Brown Babies is an exhibition at the Mixed Museum – a digital museum and archive that shares and preserves the social history of racial mixing in Britain.
The exhibition was developed from research undertaken by Lucy Bland, a professor of social and cultural history at Anglia Ruskin University, into the experiences of 45 people who were born in Britain to black GI fathers and white mothers during the second world war.
Dubbed “brown babies” by the American press, these children grew up illegitimate, without fathers or black role models, subjected to racism and lacking a sense of belonging. Their history was largely unknown.
To share these personal stories more widely outside her published book of the same name, Lucy developed a travelling exhibition made up of seven six-foot paper banners that was intended to tour widely across museums and galleries around the country.
After being displayed in Street Library and the Black Cultural Archives in London, the exhibition became stuck in Manchester Central Library at the onset of lockdown.
In response, she turned to the Mixed Museum to discuss if there were any possibilities for sharing the banner material online. We worked with Lucy to develop an online exhibition. The work was funded by Anglia Ruskin University as part of its small projects funding support for research impact.
As the collaboration progressed, the advantages of moving the exhibition online became apparent. In addition to being able to display the original banner material via the digital exhibition platform, more use could be made of Lucy’s collection of project material that was not suited to a paper display.
The digital Brown Babies exhibition incorporates a wealth of additional photographs and personal narratives, as well as the inclusion of audio snippets taken from oral interviews with project participants.
A key priority for the exhibition was to capture audience engagement. The feedback survey was moved online where it forms part of the exhibition, turning visitor responses into an attractive world war two-styled digital postcard display.
A clear benefit of hosting the exhibition digitally is also our ability to chart engagement levels and adapt our promotional strategy.
While we are delighted that the exhibition received more than 700 visitors in its first month, our biggest challenge is that survey engagement has been lower in numbers than we would like.
Our analytic data suggests this is because people filling in the survey are mostly from the 40+ age bracket while our main audience is overwhelmingly from the under 35 age group.
We are now working on ways to encourage our younger audience to share their feedback, including using Instagram as a promotional tool.
Going digital also allows for wider and deeper audience reach. We have been able to share the exhibition with visitors around the world, including the American family members of project participants. Almost 20% of visitors have returned to the exhibition at least once.
Another benefit of moving online is the ability to be responsive as creators and continue to add to the exhibition.
The exhibition’s highly successful webinar launch event in mid-September (with 60 invited attendees) provoked a wave of engaged and moving reactions, including from those who did not feature in the exhibition but share a similar history.
We have added a ‘Responses’ section to the digital exhibition, featuring clips from the webinar as well as a range of content from those with a personal connection to this period of history. We encourage people to submit responses in whatever creative form they wish, such as photographs, videos, poems or artwork.
As a result, we have created a new community archive of memories that will be preserved and shared.
Finally, the move online has ensured that what was originally conceived as a pop-up exhibition now has a permanent home in the Mixed Museum.
The partnership has resulted in excellent benefits to both parties, bringing together high quality academic research and digital museum expertise, and we are now planning ways of building on the work.
Chamion Caballero is the director of the Mixed Museum