There are around 2,500 museums in the UK, and that’s a conservative estimate. But there wasn’t a single museum dedicated to the history and culture of Black British people. Until now.
Sandra Shakespeare, of Museum X CIC, a Black British cultural organisation, along with co-directors and arts professionals Dr. Errol Francis and Tracey Sage, are changing that.
How? By founding Black British Museum Project, a collaboration between museum professionals, curators, academics, researchers, and creatives, all on a mission to develop a museum celebrating Black British history and culture.
Currently in its start-up phase, the Black British Museum Project is an online platform exploring aspects of Black history with the aim of creating a physical space in the future for exhibitions showcasing the Black British experience.
The project first took shape in Shakespeare’s mind back in 2019, but the project really started to forge ahead during the depths of the COVID-19 lockdowns that swept the UK and the world in 2020 and 2021.
But with the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests and the subsequent toppling of the statue of merchant and slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol, a conversation began about setting the historical record straight about Britain’s colonial past and its role in the transatlantic slave trade. People called for wider histories of migration and the contributions of people of colour to the country to be better remembered and taught about in schools too.
As one of the main ways the general public collectively learns about history, museums clearly play a key role in answering those calls to action. But while many museums made statements about the changes they aimed to make in the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests, for Shakespeare, more substantial anti-racism changes are still needed.
It’s in this context that Shakespeare and the historians, curators, and activists she collaborates with, are creating an exciting new museum space dedicated to Black British history. She spoke with Global Citizen about how it all started and what she hopes the project will achieve.
Tell us about the idea for this project — how did it all start?
It started in 2019, and it really started off as a provocation. Myself and a colleague, Nkechi Noel, who is the African Heritage Guide at the V&A Museum, put forward a workshop idea to get people thinking during the Museum's Association's annual conference. It had the title: “A Black British Museum: Is This the Future?”
It was a call to action to get people together from the sector in the room and tease out that idea — and the response was incredible. It was absolutely overwhelming. So we just thought, we need to explore this.
That was the seed of the idea, and another spark for me was when I visited the Smithsonian National African American Museum of History and Culture in Washington DC with a colleague before the pandemic. We were just blown away by that museum, it was profound. I remember leaving that and thinking: “You know what, we need something like this in the UK.” It wouldn’t be to replicate it exactly but we’ve got 2,500 museums and not a single one is dedicated to the stories and the history of Black people in Britain. So that’s how it started.
What was the impact of the Black Lives Matter protests in June 2020 on UK museums?
Black Lives Matter gave us all a wake up call, not just in our sector, but lots of sectors in a way that was really needed. They shifted the dial to say that actually, “we need to move beyond talking, we need to move towards action.”
So we've seen some of what's happened as a result of those protests, we've seen statues coming down, we see it in the so-called culture war, and we’ve seen statements coming out from institutions and museums, pledging to make change.
I think that change will really matter if we see action too, we’ll see it when boards begin to change, when senior leadership in the sector changes, when museum directors are changing. There is still a way to go but I think steps have been made.
Decolonisation isn't just a buzzword for the here and now, it's actually work. It's a process that goes right from your museum governance and your board, to your collections, your cataloguing and it’s about the way you treat people and staff. It’s a process. I think it's a concept that is being embraced, but it's taking time.
Why is it important that the Black British Museum has its own space?
It’s really important, because, as I've said, we've got over 2,500 museums in the UK and that number is probably conservative — but there isn't one dedicated solely to Black British history and culture.
And when I say that, I mean everyone from the wider African diaspora in Britain. So it is absolutely needed as a space for people to come and learn about early Black experience and any other questions they may have.
People ask: where is the centre where I can learn about this? How do I find out what's in the archive in terms of our history and culture? It’s a shared culture and heritage and there needs to be a space for those stories to be told.
At the same time, the narratives that have existed in traditional museum spaces absolutely need to be challenged too.
It's no longer acceptable for [museums] to say “we have collections that are absolutely intrinsic to your heritage and culture but we don't have the curatorial expertise to be able to do anything with them.” There’s so much relevant material locked away in store rooms.
Now is the time to get that material out and work collaboratively on it. We’ve got the historians, we've got the curators, we've got the collection care staff, we've got the exhibition staff, we have it now. There are no more excuses. Let's get new stories coming in, and have a space that everybody can come to and everyone can enjoy.
So there's a lot of material relating to Black people in Britain that's not on display at the moment?
There’s a massive amount! Think of somewhere like the British Museum, they have an Africa gallery — well, how much of what they have is actually on display? You'll probably find the answer is only 1%.
We're all public taxpayers in this country so there is a need to show this content and it's no longer acceptable to just rock up in October for Black History Month and do it then. Our history is ever present. It's always been here and we are present here now. Let's have our history out there. And let's bring in the people who know how to talk about these histories and open up the conversations even further.
Where would you like the museum to be?
I know there’s so much already in London so I understand why people might ask if it should be in another part of the country. My answer to that is, “yes, it can be in other parts of the country.” In terms of the first space, I think it will likely start off in London, just to test the idea, but there's no reason in the future why we can't have satellite versions in other cities.
What are the differences between how African American history is remembered and understood in the US, versus the collective understanding of Black British history in the UK?
There is a huge difference in how it is understood between the two countries. In terms of African American history, they're able to go back much further and they're more able to collectively remember those lived experiences through the connections they have to grandparents and great grandparents and so on. They can probably trace their histories around the whole South to North migration, all the way back to slavery. They are much more likely to be able to do that.
In the UK, it’s very different. I'm not going to say that no person of colour can trace their ancestry — some people can. But a significant majority are not able to. You may ask who your grandparents or great grandparents are, and it might be possible. But if you were to ask about your great great grandparents, there will be a struggle.
That's purely because of the way we have migrated and the way our histories weren’t documented in that sense. Our histories were torn up, fragmented, up-rooted. So much has been lost.
This museum is really an opportunity to say: what do we know? And to be honest about the gaps. We want to work with other academics, historians to explore it.
The Black British Museum project will have a collaborative model, working with historians, artists, creative practitioners, and activists to tell the stories and find out the facts. And we don’t want to represent these narratives through a colonial lens either. A decolonised space is a prerequisite for the building and I’m confident we can do that.
There’s a current conversation about getting important artefacts that were taken by Britain during colonial times back to where they are from. For example, sending the Benin Bronzes back to Nigeria. What do you think about that?
I think [museums] really need to just wake up and just smell the coffee and realise that actually they're not doing anybody any favours by holding on to objects and artefacts that clearly have deep meaning and a spiritual connection to where they originally came from.
Today, we address a historic injustice by returning the Benin Bronzes, magnificent examples of Benin's culture and history. Through this repatriation, we acknowledge a legacy of cultural theft and do our part to return African culture to Africans.— Lonnie G. Bunch III (@SmithsonianSec) October 11, 2022
Shown here: bronze plaque. pic.twitter.com/E4vWQG8SFi
They need to work with organisations that have deep expertise to start the repatriation of the Benin Bronzes and other artefacts, and get them to their rightful places across Africa. It needs to happen on a humanitarian level, it needs to happen on an ethical level, and it needs to happen on a compassionate level.
It’s not acceptable to loot artefacts and claim somehow that the British Empire is therefore the custodian of other people's culture. Give it back, do the right thing, and support the process with the infrastructure moving forwards.
You want the Black British museum to have a pan-African viewpoint and concept — can you tell me more about what that means?
We thought about this a lot and decided it was the lens we wanted. Essentially, it means this is a museum that looks at the whole African diaspora and is for people from the diaspora. Much of what you see in museums about Africa has a white European centred lens. We want to take a pan-African lens seriously. That's what's going to drive the narrative and the creative direction.
This is the time for people who are from the African diaspora to create a museum that tells our stories in the way that we want them to be told.