Q&A | 'Museums in Britain can be a painful space - institutions must be able to understand this pain' - Museums Association

Q&A | ‘Museums in Britain can be a painful space – institutions must be able to understand this pain’

The developers of The Museum Test, a new decolonisation tool for curators, on why this resource is long overdue
Decolonising Museums
The Museum Test is a new decolonisation tool for curators
The Museum Test is a new decolonisation tool for curators Museums Galleries Scotland

Last month, the Changemakers, a collective of young South Asian people working with Glasgow Museums, launched The Museum Test, a visual flow chart for curators to determine how effectively museum displays handle topics of colonialism, empire, slavery and representation.

The Changemakers are part of Our Shared Cultural Heritage (OSCH) a youth-led programme exploring the shared cultures and true histories of the UK and South Asia, and how museums can become more useful spaces for people to explore identity, connect with others and access opportunities.

Museums Journal caught up with the Changemakers to hear more about how they developed the test and why it's a tool that is long overdue in museums.

Aqsa Arif
Scottish/Pakistani artist based in Glasgow. She graduated from Glasgow School of Art in 2019 with a first-class degree in painting and printmaking
Miriam Ali
Photographer and visual artist based in Glasgow. Her work focuses on themes of identity, religion and home, often using archives and elements of poetry and textiles
Meher Waqas-Saqib
Facilitator and researcher for the Museum Test project. She is currently completing her undergraduate degree in politics at the University of Glasgow
Sehar Mehmood
Researcher and writer with a particular interest in Scotland’s social history and involvement in activism, both domestic and international. She is a graduate of English and politics
Kulsum Shabbir
Third-year English and journalism student, working as a writer and researcher with Our Shared Cultural Heritage to decolonise museum spaces and hold institutions accountable

What led you to develop the Museum Test?

Sehar: It was the objective of a four-day pilot group of which most of us were part of, introduced to us by the Glasgow project coordinator for the Our Shared Cultural Heritage Project.


The very first draft of the test was actually written during those four days, which were filled with intense and moving conversations about growing up as a South Asian in Scotland, the failed and skewered representation of our communities, and revealing tours in the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum led by the former curator of empire and slavery.

We put those feelings and revelations into words and understood the necessity of the test, and how overdue it was, feeling we owed it to ourselves, our communities and others to challenge the pedestal that history – the history we were taught in our schools and museums – had put the British Empire on. 

What do you hope the test will achieve?

Meher: We hope that it drastically changes exhibitions right from the planning stage. Our test will hopefully find and weed out areas of concern right from the beginning so that no problems are found when these displays are completed.

It will aid in museums being true educational tools for all people, and ensure that people of colour feel that their stories and experience have been included in a way that humanises them and makes them feel comfortable and accurately represented in museums.

Who is the test for and how does it work?

Meher: The Museum Test in its current format is a tool for curators. We initially set out to have it be a resource for the public, but through many revisions we found that it was more suited as a resource within the museums and heritage sector.


The test is a flowchart, with questions that can only be answered with ‘yes’ or ‘no’ responses. A curator would go through to answer questions regarding their exhibit. The exhibit would then amass points depending on which questions they answer yes or no to. The points then add up to state whether the exhibit is okay or needs to be revised if it hopes to represent people of colour and events such as slavery or colonialism accurately.

The test is also accompanied by a guide on how to use it as well as a recommendations page and a glossary to define key terms within the test.

What do you think museums are getting wrong in their approach to this work at the moment?

Sehar: Museums in Britain can be a painful space for people of the global majority and institutions must be able to understand this pain, and in turn be able to educate the public who enter their spaces on how this pain, the trauma of empire and slavery has manifested itself within these cultural institutions.

The current anti-racist and decolonising approaches taken by museums will not be truly successful, in part, due to their failure in humanising the process because they do not comprehend this pain, and in turn cannot educate the public on it. The humanising process relies on museums and, in a larger part, the government taking authentic accountability in the negligence, minimisation and erasure of the trauma and experiences lived by communities who were subjugated and enslaved by empire in exhibitions and galleries dedicated to this part of history.

How does the test fit into your wider work as Changemakers?

Kulsum: The Museum Test project, alongside the other Changemakers projects, was paid work, something which is rare when it comes to opportunities like this. Young people of colour are often expected to offer their insight and perspective free of charge, despite the value of these contributions and how difficult it can sometimes be, emotionally and mentally, to discuss these issues.


While we as young people are very grateful to be offered these roles, this makes it more difficult for us to fully invest ourselves into the work as we have other commitments such as university and work that take precedence.

With Changemakers projects being paid, we are able treat the work as our source of income, therefore allowing us to be entirely focused and invested in our long-term goals.

As the name suggests, our aim is to create change, and the Museum Test project is just the beginning of our work in decolonising museum spaces.

Additionally this work goes hand in hand with our exhibition which is due to launch in September. We have been working on the two projects side by side for the past few months and have found that they have both shaped the way the other has developed.

Miriam: The Changemakers programme was created to critique museum practice and challenge the representation of south Asian heritage and colonisation in the museum space.

The Museum Test is a tool in which these themes can be explored in a more precise manner. The test was also the first Changemakers project and formed the basis of what was to come for the duration of the programme.

What’s coming up next for the Changemakers?

Miriam: We have a few more projects in the works including our South Asian cookbook social media content which will be released as part of south Asian heritage month on our Instagram.

We have our exhibition as part of the Museum of Empire project, which will be opening early September this year in the south balcony in Kelvingrove museum. It will exhibit objects from the Glasgow museums collections in a way that tells the true history of the objects and the people part of their story.

Although the Changemakers programme will be coming to an end in October of this year, we are hopeful that the work we have achieved so far will pave the way to make institutional change in the way museums represent the true history and lived experience of communities affected by colonisation and empire.

Leave a comment

You must be to post a comment.