Shaping the past - Museums Association

Shaping the past

Maria Amidu has achieved a lot during her time as the head of a national project to help people understand the slave trade, but is now keen to return to more grassroots work. By Felicity Heywood
Felicity Heywood
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Maria Amidu is bubbling over with excitement about Stephen Poliakoff. Sitting on one of the Museums Association's blue Ikea sofas, she is talking about her obsession with archives.

She wriggles around, stretching out one arm on the settee in the hope that she can remember the title of the writer's television drama. Giving up, she tells me the story instead - archive in danger of being lost; US corporation takeover. Most unpleasant for a lover of record-keeping.

Amidu has been an artist for 13 years, but for the past four has been project managing the Understanding Slavery Initiative (USI), a Department for Education and Skills scheme funded through its national/regional museums partnership programme.

This national education project has attracted a lot of positive publicity at museum conferences and workshops in the lead up to this year's commemoration of the 200th anniversary of the parliamentary act that put an end to the slave trade (on paper anyway) in the UK.

The initiative is led by London's National Maritime Museum - where Amidu is based - with Bristol's Museums, Galleries and Archives; the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum, which is also in Bristol; Hull City Museums and Art Gallery; and National Museums Liverpool as partners.

Amidu is now talking about wanting to return to the coalface. She is missing the creativity and spontaneity of working closely with the community and drawing the two together into a long-running project with a legacy attached. She was reminded of this when she produced the celebrated Landmarks DVD for schools as part of USI. 'Any opportunity to work with young people, I jump at it.'

Legacy is a big thing when it comes to this year and 2007 has a lot riding on it. Amidu is not involved in the individual museums' plans for marking the bicentenary, but says she is often called on to give advice and guidance.

Being of African descent has made Amidu, in the eyes of many museum professionals, the font of all knowledge on the subject of slavery. She knows some things, but says she is no expert. 'There have been moments when it has been too much. The responsibility can really weigh you down.'

She constantly receives enquiries from museums and cultural institutions in the UK and abroad who are looking for support for their ideas or possible collaborations. Amidu says this shows there is an obvious need for the project to continue.

This year, probably her last on USI, Amidu will be spending time producing a new citizenship website for schools along with a study pack using four themes: activism; race and representation;
citizenship; and routes. One of the aims is to encourage young people to use museums as part of their research to produce a short film or a newspaper article. At the end of the year there will be a showcase of work and a Question Time-style discussion for young people.

And that will be Amidu's parting shot on the programme. She is ready to tie things up. Even if more money is thrown at USI, Amidu says she will be saying her goodbyes. 'My limit is three years on a project,' she says, denoting a strict and focused attitude to her career.

But she has already broken the three-year rule. The reason she is now into the fifth year is her 'commitment to the learning experience of young people'.

She says it was important to have the chance to continue the ideas that were talked about in phase two of the project. From year to year, no one quite knew whether the money would come through to carry on, so at each stage Amidu had to re-apply for the job. 'USI had no long-term plan. It has grown because of user demand. It has been an organic process and that's why it's been so successful. All partner museums are on a big learning curve.' Apart from Liverpool, it's the first time the museums are looking into collections in relation to this subject.

Amidu says the USI project has been an 'awakening' for each museum involved and has revealed the diversity within communities. 'It has alerted the need to consider multiple histories on any subject,' she says.

Amidu has been pushing this point home at conferences and study seminar days she has been invited to. She did so at a slavery discussion for the Group for Education in Museums last December.
'I am very outspoken about things that need to be expressed and shared,' she says. 'We shouldn't embark on this subject without being truthful about it. 'This year is a golden opportunity for museums to review their history, not only of collections but also of their buildings. The imperial underpinning of museums is fast becoming redundant. There is a need to recurate the space.'

At London's maritime museum, Amidu has witnessed staff finding new ways to manage different perspectives on history and collections. She says there are fewer assumptions being made about how audiences will respond. But she says USI has only scratched the surface. 'There could be long-term research opportunities for fellows to delve into collections.'

Before USI, Amidu was consulting on arts and education programmes for diverse organisations such as Helen Denniston Associates (which published the Holding up the Mirror report on cultural diversity in museums), Ujima Housing Group, and the Commonwealth Institute. She had a glass-making studio in Hackney in east London and had been producing work for group and solo shows since undergraduate studies in 3D Design and a master's degree in ceramics and glass from the Royal College of Art.

But she says she eventually felt like a prisoner in her studio. Cut off from the social world that was informing her art, it became like a production line: 'I can't make work for its own sake,' says the socially driven artist.

She has a one-year artist residency at the Bristol Royal Hospital for Children in 2001 to thank for her change in attitude towards the creative process. It was after working with the patients to devise work for the city's Arnolfini gallery that she realised that as a socially engaged artist it didn't make sense that 'I satellite in and then leave'.

'When one of the participants died, she realised that, however fleeting, she was part of this person's life and her family's life. It is testimony to Amidu's social ease that each year she receives a Christmas card from the family.

She was also artist in residence at three London museums: the Horniman Museum, the Hackney Museum and, the most rewarding, the Foundling Museum. She had approached the Foundling with an idea for a pilot research and development project working with cared-for-children (in local authority care). In 2005 Loop came into being. This involved kids from across London mapping their own lives, allowing them to feel they were part of a bigger history.

As well as working with the children, she produced her own work for the Foundling Museum. Though there was no existing archive at the museum, Amidu managed to create one. When the resident chaplain offered her some letters from previous patients on their experiences she organised them along with found items from the old Victorian hospital and produced a photographic piece. 'Even when there isn't an archive I seem to find one.'

She says people see archives as a public resource, 'but they are so personal and subjective'. In a world where records are kept about cared-for-children, she is very interested in how these children keep records of who they are.

When Amidu re-embarks on her own creative process, she would like to pick up where the Loop project left off. There is the possibility of a three-year research project blending academic, social and art elements. She has this year to work out the detail.

Amidu will be continuing her own legacy when she looks again for another London studio and starts producing work that will feed into wider community projects. There might be a pang of loss at leaving the 'idiosyncrasies' of museums behind - the meetings, the bureaucracy - but if her track record is anything to go by, she will not have the time to miss anything. On top of her work she spends Thursday mornings doing the administration of the renowned cultural academic Stuart Hall, which she calls 'a huge privilege'.

Rummaging through a ripe and bursting archive would be Amidu's idea of a dream. She says her obsession with history centres on the more personal side of it and how that might link in with world events: 'How we decide to make ourselves indelible.' Which is in line with Poliakoff's television drama Shooting the Past - it's not the archive in itself that is important - it's the stories it tells.

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