Samenua Sesher is the founder and director of the Museum of Colour, a digital museum celebrating the achievements of people of colour in film, television and the arts. She started her career in theatre, and has also worked in television, local government and community arts.
The Museum of Colour collaborated with the Bodleian Libraries and Oxford-based charity Fusion Arts on the exhibition These Things Matter: Empire, Exploitation and Everyday Racism, a free exhibition at Blackwell Hall, Weston Library, until 19 February 2023.
What is your vision for the Museum of Colour as a digital museum?
The fundamental thing for any museum (whether it’s physical or digital) is to know what it is you want to do and why you’re doing it. I’m really clear that we are a digital-first museum because we are for and about people from the global majority with diasporas across the world.
So, someone might live in Newcastle but have family in Iran, and it’s important that their family are able to engage with them where they are. Digital has shrunk the world and in many ways that’s a good thing because it increases our reach.
I would like us to eventually have a physical home, but do we really need another physical museum with a collection so large that you can’t store it all? I’ve never met a museum director who is not worried about where they are going to keep everything.
There’s also another aspect for me, because the communities the Museum of Colour is looking to serve generally don’t have a huge amount of trust in museums. How many museums have collections policies that include ‘us’ [people of colour]? Who is interested in what we have and our stories? And if they are, do we trust them to take our things?
[Being a digital museum] allows us to create a collection policy that is sustainable and trustworthy.
What were the origins of the These Things Matter exhibition?
The Museum of Colour launched our first exhibition, People of Letters, with the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford in 2019 about writers of colour. We invited 10 writers to respond to items in the museums’ collection, including Kei Miller who chose a lacewood whip to respond to – you can read his poem in the museum.
The exhibition came out of my need to show what Museum of Colour could do but because people seem to understand it and I knew we couldn’t raise enough money to do a full exhibition [on our own]. People of Letters was the start of that relationship with Oxford University Gardens, Libraries and Museums, and we turned it into a memorandum of understanding that we would continue to work together.
A few years later, I was doing research on something else and came across the slave bible – this is basically a censored version of the King James Bible, edited to retract anything that might make a slave think they shouldn’t be enslaved or that might incite rebellion. And this was used to teach slaves how to read.
There are so many layers to this thing, but what really resonated for me was how few people know about this very conscious emotional manipulation. This is not some accidental thing.
We spend a lot of time talking about abolition of slavery, but we really need to also talk what we did to maintain these structures – and how this is still relevant today.
Slavery existed in order to grow empire, through free labour on colonies, and the economic structure that we still have to place today are based on a model that allows for the most rapid economic growth to take place in areas where there is the largest number of cheapest labour. Understanding why our tiny set of islands had so much wealth and power disproportionate to its population is important because also we're having to renegotiate our relationships with people around the world.
The exploration of these things matters and that’s why the exhibition is called These Things Matter. It’s important for us to look back and understand the implications of what happened in the past in terms of where we are now. And that the mechanisms that we used to do some of those things, still exist.
So I contacted Maddy [Madeline Slaven, Head of Public Engagement, Bodleian Libraries] and asked if she'd heard of slave bibles – and she told me they have one.
Kieran [Kieran Cox, Artistic Director at Fusion Arts Oxford] and I started to have a conversation about this at the same time, and we shaped the project together.
How was the exhibition created?
We invited independent curators to a round table to talk about prisms through which to look at the Bodleian collections through, then we held a number of facilitated workshops where attendees could vote which items should join the bible for the exhibition. We then invited six artists to each respond to an item, and Johannah Latchem was commissioned to respond to the exhibition as a whole.
The Bodleian was really interested in new ways to co-curate exhibitions, and for the Museum of Colour, our interest is in creating a methodology for creative response work. Fusion Arts brought the magic – they create a bridge between communities, artists and institutions.
The exhibition launched on 17 November at the Bodleian and you can see the work that has gone into it. There are lots of unknowns when we work in this way – for example, early on we decided to commission artists across art forms and allow the artists to decide how they wanted to engage.
We want to create opportunities rather than put up barriers, and the end result is work by filmmakers, photographers, poets, visual artists and sound artists. We want to create opportunities for artists, tear down barriers, because it’s not easy being an artist especially an artist of colour.
What is the legacy of this project for Museum of Colour?
Some of the artworks created will be taken into the Bodleian’s collections, and the digital items will live with us at the Museum of Colour.
The whole process has been very enriching – even the crunch points became moments of learning for us.
One of the challenges is for us is that we are very small – I’m the only full-time member of staff and that’s only for a few more months – but we are a national-focused organisation.
But your ability to be national when you are entirely project-funded and have no financial security (and dare I say it, a person of colour leading it) is challenging. And we’re not a community project, we’re not even a project – we are building a museum and I want it to exist and to outlive its founder.
Myself and Dr Shawn Sobers, who is a trustee of Fairfield House in Bath, have been having some really interesting conversations around heritage and us doing things for ourselves. Because, yes, predominately white organisations need help decolonising – but if we're busy decolonising this and diversifying that, when do we get to do our own stuff? When do we get to build our own theatres and museums?
An active campaign of power sharing is what’s needed if we truly want to diversify the sector, but I’m not having that conversation anymore. My job is not to diversify anything – it is to tell a story of some hidden history.
What’s really important for me is to keep focused on what it is the Museum of Colour wants to do, because there is definitely a sweet spot where we can do some really powerful, interesting, exciting, challenging and fitting work.
And I think [with These Things Matter] we have definitely have shaped something. Now we need to see if we can replicate and grow this way of working.