Trendswatch | Critical friends - Museums Association

Trendswatch | Critical friends

The directors of Museum X on how outside voices can help museums create meaningful change
Anti-racism Freelance Museum X
Tola Dabiri, Sandra Shakespeare and Cheryl Bowen
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Detail from Hannah Uzor’s painting of Sarah Forbes Bonetta, which features in English Heritage’s Painting Our Past: The African Diaspora in England exhibition

Since the outpouring of support for Black Lives Matter in May 2020, many freelancers of colour have found an increased demand for their services as museum and heritage organisations develop programmes and policies to meet their commitments to increasing diversity.

Through our consultancy work at Museum X, we have seen a growing trend to ask questions such as how do we support demands for racial justice, rather than just reinforcing the status quo, and how can we become a space for good? 

Non-traditional

Museum X, which was formed as a community interest company in March, has been providing consultancy services since October 2020. From the start, we decided to take a non-traditional approach to our work. We have a wealth of strategic, participatory, project management and research skills that we bring to our work, along with our experiences as Black women in the heritage sector.  

Some of the responses to the equality, diversity and inclusion (EDI) agendas have, unfortunately, fallen back on familiar solutions that have failed in the past. Toolkits, unpaid internships and short-term training opportunities in administrative posts do diversify organisations on a surface level, but they do little to change the balance of power.

When opportunities to contribute to these schemes have presented themselves, we have declined to take part. Instead, we incorporate new approaches of critical friendship, global perspectives and alliances into the work that we undertake for our clients.  

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A successful critical friendship is built on mutual trust and respect – and this takes time. We are mindful of seemingly quick-fix solutions and challenge timeframes that potentially hinder genuine progression towards meaningful and relevant change.  

The relationship with the client is crucial; as consultants, we want to take an objective and analytical view of an organisation’s plans.  

As critical friends, we have challenged assumptions about the Black British experience of museums and heritage, and have instead proposed approaches to projects that will really benefit communities.  

We have challenged the language of colonialism, which perpetuates historical trauma to current generations. Most of all, we have challenged the European historical perspective of Africans and Black Britons, by using the work of Black scholars and researchers, who have unearthed information about Black history that has previously been ignored or obscured in conventional texts.

Our critical friendship has been exhausting at times and we greatly admire the bravery of our clients for meeting these challenges head on and making changes when necessary to reflect their core values.  

In addition to critical friendship, we have promoted the role of global scholarship with our clients. As a result of enslavement, colonisation and economic migration, the African diaspora can be found across the world. When researching and planning projects and programmes about people of colour, these global perspectives, and the rich contextual information that they bring, are often missing.  

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Global scholarship

Glasgow University and English Heritage have begun working closely with scholars from the University of the West Indies in their research about the transatlantic slave trade and the lives of enslaved Africans. Global scholarship is essential when researching African objects and artefacts, which have languished in museum stores, with little knowledge of their origins or intended use. 

There are many new opportunities to be explored, such as this Museum X takeover of Museums Journal. From the outset, the editorial team allowed us to shape this edition as we wanted, lending its expertise when needed.  

It is a genuine collaboration between Museum X and Museums Journal, and has allowed a range of diverse voices and perspectives to be heard. Although it is easy to become cynical about allyship, these leaps of faith can open up new possibilities for radical change beyond Black Lives Matter statements.  

Global scholarship and alliances are not new or conclusive techniques to advancing the EDI cause; nor are they relevant to all of the work that Museum X is commissioned to deliver. But when do we use these approaches, we believe we are using our space for good. 

Tola Dabiri, Sandra Shakespeare and Cheryl Bowen are directors of Museum X 

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