Transformation through co-production - Museums Association

Transformation through co-production

As this year’s MA Conference explores inequalities and racism, Ranmalie Jayawardana explains how National Museums Liverpool is working with communities to decolonise in a collaborative way
Decolonising Museums
Ranmalie Jayawardana
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Ranmalie Jayawardana
Ranmalie Jayawardana © Robin Clewley

Our Waterfront Transformation Project is a landmark redevelopment, encompassing Canning Dock and the Museum of Liverpool as well as smaller buildings around Albert Dock. But the cornerstone is the transformation of the International Slavery Museum and the Maritime Museum

Originally a gallery in the basement of the Maritime Museum, the International Slavery Museum opened within the Hartley Pavilion (which also houses the Maritime Museum) in 2007 after local activism shone a light on how this important story in Liverpool’s history needed its own museum. Now, we are expanding into the Dr Martin Luther King Junior Building, giving the museum its own front door for the first time.

We know that the story of Liverpool and the trafficking of enslaved African people cannot be told just within the walls of the International Slavery Museum. And we know we cannot tell this story alone. That is why the Waterfront Transformation Project is being co-produced – so that this pivotal and complex history can be understood across our sites, and the project’s vision can be shaped by communities locally, nationally, and globally.

My role as community participation lead is to facilitate this process, disrupting the long-standing and unequal power relations which mean that only a small section of society visits our museums and an even smaller number of people get to shape them. I am honoured to work with a team of Black and South Asian women who support and critique each other. Together, we bring people with different lived experiences into the project by creating pathways that resonate strongly for each individual.

Some contributors have been banging on the door for years wanting to tell their story and this process is a cathartic experience for them. For others, these collections are extremely difficult. Supporting contributors’ wellbeing and renumerating them for their expertise is a vital part of our work.

We do not know yet what stories will be told in our redeveloped museums; that will come as we continue working with community partners. What we do know is that slavery built Liverpool and the world that we live in today. That’s why we need to meaningfully include as many people as possible to reimagine what International Slavery Museum can do as a people-led space that drives social change.

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This redevelopment is a real opportunity for structural change. That is why we are creating a model of co-production with the University of Leicester that challenges how we work at National Museums Liverpool and can apply the same rigour to all our collections going forward. This framework will embed co-production as our primary way of working long after the doors to the new museums open.

It is such a privilege to do the work I do. There is so much support in Liverpool for what we are doing and real integrity to the work being done across the country. Learning from other people from the global majority working on similar themes keeps me inspired and motivated. The allyship through networks like Museum Detox is astounding.

What I would love for people to take away from my work is to get involved; together we can make a real difference to how we collect, what we collect and what we use those collections for.

Ranmalie Jayawardana is the community participation lead at the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool

If you want to get involved in shaping the future of International Slavery Museum, email waterfront.transformation@liverpoolmuseums.org.uk

  • See the Museums Association conference programme here

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