12 Dec 2017

The Past is Now:
the Exhibition is open

Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery has opened an exciting and interesting exhibition entitled: The Past is Now: Birmingham and the British Empire . The display addresses Birmingham's role within the British Empire and looks at how these stories are relevant today.

The Past is Now: Birmingham and the British Empire exhibition

The Past is Now: Birmingham and the British Empire’ display at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

This temporary display in within the Story Lab gallery and is a part of the wider development plans for Birmingham Museum Trust and this exhibition is an experiment in how the story of the British Empire may be told permanently. It’s different - purposefully so. The museum understands that this story is a story that needs to be told in a new way with new perspectives. To get those different perspectives into the display we invited and worked alongside 6 external co-curators who added energy, creativity and expertise from outside the museum world. 

The Past is Now working group

Photograph from co-curated session on gallery design. (left to right) Rebecca Bridgeman, Rachael Minott, Mariam Khan, Sumaya Kassim, Shaheen Kasmani, Jo-Ann Curtis, Katie Hall, Laura Dudley, Sara Wajid, Harriet Whitehead and Hannah Graham.

Textile designer, Shaheen Kasmani and artivist, Aliyah Hasinah were two of the first co-curators recruited after seeing the work they did for the project ‘Decolonise not Diversify’. The Birmingham Museums team lead by Sara Wajid, who came to the museum as a part of the ACE funded Change Makers programme, then wrote a job description which was used by Shaheen and Aliyah to recruit the other 4 co-curators: graphic designer, Abeera Kamran; writer, Mariam Khan; cultural activist, Sara Myers; writer and researcher Sumaya Kassim. These co-curators challenged the museum to approach exhibitions and interpretation differently and influenced every aspect of this display, from the object choices, the interpretive panels to the overall exhibition design. Not to mention Sara Myers, Shaheen and Aliyah’s extraordinary work in programming a jam packed and extraordinary celebration event to compliment the display. 

So far the display has started some exciting conversations , and has been received as a breath of fresh air in the heritage industry. It has highlighted how much projects like this are high demand in museum spaces.

Tweets about the Past is Now

Screenshot of tweets from Twitter about the exhibition:
@TamsinBrookay tweeted: "Went to see #ThePastIsNow @BM_AG - it's the POC centred, anti-capitalist history of an empire I've been waiting years to see in a British museum." 
@TomHieron tweeted: "I went to see #ThePastIsNow at Birmingham Museum. It is astonishingly good. Go and see it. Still buzzing off this tbh. They showed artefacts from the Mau Mau uprising together with acquisition letters from curators and analysed how this might have shaped the memory of decolonisation in the UK."

In this gallery you will see how Joseph Chamberlain, Birmingham’s often celebrated former mayor is examined in his often ignored role as Colonial Secretary during the Second Anglo Boer War. Check out the mobile phones and bicycle that highlight the everyday human and environmental impact of the things we own and their links to the British Imperial project. Read how the guns manufacturing in Birmingham, normally noted as ’made for trade’ are acknowledge as a part of the Triangular Trade during the Transatlantic Slave Trade. While the museum acknowledges its own role in telling biased stories as a result of its historical collection development policies during the colonial era. 

The Past is Now: Birmingham and the British Empire exhibition

The Past is Now: Birmingham and the British Empire exhibition

To understand if this experiment was successful we invite as many people to come feedback in person, tweet us with the #ThePastIsNow and talk to us about the display: what you like, what you dislike. The aim of the game is permanent change and your voice matters!

2 sets of gallery feedback - one liked the willingless to avoid being neutral while the other felt the gallery was too much and what about the other perpetrators

Photographs of feedback cards and whiteboard comments from visitors within the gallery:
Visitor 1 comment: I liked the willingness to avoid being neutral - too many museums fall back on this. People need to know about the impact of our own history on today and this exhibition shows that very well.
Visitor 2 comment: Too much of 'the other'. What about the perpetrators? Leopold? Churchill? This one room is 'too much'? If you wan the other POV pick up any history book or even easier continue your tour of this museum for the POV of the people that condemned the torture, rape, murder and enslavement of 'the other'.

The Past is Now: Birmingham and the British Empire is on display until 12th March 2018.