BMT exists to care for and display the City’s collections on behalf of all of Birmingham’s citizens. In doing so we believe that we must deliver honest storytelling that reflects our complex shared histories, to better promote social justice, to strengthen the fabric of our society, and to debate our hopes and dreams for the future.
Since the murder of George Floyd 12 months ago, museums globally have been asked why more progress has not been made on anti-racism targets and policies.
We believe that Civic Museums, particularly in a multicultural city like Birmingham, have a particular responsibility to promote anti-racism and human rights by addressing the history of structural inequalities embedded in our collections, our buildings and our structures. Our city benefits from its long history of immigration and has a proud record of anti-racism, some of which is already reflected in our collections, and which will certainly inform our future direction more explicitly than in the past.
Since we started as Co-CEO’s in November 2020, we have been reviewing the work of the trust and developing the vision for it’s future direction. Over the course of the next six months, we will be sharing and developing this vision with the public, stakeholders and expert advisors. A key priority for this phase is a review of our work in relation to diversity, equality and inclusion and the development of an anti-racist plan, which will be published later this year. Meanwhile, below is an update on relevant projects currently underway.
Sara Wajid and Zak Mensah
Co-CEO’s, Birmingham Museums Trust
Collections and Acquisitions
BMT is currently co-leading a research group called Race, Empire & The Pre-Raphaelites . It brings together museums holding Pre-Raphaelite and Arts & Crafts collections with academics to consider these objects’ global contexts and in relation to Orientalism and Empire. This is a vital opportunity for us to hold wider conversations about how these world famous collections might be displayed and reinterpreted through the lenses of anti-racism and decolonisation.
Over the coming year we are taking part in a ground-breaking project: Devolving Restitution: African Collections in UK Museums Beyond London, which is led by the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. The aim is to build a greater understanding of the vast range of African collections held in British non-national museums. The programme brings together museums and grassroots diasporic, community and activist groups across the UK to address different themes in African collections’ histories and open up new dialogues with African claimants. One aim is to actively support and amplify the claims of African-based organisations and communities for the return of African heritage.
In 2020 we launched our new Collections Development Policy, with its audience-led approach to museum collecting. We committed to continuing development of the collection so it reflects the cultural diversity of Birmingham’s people and places. Last year, 53% of all approved acquisitions were by or representing people of colour. These included artworks by John Akomfrah, Sara Maple, Hew Locke and Matthew Krishanu.
Working with the Community
Engaging with our community and promoting social justice is crucial to our work at Birmingham Museums. We typically work with over 50 community groups and partners each year, around 40% of whom represent Black and other minoritised people of colour. In this last year, unable to meet with people indoors, our work with communities moved online and outdoors. For example, we developed an outdoor exhibition in partnership with Bengal Foundation marking the 50th anniversary of Bangladesh independence, now on display in Centenary Square in the city centre. In June we will celebrate Windrush Day through storytelling, short films and interviews, create a schools learning resource and digitisation of The Birmingham Black Oral History Project to celebrate and build understanding of the Windrush generation and their contributions to society.
The Don't Settle project empowers 16-25 year old people of colour in Birmingham and the Black Country to change the voice of heritage through the arts, research and governance. This three-year project is led by Beatfreeks in partnership with Birmingham Museums and other heritage organisations in the region. It sets out to empower young people to engage meaningfully with the heritage sector, to challenge the norm and champion multiple stories, and to provide a platform for people of colour and their communities to make their voices heard.
For example, discussion events (Lunar Campfires) at Soho House were run by young people of colour on issues such as colourism and cultural appropriation. Young people re-imagined the stories told about Matthew Boulton, who lived at the House and supported the abolition movement while also profiting from selling of steam engines to plantations. A youth advisory board (YAB) of young people from Handsworth was established to advise on future programming at Soho House.
At Aston Hall, a group of young curators have redisplayed the boudoir room as a Black girl’s dressing room to tell stories of social injustice in the fashion industry. The display will open in July 2021.
Now a group of young activators are working to co-curate a radical re-interpretation of the iconic Round Room at BMAG to present a contemporary portrayal and celebration of the city that Birmingham has become. This sweeping change of display will open in 2022.
And finally, the Don’t Settle team are working together with BMT trustees and staff to co-produce a Youth Engagement Structure that will ensure young people of colour will have their voices heard in the future of the organisation.
Read Zak Mensah's blog post Do The Work