Over the course of last summer, the grand, Victorian-era building that houses Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery was transformed in a way that few civic museums in the UK have been before.
After being closed for more than a year – and in the midst of lengthy repair work that meant its collections had to be decanted – the museum was temporarily reopened and handed over to local artists and creatives, who were given the freedom to inhabit the space as they saw fit.
In a series of pop-up exhibitions (reviewed in Museums Journal, January/February 2023), visitors could explore Birmingham’s buzzing 90s club culture alongside more hard-hitting displays on topics such as the harrowing fight against racial injustice in the city.
It was the kind of experimental, challenging and disruptive work – ambitious in concept while remaining rooted in local communities – that had been promised ever since the groundbreaking appointment of joint chief executives Sara Wajid and Zak Mensah in 2020, when they pledged to “make a ruckus” at the institution.
The winds of change
The strangeness of that pandemic year made anything seem possible and the appointment of Wajid and Mensah was a sign that sands were shifting in a sector that has always been slow to change. The duo are among what remains of a small cohort of people of colour to have held leadership roles in UK museums (Rita McLean, the director of Birmingham’s museums from 2004 to 2012, was one of the first), while their job-share remains one of the only such examples at CEO level in the sector.
More than that, however, the pair brought a fresh perspective and way of thinking to museum leadership. Coming from a tech background, Mensah has a keen understanding of the digital landscape that is now so fundamental to museum practice. Wajid, meanwhile, played a foundational role in the development of decolonising museum practice thanks to her work on the landmark co-curated 2017 exhibition, The Past is Now, at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.
“I don’t think most of us imagined we’d all be talking about it as much as we would six years later,” says Wajid, although she is quick to add that “actually the exhibition is famous for what it got wrong”.
A blog by one community curator, Sumaya Kassim, called The Museum will not be Decolonised, criticised the museum for “extracting decoloniality” from the co-curators without truly handing power over to them. This has informed the way that many museums now undertake participatory practice.
Becoming leader of a civic museum trust is a role that neither Mensah nor Wajid say they could have foreseen at the start of their careers. Born and raised in Bristol, Mensah studied computing at university and fell into the arts and culture sector almost by accident after joining the city’s museums and culture service. “I’ve always liked helping people, and technology was the one thing I was good at,” says Mensah.
Developing digital guidance for the National Lottery Heritage Fund led to an Arts Council England-funded job as the “IT guy” for Bristol’s museums. At that time, in the early 2010s, digital was not as core to museum work as it is now. “I thought I was amazing but it turned out no one else applied for the role,” he laughs.
Very quickly, Mensah realised that “most museums were quite broken” and there was a gap in the market for his expertise. “There were very few people who were generalists,” he says. “So I carved out this niche and got promoted a few times because I was able to join the dots, which comes from my experience of systems-thinking when I was working with computers.”
Wajid also followed a less than linear route into museums. Through her 20s she held a “mish-mash” of freelance roles, including archival, editorial and journalism work. She got her start in the sector by writing for Untold London, a website launched by the Museum of London in 2005 to tell the stories of the city’s communities.
“I’ve always been delighted by stories. I’m from a Punjabi family and grew up around juicy, rambling storytelling,” she says. “Museums were a good fit for my lifelong interest in power, inequality, stories, knowledge and beauty.”
But it’s been a love-hate relationship, she adds. “National museums were my playgrounds as I grew up in London. I found them liberatory, but also sinister. I’ve been troubled by the racist undertones and authoritarian atmosphere of the 1970s museums of my childhood, but at the same time local libraries and museums offered an escape into a world of epic imagination.”
She describes her museum career as “an attempt to conquer that childhood sense of being powerless” in the face of establishment culture by “reclaiming and reshaping the museum into a place children and adults from all backgrounds will feel utterly included and joyful”.
It was this mindset that led Wajid to co-found the Museum Detox network in 2014. The organisation supports and empowers people of colour in museums and heritage, but it also has an explicitly activist goal to champion anti-racism and inclusion. Its influence has been felt across the museum sector in recent years.
It was Museum Detox that brought Mensah and Wajid into each other’s orbits – they became fast friends after meeting at the Museums Association’s Belfast conference in 2018. When the role at Birmingham Museums Trust came up in 2020, Mensah says he assumed Wajid would be the perfect fit.
Encouraged by a former mentor to be more adventurous, Wajid was indeed considering the opportunity – but she found the prospect of going it alone daunting.
“Because of the history of the way that people of colour have been in the sector, we’re involved in conversations about decolonising power, ethics, underrepresentation, workers’ rights and cultural change, cultural diversity, all of that; that’s almost another job to do alongside the job of CEO,” she says. “So when I looked deeply into it and what the job would entail, my thought was oh no, I don’t know that I would do a good job of this on my own, or that there would be the right conditions for success.”
A perfect partnership
Wajid said the solution to share the role with Mensah – who she’d been recommending to headhunters for years – came to her as “a bolt of lightning”.
Mensah was comfortably settled in Bristol, but Wajid’s proposal offered a rare opportunity to “do transformation” rather than simply talking about change. Family commitments meant it would have been almost impossible for him to take on a full-time CEO role – job-sharing was the ideal balance, also giving him time for mentoring and charitable work.
Both were aware of the particular burden they faced taking on the role; at the time, the Black Lives Matter movement was at its height and race was under an intense spotlight. “I’ll always be a person of colour,” says Mensah. “I’ll always be seen by some people as meddling with a particular view of how they see the world.”
Wajid says she still encounters the perception that they are there as a diversity hire. “It’s one of those things that people sometimes don’t want to say but they are kind of thinking it,” she says. “But actually we are just really good at our jobs and we were hired on merit.”
It’s a genuinely balanced union, with both sharing equal areas of responsibility, overlapping on certain days. But to what extent have they been able to achieve their original goals while firefighting on so many fronts, with the pandemic and now the cost-of-living crisis to contend with?
“There have been difficult times,” Wajid acknowledges – but this has only underlined how vital the co-leadership model has been. “This has still been one of the most joyful jobs I’ve done because it’s just a pleasure to work with someone who’s as trustworthy, supportive and excellent in his own field as Zak is,” she says.
In spite of the challenging environment, Mensah and Wajid have ambitious plans. The lease is up soon on the building that houses Thinktank, Birmingham’s science museum, and the trust is in talks with the council and the Science Museum Group about the possibility of creating a new museum. “It’s a really interesting opportunity to rethink what a flagship city centre museum can look like in the 21st century,” says Wajid.
This is in addition to the experimental work they have undertaken during the closure of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, which will fully reopen with a redisplay of its collections in 2024.
In some ways it’s a perfect time for change: a new type of leadership with a one-off chance to reshape one of the UK’s largest museum services, in a period of unique upheaval.
“We’re trying to make a ruckus in this sector and that might annoy some people, but I hope it gives some hope to other people that there’s more than one way of doing things,” says Mensah. “And sometimes that will work out and lead to things that are better and sometimes it won’t. But you’ve got to try to leave the world slightly better than you found it.”
Wajid studied English literature at Sussex University and later received an MA in Comparative Literature (Africa/Asia) from the Soas University of London. She has worked as a freelance arts journalist and in 2010 joined Royal Museums Greenwich, leading on adult learning and public programmes.
She took an MA in Learning and Visitor Studies in Museums and Galleries at Leicester University in 2017 before becoming head of interpretation at Birmingham Museums Trust via Arts Council England’s Changemakers programme, then head of engagement for the Museum of London’s new project. Wajid received an MBE in 2019 for services to culture and diversity.
Mensah studied computing at Coventry University before working in a variety of IT roles across schools and universities.
In 2008, he joined the research and development department at Bristol University, where he worked on the national Jisc Digital Media service. He started working for Bristol City Council’s museum service in 2013 and was promoted to head of digital the following year, before becoming head of transformation for the council’s Culture and Creative Industries Service in 2015.
Mensah is an honorary fellow of the University of Leicester and trustee for Culture24 and the Association of Cultural Enterprises.
Birmingham Museums Trust
The charity, formed in 2012, manages the museum collections and venues on behalf of Birmingham City Council. Its collection of around one million objects reflects the city’s historic and ongoing position as a major international centre for manufacturing, commerce, education and culture, with much of it designated as being of national importance.
The trust is an Arts Council England National Portfolio Organisation. It attracts more than one million visitors a year. Its venues are: Aston Hall, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Blakesley Hall, Museum Collection Centre, Museum of the Jewellery Quarter, Sarehole Mill, Soho House, Thinktank and Weoley Castle.