ approaches to arts and cultural participation involving older people. This blog presents highlights of this conversation.  

How would you characterise the ‘shift to digital’ during the pandemic? and has there been a timeline for this? 

It’s gone in stages. There was that period of everybody scrambling to get online, but it soon became clear that there wasn’t enough understanding around people who aren’t online, and that the groundwork hadn’t been done to explore the nature and quality of the connections that are possible there. That was when I set up a kind of ‘non-digital’ working group of people who were grappling with these issues. It felt important to explore how to work in ways that weren’t digital, given the urgent needs of older people and the uncertainty over when and how the lockdown would ease.  

Lots of organisations across the country developed physical creative packs, some going out with essential care packages and into places like care homes where access was difficult. Producing our own pack, we experienced the logistic nightmare of printing and packing in total lockdown, but, in discussion with other organisations, we also spent time reflecting on whether we could make this response sustainable longer term.  It has been hard to know whether these responses were an effective one-off or if they are evolving into a new approach to delivery. 

Over the summer it felt like things began to change again. The Black Lives Matter protests really challenged people to think again about inclusion. By the autumn we were thinking about digital in quite a different way and grappling with different issues of logistics and quality.  By this point, focus had moved to ‘blended’ approaches – that sweet spot between the online and offline that meets people ‘where they are at right now’. As a non-digital working group we were evolving into this space, but still uncertain about how best to deliver on multiple platforms, or what it would mean for participants and practitioners.  

And now? 

It feels we’re in for yet another shift. Online seems to have evolved dramatically and the sophistication of the offer is astounding in such a short period of time.  But this has come at a cost.  Freelancers have had to think on their feet and shift their practice with little support or training.  Larger organisations have invested in their offer and more digital cultural content seems to be being monetized.  While this may be a necessity for the survival of the sector, it means we may have another set of barriers to contend with in terms of equity of access to culture.  

Organisations are also shifting back towards in-person work again.  We know that for some older people who never made the transition to digital, this is a welcome relief, but we also know that confidence across older populations to take part in face to face activity is still really low. And there is still lots to unpick about the odd middle-ground blended space.  

A collage of a person

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Participants in the ‘Framing Oxford’ project. Credit: Helen Fountain and AUKO. 

Yes. I’m interested to know more about what blended means in this context. 

I can tell you what it meant for a project we delivered: this was the post-lockdown adaptation of a project, originally designed to take place in person in our local heritage centre. The aim was to work with a group of older people to create a new archive based on their local area. With in-person participation no longer an option, we felt it was important they could take part in a way that worked for them.   

We offered the opportunity to take part on Zoom, by phone, by email, or through the post. We could have run two projects in tandem – one offline, one online – but we were keen to pilot a ‘third way’ where participants weren’t segregated by the communication tool they chose.  We felt it was important to give people the option to move between channels if they wished or if their circumstances changed, with the content staying the same. We also wanted to maintain a whole group feel so that everyone felt part of the same project.  

We are used to going with the flow and responding to the needs of the group, but the blended approach added yet another dimension. Our participants had equal status in the decision-making processes; they weren’t guinea pigs. Our shared anticipation of the unknown helped created a safe space where we all contributed to shaping the project and refining the approach. In the end the group made a short film as the final community archive, as well as adding new items to the collection, including transcripts, paintings and photographs – but no one knew quite what would happen at the start.  

What were the benefits of doing it this way? 

It meant we were able to involve people who were housebound or shielding. The project also reached people it wouldn’t have done if it had been face to face. One lady was receiving end-of-life care at home and although she sadly subsequently passed away, she was able to take part. Others had really significant caring responsibilities. It was important that, although the participants didn’t know each other at the start, they had a neighbourhood and community in common, so they were able to bond through that. We also saw real shifts of online confidence happening, with people moving from taking part by post to phone to online with support.  

And what challenges did this way of working bring? 

Time and resources. We were confident about the quality of the creative content, but the delivery was totally different to anything we had ever done before, and that was hard. 

The project raised a lot of questions for us. What does active or passive ‘engagement’ or ‘participation’ look like when it is happening on screen, on the phone, through the post or on email? How do you recognise when it is working well? How do you create and maintain the feel of being in a group when people are taking part in different ways and at different times? Are some artforms better suited to this kind of approach than others?  

It also raised ethical issues. It is harder to see whether something arriving with a participant through the post is causing harm. There is also a worry that we may be starting something we won’t have capacity to follow through on. And evaluating this kind of work is still new for most of us. 


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Age of Creativity Festival 2021 Roadmap

Where do you see as the opportunities for the future? 

Although the past year has been very challenging, it has never felt a better time to be involved with creativity and culture in the age sector. It’s funny how, pre-pandemic, creativity and culture was definitely seen as an add-on: people might say ‘yeah, it’s nice and we definitely get the value of it’ but then it was difficult to move the agenda forward. The pandemic has driven home the fact that it’s not just ‘nice’, it’s essential.  We genuinely felt like key workers during the pandemic. Perhaps more strikingly, the people in the ageing sector also perceived us in that way.  The momentum for change now feels palpable. 

I’ve noticed funders placing more emphasis on the role of community connections than before. There seems a greater need for partnership-working. And, with the larger, often building-based organisations coming back into the picture as people return from furlough and the move to re-open, they are finding that some of the smaller more flexible, community-focused, place-based arts and non-arts organisations – and individual practitioners – have developed a stronger voice, because it is they who have been delivering this essential cultural work throughout. Through it all, culture never stopped, it’s just been happening in different ways – and continues to do so. 

Farrell Renowden: @FarrellRenowden 

Karen Gray: @kcrgray