Working Life | 'We want people to understand the diversity of Caribbean identity' - Museums Association

Working Life | ‘We want people to understand the diversity of Caribbean identity’

Museum of London's Shereen Lafhaj discusses a new display on Indian indenture in the Caribbean

Shereen Lafhaj is the curator of Indo + Caribbean: The creation of a culture in the London, Sugar and Slavery gallery at the Museum of London Docklands (19 May to 19 November 2023).

This free exhibition tells the underrepresented history of Indian indenture in the British Caribbean following the Slavery Abolition Act of 1833, when about 450,000 Indian were recruited as cheap labour to work on plantations in place of formally enslaved Africans.

This is your first display at the Museum of London – could you share a bit about your career journey to date?

I became interested in working in museums after I graduated from my masters in transnational studies, but I didn't have much experience in the sector.

I volunteered with UCL Culture and I was also a member of Activating Newham, a project to research the history of anti-racist activism in the borough. As well as training in oral history gathering, we co-produced an exhibition.

I joined the Migration Museum as a gallery supervisor in early 2020. When the pandemic happened, my role disappeared but later they asked me to be the curatorial assistant on Heart of a Nation, a digital exhibition on the history of migration in the NHS. About two and a half years ago, I saw the Museum of London was looking to hire three assistant curators, which was really exciting because it was clear they weren’t just looking for people with traditional museum studies backgrounds. So I applied and luckily I got one of the roles. My role is to assist everyone in the curatorial department.


I was given the opportunity to be the lead internal curator on the Indo + Caribbean exhibition, which has been amazing experience and learning curve.

How did this exhibition come about?

The idea was submitted by Makiya Davis-Bramble, curator at Liverpool’s International Slavery Museum, as part of a public call out. The history of Indian indenture is underrepresented even in academic fields and one of our aims is to introduce people to the topic as we're aware they might not even know what indenture is.

A lot of this history has come from people who are descendants – they have helped keep the stories alive. We want people to get an understanding of the diversity of the Caribbean identity, and of the presence, contribution and beauty of the Indo Caribbean community in London today.

What role did community partners play in the exhibition?

From the start we knew bringing in contemporary voices and perspectives was essential, but we didn’t actually have any prior relationships with members of this community. During the research period we met one of our community partners, Salina Jane, who's a fantastic artist of Indo Caribbean descent, as well as the Black, African and Asian Therapy Network. We ran a community consultation where we presented our plans and asked if any of them wanted to work as our [paid] community partners.


It’s always hard to fully honour your community partners’ stories. Open dialogue has been key throughout this project – our partners have been generous and kind, and I’ve created space and time for their input. It’s important to prep partners so they know what to expect, to be honest throughout the process and to prioritise what is essential for them.

How have you balanced the difficult history of Indian indenture with stories of people’s resistance and joy?

This is a history with many different narratives. Some people chose to go to the Caribbean and others were forced, but the trauma and violence of indenture were universal. My approach was first to highlight the voices of indentured people, which was hard as there aren’t a lot of first-person sources.

One of our academic partners led us to sources such as photographs of people on the ships, which we encourage people to look at with a critical eye. We also made space for our community partners to share their family histories – to acknowledge their agency alongside the abuse.

Could you tell us about some of the objects on display?

We wanted the objects to reflect the breadth of the story and I’m really excited about the range we have on display – from official government correspondence to family heirlooms, photographs and films.


I've got few highlights. The first is a volume of Sir John Gladstone’s correspondence to Sir George Grey [deputy at the time to Colonial Secretary Lord Glenelg] from about 1837 on loan from the National Archives. Gladstone had sugar plantations in Guyana, is considered the main instigator of Indian indenture in the British Caribbean. He organised the first the arrival of Indians to British Guiana in 1838, and in these letters he makes the case for the economic benefits.

Our community partners also lent personal items for the display, including gold bangles on loan from Gisella Pereira that were passed down from her paternal grandmother.

Salina Jane also lent us her uncle Danny’s London bus driver badge, which is classic example of London history and shows the contribution of Indo Caribbean migrants to the city.

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