Reflections on the Museum of Empire Project

Participants in the Our Shared Cultural Heritage project known as the Changemakers reflecting on their time working as co-curators and researchers for the City of Empire Project at Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum.

Kulsum Shabbir 

When reflecting back on the project one of the objects that really stuck with me was a clay tobacco pipe whose bowl was shaped into the head of a black man. Being able to write a creative response was a  new and emotional way to explore the history of this object as while doing research I found very little, aside from the time period it was made in and the more general historical context of the object. So instead of the traditional label for this object I decided to write a short poem from the point of view of the young man depicted, giving a voice to his frustration and strength.

Throughout the research process in curating objects and writing  labels for the final selection I felt it was clinical and removed from the very real and human stories that these objects held. In entering this project as a team one of our priorities was ensuring that the exhibit space would feel cathartic and powerful for our POC audiences, and since this was the first exhibit of its kind in Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum we felt a huge pressure of responsibility to deliver. 

In a way, I feel this responsibility should not have been entirely on us. We explored both Black and South Asian histories, yet the only young people involved in the process were young South Asians. This added a level of pressure when it came to handling legacies of the transatlantic slave trade and the stories of Black enslaved people.  

Being involved as a young South Asian person, this experience was invaluable. I gained so much knowledge and experience working on the project, which is exactly the reason I joined OSCH in the first place. However, the process was also emotionally taxing at times, particularly when it came to reading about the atrocities of the British Empire, with little thought given to how well we as young people were processing this onslaught of grief/trauma.

Meher Saqib

One of the things that I did enjoy is the amount of freedom we were given in our approach to this project and we were influenced by our own personal experiences inside and outside of the Changemaker group, as well as our own topics of interest and areas of study. And I think that that is something you can definitely see when you walk into the exhibition because while it is all focused on the British Empire, Transatlantic Slavery and its legacies, there are specific themes/concepts explored like the effects on Nature, or female resistance to the British Empire which I think just flow together really well.

I think as well that this experience has really taught me well on how to work effectively within a team, how to handle disagreements diplomatically and when thinking about the level of involvement from the Glasgow Museum staff, and working with people like Nelson Cummins, Shahana Khaliq Lyon it was excellent because it meant that there were so many people to bounce ideas off of and to seek support from.

I really enjoyed the experiences a lot, but that's not to say that there weren’t any challenges, we were working with very hard and often quite distressing topics and that was definitely difficult, and constantly coming across information and stories that were heartbreaking. Now seeing the exhibition up it almost feels like it was worth it because we were exposing to such a large audience an incredibly important part of history that has been undermined and whitewashed for decades.

But I definitely feel that in the future when talking to community people about these topics there should be a constant awareness from the museum side on how much emotional labour and pain can be brought up in exploring histories, which for the communities they engage with can be intense and traumatic

Miriam Ali

In reflecting on what I gained from this experience, communication skills are definitely one of them. Being confident and comfortable in speaking to people from all ages and backgrounds was something  I always felt anxious about, but after spending two years in the Changemakers group and on this project, talking about a very complex topic- British Empire, slavery and its legacies, I have grown much more sure of myself. 

I also think that being part of the Changemaker group was such a good experience for me, especially coming from a photography degree that had a predominantly white student body and was taught by people who were predominantly white meant that when I started to explore my heritage in my photography work I felt frustrated by the lack of community and even sometimes uncomfortable. But  the changemaker group helped me find a south asian community that was creative, accepting and relaxed, and so passionate about the same issues I was also passionate about. There was a lot of creative freedom in being with the Changemaker group and  me being a photographer meant that I could use my photography in different ways, from just taking photographs at events to filmmaking. And in this project specifically you can see my photography in different aspects which I was really happy and proud of.

One of the critics I have though, of this project was the amount of pressure we had on us, but I think we also put pressure on ourselves because we cared about this project so much that we were sacrificing our other work, and personal time, working well beyond the hours that were set for us because we just wanted it to succeed so much. We were perfectionists and we wanted to produce the absolute best we could, and the extent we committed to this project in our promotion of it in other ongoing OSCH projects such as the Manifesto film wasn’t something we had to do, but also couldn’t help doing.

But in reflection I believe that someone from OSCH or from the Museum side should’ve told us clearly and prepared us properly to deal with some really serious and heavy topics that we would be looking into constantly for the entire duration of the project, we did have some vague idea, but I didn’t anticipate the extent of it and I wish I had been more prepared. I believe we should’ve been offered some form of support such as a short term therapy work or just an acknowledgement of what it costs to do this form of work.

Sehar Mehmood

When looking back on my experience on the project one of the things I really enjoyed was that I was able to explore themes and issues that I felt were important to the overall focus of the exhibition. This freedom I think is important, especially if museums are looking to modernise and become more engaging for young people, this can be seen in my own experience where I engaged with other exhibits/artworks and my own passion for social history and politics to explore my own links with the British Empire. This led to me curating and designing a display focused on the concept ‘We’re Here Because You Were There’, which explored themes of immigration, as well as social issues such as police violence. Throughout this project, and especially in the curation and writing for this display I had a lot of support from various members of staff and this really helped me become more confident and more sure of myself, especially in things like decision making and communications as throughout this project the biggest challenge is how to communicate such a complex and emotionally painful topic in such a way where people want to learn and engage more. 

One of my main criticisms, which has already been said by my fellow changemakers, is how we felt that there was a lack of support on the extent of emotional impact and labour we would feel from this project. The emotional cost, even though I anticipated it coming into the project, the extent to which it affected me and my fellow changemakers was a surprise. In doing this work, not only have I dug up and shone light on the true histories of empire, slavery and its legacies alongside other co-curators,  but my own personal family history, ties and grief. As such I believe that in the future when historical institutions seek to engage community representatives to explore their heritage and history, they must absolutely be clear and honest about what will be explored and develop a structure of support for them.