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Dynamic decolonisation: how the Wilberforce House Museum is inspiring lasting change

Heritage consultant Ali Bodley shared her work on decolonising collections and uplifting marginalised voices at the Wilberforce House Museum in Hull. Through award-winning programming and a variety of revolutionary engagement strategies, the museum is facing its past, rather than running from it, as a way of building a brighter future.

Ali Bodley specialises in community engagement and decolonisation, having been curator at Wesley’s House and Museum in London, District Curator in Ryedale, Co-ordinator of the Young Archaeologist’s Club, and Programme Manager for the British Library. In 2023, Ali was involved in the Wilberforce House Museum’s Changing Perceptions programme, which won three awards, including the Museum’s Association Changing Lives Decolonisation Award.

At Wilberforce House Museum, Ali focused on taking steps towards implementing lasting change, namely: decolonising collections, deeply listening to communities and building trusting relationships.

Introducing black voices

In tackling the barriers of privilege, racism, and trauma of slavery, the museum collaborated with descendants of enslaved people or of African descent on a community engagement programme. Ali says, “I started the project just as lockdown began. I was employed to do the research for the strategy, and we called a lot of people in the community to ask how they’d like to be involved.

“The first thing we did was a small project. Wilberforce House was refurbished in 2007 for the anniversary of the abolition of the slave trade. It was great, but of its time, and though it housed a lot of information, there weren’t any black voices. We chose black abolitionists and activists, asked people of colour – some experts, some community enthusiasts – to do short films about them, and moved away from the ‘white saviour’ narrative.”

Homelands

“This small project sparked everything off,” Ali explains. “An exhibition called Homelands was developed, in partnership between the University of Hull, WISE (the Wilberforce Institute), and Hull Museums. The exhibition showcased a photograph album of a solider from Sierra Leone, re-centring the Second World War from the point of view of their African descendants.

“Contributors could speak with authenticity on this topic, identifying tribes, costumes, symbolism and more – speaking on colonialism from a personal perspective. They understood what they were seeing in a way we simply couldn’t.

“The tourism minister from Sierra Leone came to see the exhibition, and became acquainted with Sidi, one of our team members who’s also from Sierra Leone. As such, a copy of the exhibition was sent to Sierra Leone’s National Railway Museum. It’s now touring Sierra Leone, and Sidi is setting up a centre over there to share all that he has learned. The exhibition won two awards: the University of Hull Knowledge Exchange Award and a National University Knowledge Exchange Awards for Communities.”

The power of multiple perspectives

Homelands is just one example of the brave and creative community engagement strategy implemented by the Wilberforce House Museum since 2021, in partnership with the Wilberforce Institute at the University of Hull.

Tackling power and privilege, the museum has collaborated with people from Africa, or those of African-American, Caribbean or African descent, to embed decolonisation into their working practice.

This includes projects like Why I Matter – in which young black people from the Warren Youth Project explored their identity – and the Wilberforce House Slave Trade Legacy Gallery. The latter invited eleven people of colour, including PHD students, activists, historians, and residents, to re-display the museum’s permanent gallery with the help of curators, academics, and designers.

Ali says, “Having numerous perspectives was necessary in highlighting the new legacy of the slave trade. It allowed us to see things from fresh perspectives. For example, one of our contributors mentioned feeling traumatised by the more traditional displays, due to 18th century prints and paintings of people being sold into slavery and tortured.

“At times, curators show the true horror of white people’s involvement in the past with the best of intentions. But they don’t always realise that this honest approach can also be traumatising for the community they are trying to engage with.”

Creating conversations

Giving black people a voice has always been at the forefront of the museum’s revitalised programming, and this impacts how exhibitions are made. Ali says, “Museums need to think about how exhibitions impact communities, otherwise it’s just curators piecing together what they think should be said. When our panel came together, it was the first time many of them had felt safe to discuss slavery and the black community. Many said they’ve never been able to talk with confidence about these issues.

“Co-production takes time because you need to build trust. But with enough effort, you can build relationships and mutual respect. They knew how it felt, and they knew what they wanted in place to combat racism. It was very much two groups of experts working together. Every panel was a collaboration.”

Taking the Knee

The protest act of “Taking the Knee” made headlines in 2016 when American football player Colin Kaepernick knelt during the national anthem to highlight racism and police brutality. It gained further traction in 2020 following the murder of George Floyd and the growth of the Black Lives Matter movement.

It’s also been the focus of one of the Wilberforce House Museum’s projects in partnership with the Wilberforce Institute at the University of Hull. Taking the Knee explores this form of protest, developed in collaboration with people of colour. Ali says,

“At the time, there was a lot in the media about taking the knee, but the exhibition highlights how the act goes back millennia, to Ancient Egypt and beyond.

“A big part of our efforts is to empower our panel members. As such, many of them have gone on to create their own projects, a lot of which focus on their lived black experience. They’re tackling everything from anti-racism training to decolonising the NHS. It’s incredible to see.

“There is now a black heritage community forming around the museum. We’ve worked with people descended from slavery on what could have been a highly contentious project, but it flowed smoothly because of those relationships and that trust.”

A flexible framework

Thanks to the trusted relationships built during these projects, people are now using museum and university staff as sounding boards for the development of their own projects around diversity and equality.

This, Ali explains, is a direct result of opening conversations with those who have lived experiences of the subjects the museum is trying to tackle.

“Curators have to balance a lot of things, and you can’t always say yes because of various restrictions, like budget and funding. The most important thing is that we listen to what our contributors are saying, and we keep those avenues of conversation open. This helps to build the confidence people need to go off and do their own things.

“The point of a community engagement is that ripple effect. New ideas and projects inspire the community, who then go on to create their own ideas and projects, enhancing the overall culture. Ideas spark off each other, and that’s really exciting.”

Understanding racism

Racism isn’t just name-calling, and recent years have highlighted the insidiousness of racist mindsets, showcasing the harm caused by institutional structures designed to put white voices at the forefront of every conversation. This is something the museum tackles, centring black voices in every initiative and exhibition.

Ali says, “The museum is passionate about anti-racism and black voices. It’s not enough to simply not be racist, you need to be anti-racist, and having these voices on board creates a more authentic understanding of what racism actually feels like, and what forms it can take.

Racism is structural, and white people have grown up not having to question these structures. As such, we’ve all got unlearning to do. As a team, we wanted to make sure that every decision we made was a democratic one.”

Advice for other museums? Get to know your audience

All of Ali and the team’s efforts have been centred around this idea of open conversations, uplifting often-overlooked perspectives. It’s perhaps then no surprise that, when asked her advice for other museums looking to implement similar projects, Ali says communication is key.

“Diversity isn’t something you ‘do’ and then it’s done. Projects and efforts have to be ongoing, creating a community that feels like it has a say in how its represented. There are a lot of different audiences, and maintaining strong relationships with them means you can be constantly moving towards connection and community.

“Organisations need to be willing to change, internally as well as externally. Community engagement is important, but so are in-house training, equality learning, and anti-racism courses.

“If museums want to thrive, they need to be breaking down barriers.”

MuseumNext hosts a range of in-person and online summits each year, covering topics such as digital collections, sustainability, social impact, learning and XR. Click here to find out more and book tickets.

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