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.  

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