Powell-Cotton Museum - Museums Association

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Powell-Cotton Museum

Using social media to engage audiences and bust myths

In June 2020, following the murder of George Floyd, the Powell-Cotton Museum shared a statement supporting Black Lives Matter. We acknowledged our colonialist, racist past and the continued influence it has on our representation of communities across Africa and Asia today.

This was not about jumping on a bandwagon. For 18 months, we had been working behind the scenes on our ‘Re-imagining the museum’ programme, turning the ‘Museum of the Great White Hunter’ on its head. Now, we had an urgent call to push this work into the public domain.

We followed up our statement with a social media campaign over June and July 2020. These posts explored what ‘decolonising the museum’ meant, debunked myths about what it involved and shared examples of decolonising work, including our Namibian Narratives and Colonial Critters projects.

We knew highlighting social justice issues would feel unfamiliar to some of our audiences, so used as little jargon as possible and kept the tone friendly but firm.

As anticipated, we received negative comments. When doing work like this, it is essential to look after yourself and colleagues. Over a relatively short space of time, we engaged a lot of people whilst still doing our day jobs in lockdown conditions. It was both invigorating and emotionally tiring. Share the load if possible and get support and buy-in from your leadership team.

We also appreciated how amazing our museum community is. Although we had to deal with negativity, we got even more positive engagement. Our online activity demonstrated that a far broader range of people want to be part of our community, we just hadn’t welcomed them previously. We’re committed to changing this.

Since last summer, our decolonising museums social media activity has taken a different approach. Having laid the foundations, we want to show what changing the narrative means in practice.

Our #MuseumMaker campaign highlights all the other people, apart from the Powell-Cotton family, without whom the museum wouldn’t exist. This includes African hunters, trackers, cooks and porters on expeditions, and set painters and museum staff back home in Kent – none of them have had any real recognition until now.

We’ve also launched a new website, creating a permanent digital home for stories, discussion and multiple points of view around our collections. This digital space will keep our visitors engaged while we remain closed for day-to-day visits, and complements the transformation taking place in our physical space. We’re working hard behind the scenes to bring these silenced voices back into the building permanently.

Image: From the #MuseumMaker project – Sittara and Nugis were trackers and hunters who accompanied Percy Powell-Cotton on his first hunting trip to Kashmir and helped him shoot his first yak. Sittara worked with Percy for nearly a decade

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