Working life | Zandra Yeaman - Museums Association

Working life | Zandra Yeaman

'People are willing to learn and be the change that is needed': The curator of discomfort at the Hunterian explains her role
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Geraldine Kendall Adams
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Zandra Yeaman is on an 18-month secondment at The Hunterian in Glasgow
Zandra Yeaman is on an 18-month secondment at The Hunterian in Glasgow
What does “curator of discomfort” mean in a museum context?

Museums are beginning to understand their complicity in perpetuating ideologies centred on white cultural superiority. A curator’s role is evolving. As the curator of discomfort, I curate people through the discomfort of adopting a more critical approach to issues of race, identity, gender and colonial histories. I challenge and support people through the discomfort necessary in reassessing traditional interpretation, and help to reshape curatorial thinking and create narratives that address the legacies of our history.

What drew you to the role?

After years of agitating and campaigning for change within museums from the outside, I was looking to work with a museum willing to be experimental in developing a model to transform practice. Often museums focus on community engagement projects without giving up any of their authority. They produce an exhibition and that’s it. I saw this role as a beginning to open up the uncomfortable conversations that need to happen internally to challenge this authority and practice.

What kind of things have you been working on?

Eighteen months is not long for the change required, particularly during a pandemic. The museum is shut, which has had an impact on collaborations with my colleagues and the first phase of work I wanted to do. There will be a lot of exciting work coming out of the Hunterian, including restitution and exploring the legacy of the British empire.

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However, during the closure, I have delivered workshops to museum staff from across Scotland to identify and dismantle white supremacy within the functions and practices of their institution: exploring white supremacy as an economic and cultural system in which white western ideals control the power of the text, the material resources and ideas of cultural superiority.

Symbolic gestures and short projects are not going to deliver the outcomes on their own. Museum practitioners need the leadership support and resources to be able to deliver on the impact our historical legacies have on society.

You’re on a secondment from the Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights. What will you take away from working at the Hunterian?

It is too early to say but I am gaining a lot from my colleagues and I am enjoying their journey as much as mine. On reflection, being mixed race is about duality and occupying two spaces simultaneously, and that brings its own complexities of maintaining my focus on what I need to do. I am used to working alongside colleagues who understand these complexities and are a source of support. This experience has magnified that for me.

What do you hope will be the legacy of the project?

Curating Discomfort is only the beginning towards a changing museum. The Coalition for Racial Equality and Rights is in discussion with the Hunterian to form a wider partnership that would see this work continue in the long term. People are willing to learn and be the change that is needed. For some, it is a complete culture shift, but we need to meet them where they are on that journey. We must keep building trust between museum practitioners, anti-racist activists, academics and communities.

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