Valuing the past for the future is taught by the creation of museums, and there are museums in the homes of Black British people living throughout the UK. But these museums are continually being lost, as the curators have no permanent venue to donate their items to as one generation after another passes. These carefully curated home spaces are being dismantled and destroyed on a regular basis.
However, curators such as Michael McMillan have given us permission and authority to value these spaces, as shown by the West Indian Front Room exhibition that he created.
This can be seen once again in the recently reopened Museum of the Home in Shoreditch, east London, which explores the migrant experience of African-Caribbean families setting up home in the UK in the mid-20th century. I began exploring heritage spaces when I was in primary school, as they satisfied a need for finding out and getting to know more about my world.
The Commonwealth Institute on Kensington High Street, now home to the Design Museum, was a favourite Saturday afternoon and holiday haunt. It was a combination of a museum, library and art gallery, and provided hours of exploration and discovery and a connection to my wider community. I was delighted to see anything that reflected my colour and culture. I collected to rescue discarded Black dolls, books, beadwork, carvings and beautiful things. A home was provided for them and the home became the museum.
Kenyan-born poet and novelist Khadambi Asalache altered the interior of his house at 575 Wandsworth Road, in south-west London, by adding delicate fretwork. His home, and the objects he collected, were acquired by the National Trust and are now a museum that the public can visit.
Lonnie Bunch, the former director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington DC, has spoken about realising that the museum was already out there with the people. Notable among many of the items it has acquired was the American abolitionist Harriet Tubman’s shawl, which came with undeniable provenance having been treasured for many years.
Tubman escaped the bonds of slavery as a young woman in the early 1800s and she returned to the south many times as a “conductor” on the Underground Railroad to lead other African Americans to freedom.
The late Len Garrison, the co-founder member of Black Cultural Archives in
south London, collected Black memorabilia. And Charlie Phillips, a photographer and documenter of Black London, is also an enthusiastic collector.
The list is endless and there are many treasures waiting to be discovered. The Black British Museum is out there waiting to come home.
Maureen Roberts is an author, teacher and lecturer