For many centuries, Caribbeans have helped to shape and influence our shared British culture, heritage and achievements, but their stories are often left untold. As Museumand, the National Caribbean Heritage Museum, we aim to bring those stories to life for everyone, by exploring, preserving and sharing Caribbean history, heritage and culture, both past and contemporary.
From fascinating social histories and moving personal accounts, to intriguing objects and wonderful music, art, performance and crafts, our exhibitions and events take all kinds of forms, and include all kinds of story-telling.
For example, our exhibitions have included an edible exhibition in a Caribbean restaurant, exploring the origins of Caribbean cuisine in the Transatlantic Slave Trade, and a music exhibition launched at Splendour Festival in Nottingham, exploring the huge influence of Black music genres on UK contemporary music as a whole.
As a national Black-led organisation working in the heritage and cultural sectors, we were invited to join the Oxford and Colonialism Working Group in 2016, to share our perspective on how the University could move forward on issues surrounding its ties with Britain’s colonial past, and what that means for today’s students, academics, staff and wider communities.
We felt it was important to add our voice to the debate for several reasons. Firstly, we work with a whole range of organisations exploring their own links to colonialism, including The British Library and V&A, so we wanted to share our experiences of working in historically colonial settings, in new and different ways. We also work with local community groups across the UK, so we hear the voices of people up and down the country and share many of their stories and perspectives through our exhibitions and events.
In 2018, we created an exhibition with the National Trust’s Museum of Childhood at Sudbury Hall in Derbyshire, called Black Dolls: The Power of Representation. The exhibition aims to open up a debate about Black dolls to enable different interpretations of the Museum of Childhood’s collection of historical Black dolls, from a whole variety of viewpoints, including the contentious Golliwogs of the past.
The exhibition has created a space, in all senses of the word, to shine a light on the UK’s colonial past, through the way Black people were represented through children’s toys, and enable people to experience it from different perspectives. Crucially, the exhibition has also enabled people to share their own stories and explore the way Black people continue to be under-represented and mis-represented by the toys children play with today. Colonialism is far from just an historical issue. Black people still live with its legacy today – hence the need for this website and the topics it explores.
This leads on to another important aspect of our involvement in the Working Group. At The Heritage Alliance’s annual heritage debate in 2018 it was said: ‘no diverse staff = no diverse audience’ and that’s true of all organisations of course, not just heritage ones! If ‘colonial’ institutions want to see real change, they need to acknowledge that they aren’t just buildings, or collections, or historical entities – they are living, breathing groups of people. And if those people aren’t representative of the world today, it will be impossible for institutions to move forward.
That’s why it’s so important that the University works with individuals and groups outside its structures, and uses those links to keep reaching out to more individuals, groups and communities, always mindful of the fact that no one person or group can ever ‘represent’ a whole community. ‘Diversity’ can so easily become ‘tokenism’. We want our involvement to be the start of the journey, hopefully opening more doors for more Caribbean voices to be heard, and more Caribbean stories to be told.
From a personal perspective, we believe that decolonisation shouldn’t erase history, however painful or uncomfortable. Instead, it should be explored, interrogated and shared from a much wider, much more diverse perspective. That way, we will get closer to the whole story of our shared UK history, for better and worse.
We also believe that decolonisation isn’t just about reinterpreting the past and ‘decolonising’ existing spaces. It’s about actively creating new spaces, both physical and virtual, founded on genuine equality, freedom and representation.
The Windrush Scandal in 2018 is a tragic reminder that ‘colonialism’ isn’t just an historical concept referring to the bygone days of the British Empire. Its legacy is still here, inherent in all the UK’s power structures, including academia. Hopefully, this website is a step in the right direction and will provide a space for important conversation, debate and awareness raising. It will be interesting to see where it takes us.