We want more people to know that museums are there for them to use and enjoy. This means thinking about the stories we tell and who tells them.
In March 2019, when Ipswich Museums’ community panel challenged us to make our next exhibition relevant to more local people, we realised that we needed to do something completely different.
It would mean working in new ways, challenging our own assumptions and borrowing a “star” object that was widely recognised – something that would act as a hook, and as a bridge between people and the museum collections.
We quickly came to the idea of borrowing from Marvel Studios because we wanted to explore the theme of storytelling and how it overlaps with our collections. People wonder how we got Marvel to lend us three costumes from its 2018 film Black Panther but sadly there’s no juicy story there – after days of searching for the right email address, my colleague Isobel just asked.
Marvel is one of the most iconic storytellers of the past decade and the team really understood what we wanted to achieve – it’s still a bit of a surprise that they said yes though.
The real story stems from our underlying hope for our Power of Stories exhibition (until 24 October) to be useful. This is what has driven our work with locals to explore co-curation, representation, community empowerment, decolonisation and legacy. These are big words for a small town, but with the costumes of Marvel characters Okoye, Shuri and T’Challa as the centrepiece, Power of Stories has snowballed into much more than a temporary display.
Inspiring a movement
With nine successful funding bids submitted by community groups and organisations using the exhibition as inspiration for their own creative projects, I’d go as far as to say it has inspired a movement.
The display itself centres on our under-interpreted world cultures collections in a celebration and interrogation of stories, encouraging visitors to think more critically about the stories they hear and share.
We wanted to cover several topical themes, which are reflected in the Black Panther movie as well as the historic museum collections, including representation, looting, cultural erasure and fake news.
Local, national and international stories and histories that have been under-told take pride of place. African collections, seldom seen for hundreds of years, provide a backdrop to the costumes and highlight the richness and diversity of the continent – stories we rarely hear in the UK.
We hold up a mirror to our organisation and to society, but in a way that is enjoyable for audiences. If visitors leave feeling reflective, curious, empowered and uplifted, then our job is done.
We have attempted to quieten the museum voice and instead bring the voices of our community into focus – their words and stories in the first person have a superpower that affects you in ways traditional museum labels never could.
At the heart of this approach are six community curators: Lanai Collis-Phillips, Imani Sorhaindo, Glen Chisholm, Ivy Devonish-Scott, Daisy-Ann Lees and Mike Lawless.
From the outset, they have influenced the tone of the exhibition to ensure that it celebrates, educates and inspires.
Power of Stories has connected museum collections with a broader community than ever before, setting us on a journey of acknowledgement and improvement. It is also paving the way for a ground-breaking capital development, which holds the principles of anti-racism, democratisation and co-creation at its heart.
Some people in the local community see this as an opportunity to tell important and untold stories, others as a chance to bring people together at a time of isolation and polarisation.
More still see it as the start of a serious commitment to equitable representation in museum collections and displays.
Springboard for creativity
One thing I can say with confidence and joy is that it has provided a springboard for cultural creativity across the town – from grassroots groups such as Ipswich Community Media to nationally acclaimed organisations such as DanceEast. This work has brought together a range of people who believe in the role stories can play in shaping communities.
We know Power of Stories is not perfect, and we know it is not “mission accomplished”. All involved have learned important lessons along the way. But what it has done, without doubt, is foster a new relevance of the museums for local people, who previously felt unheard and overlooked but who now want to be involved in shaping the work of the museums that serve them.
Melanie Hollis is the collections and learning curator at Ipswich Museums, part of Colchester and Ipswich Museums Service