Co-curating with communities

Jasdeep Singh Rahal , 09.09.2015
Understanding an underused Indian army collection
At the National Army Museum in London, we are undergoing a project funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund called Brothers in Arms. The project aims to research, catalogue and digitise our rich but underused Indian army collection, a collection that spans more than 200 years and 60,000 objects.

From the planning stages of the project, I felt it was essential that members of British Asian communities were consulted and made to feel a part of the project.

The collection isn’t fully understood or catalogued (in some case it isn’t catalogued at all). With the insight and participation of community volunteers, we are well on our way to giving this collection a new lease of life.
 
We conducted a series of community reinterpretation workshops with the aim to engage subject specialists. These workshops provided communities with rare access to collections that relate to their culture and history, and allowed the museum to understand these collections better. There were many surprising outcomes from these workshops.
 
Volunteers from the British Muslim, Hindu and Sikh communities helped us identify individuals in paintings, locations in photographs and even translated Persian and Gurmukhi inscriptions.

In one instance a sword was previously captioned “sword with meaningless inscription”. This kind of cataloging was a result of a lack of knowledge when the object was first acquired. New perspectives have helped us translate the inscription, which turned out not to be so meaningless and gave the sword an owner and a story.
 
Community engagement has also helped bring objects to life. We learnt about how obscure weapons from Punjab were used. For example, our collection of chakkars (small metal rings with razor sharp outer edges) lay dormant in storage for years but martial arts experts helped demonstrate the various throwing techniques used on battlefields 300 years ago.

These new interpretations are being updated on our databases and will allow visitors and researchers better access to more accurate cataloguing.

The workshops also uncovered a lack of institutional knowledge about the collection that had gone unremarked for decades. Gone are the days when a curator's interpretation was seen as unassailable; today we are slowly moving towards conversing with audiences and co-curating exhibitions with them with their cultural insight and expertise in mind.
 
Going forward, the museum is applying this model of working with several other communities. The outcomes for these workshops are being showcased in new galleries and as a result the communities feel more compelled to visit the museum in the future.

Jasdeep Singh Rahal is the project officer for Brothers in Arms, a project at the National Army Museum. He will discuss the museum’s work with communities at an MP workshop at the Museum Association Conference and Exhibition on 5-6 November in Birmingham


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