Seizing the opportunity to explore our history - Museums Association

Seizing the opportunity to explore our history

Power imbalances must not go unchallenged, writes Samenua Sesher
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Samenua Sesher
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The moment I have been dreading is here – Black Lives Matter has apparently had its day in the sun. The uprising no longer captures the news headlines. We are back to Covid-19, which will probably give way to Brexit and life will trundle on – or will it?

The pandemic will alter the fabric of the cultural sector and wider society for years to come. But how will this moment of dramatic change affect African people in the heritage sector? My hope lies in radical and visionary solutions; my fear is that we shall witness the preservation of the status quo.

Both hope and fear led to a wonderful conversation about Black ambition and excellence with Shawn Sobers, associate professor, cultural interdisciplinary practice at UWE Bristol, and Laura Van Broekhoven, the director of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford.

Black ambition is often associated with admission into white spaces and, as Van Broekhoven put it, excellence is associated with whiteness because the institutions described as excellent are white.

Sobers asked if we are using all our energy and expertise in diversifying and decolonising white spaces, what energy is left to build our own centres of excellence? I asked if we have the ambition to build new national heritage treasure spaces, how will the heritage and funding world respond?

The Museum of Colour’s proposition is to explore 250 years of contributions made by creatives of colour to the culture we enjoy today, and to work with creatives of colour to explore and reimagine existing heritage. Our current exhibition, Respect Due, our response to Covid-19, is personal and public, in the way that the pandemic has been.

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Covid has exposed the precariousness of employment, and this was mirrored in the lack of resilience in organisations with no full-time capacity. Many go from project grant to project grant, getting through with a variety of side hustles. There is no reliable bank of financially secure volunteers. The current models of funding are not flexible and often require significant unpaid work to be done before any resource is attached.

As the custodians and communicators of British history, the heritage world is at the heart of this new era

For organisations with no core funding, it can be a trap of permanent insecurity. This makes funders wary to commit funds and the cycle continues. All too often, ambition is greeted with scepticism, coupled with stern advice to reduce scope and scale.

Transformation is called for. It is not healthy for hierarchies to go unchallenged and power imbalances must be questioned. As the custodians and communicators of British history, the heritage world is at the heart of this new era.

Historical truth does not need to be threatening to British identity – let’s be proud of having the courage to face it and seize the opportunity to explore how we want history to remember us.

Samenua Sesher is a consultant and trainer, and the founder and director of the Museum of Colour

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