Young men on a see-saw in Handsworth Park, 1984. Part of a set of archive images by Vanley Burke, who is working on a project with Museum X. Image: Vanley Burke
If you’re looking to learn more about the storied history of the pencil, there’s a dedicated museum located just off the A66. Those curious about lawnmowers can make their way to Southport for a journey of discovery at the British Lawnmower Museum. In fact, the more than 2,500 museums in the UK cover a dizzying range of topics, from wide-ranging history to esoteric household items. But among that vast number there is no museum devoted to telling the story of Black British history. A group of campaigners is on a mission to change that.
With the greatest respect to pencils and lawnmowers, it’s undoubtedly a more important story. So, under the name of the Black British Museum Project, a band of museum professionals are working on a plan to establish a permanent space telling the stories of the presence Black people have had in Britain stretching back thousands of years.
It’s a campaign and a fight that speaks to debates over colonialism, Britain’s imperial legacy, and how we celebrate parts of our history while ignoring others. They hope to have it in a permanent space within five years, creating somewhere for young Black people to go and feel at home.
“I think it’s not good enough that we can have over two and a half thousand museums and there isn’t a single one dedicated to Black British history and culture,” said project director Sandra Shakespeare.
“It’s time for a change, it’s time for now, and it’s time for a space where people think: actually, yeah, this is us. This is equally our space, and this is a museum we can call home.”
But there is still no dedicated museum. So in 2019, Shakespeare and a group of fellow museum professionals decided the time had come.
Under the umbrella project of Museum X, Shakespeare and her colleagues want to bring to life stories that aren’t widely known: Ancient African civilisations, or the Black presence in Britain going back thousands of years, including during Roman times.
Progress has been made, with these stories becoming more visible and discussed. An exhibition by the Institute for Creative Arts in 2021 explored grassroots activism by Black communities, while the Museum of London hosted a display on the history of grime, and a set of statues believed to be the first on display that depicted Black British people are being returned to Brixton station. But there is a way to go – and a permanent museum would provide a home and a hub to build upon.
They aren’t aiming to replicate the work of the International Slavery Museum in Liverpool, or duplicate efforts in south London to create a Museum of Slavery and Freedom.
“We’re not seeing it as a space that’s a replication of a transatlantic slavery museum. We’re hoping it’s a space that can show bold designs, different types of stories, different narratives and stories and aspects of Black British history that are not necessarily widely known, but we know will have appeal. If they come from the communities, as we hope they will, then even better,” says Shakespeare.
The museum has the potential to be a space where “young people can come into and they can feel a sense of pride as well,” explains Shakespeare.
“It’s a shift away from the old stuffy museum where you’re told to be quiet and silent. New, different spaces, bold spaces, where people can actually see history that’s reflective of them.”
This country’s museums are not simply neutral spaces housing interesting things. Take the British Museum. In the late 18th century it began to accumulate artefacts from other countries – plunder from Captain Cook, or the personal collection of an ambassador. It was also backed by the state, becoming the museum we know today at the beginning of the 19th century with an 1816 act of parliament transferring the recently-removed Elgin Marbles to the museum.
Over two hundred years later, debate rages over its two most famous artefacts: the Elgin Marbles and the Rosetta Stone. Each is a key part of another country’s history. This legacy is being acknowledged – the British Museum has been dubbed the “world’s largest receiver of stolen property” – but efforts at amends are sluggish.
Some museums – the Horniman Museum, Cambridge University, and the University of Aberdeen – have taken steps to return looted Benin Bronzes to Nigeria, but others lag behind – especially when compared to other countries. Germany has returned Benin Bronzes to Nigeria, while 900 of the artefacts remain in the British Museum’s collection.
If you think about museums as spaces where we understand and grapple with our history, and tell the stories about who we are, then what does this landscape say?
“We need to get better at having these difficult conversations and looking at aspects of our history that are difficult by nature,” says Shakespeare.
“It doesn’t mean shutting it down, and that’s something we’re very clear about with the Black British museum collection, we’re not saying we want to burn collections or tear things down.
“We’re actually saying: ‘How can we get better at looking at this history face on?’, and that people feel empowered to look at this and can make their own judgements for themselves.”
She adds: “We need to structure something where it’s a conversation with the communities. The big criticism from a lot of museums is that they find it difficult to connect sometimes with their own diverse communities”.
Doing things differently involves “thinking about a museum in a completely different concept, a completely different way”.
From the initial idea in 2019, the project has made its way as an online archive. But Shakespeare and her colleagues are hoping to begin a research project, asking communities what they want, and moving along the road to a bricks and mortar museum.
Shakespeare hopes this will be the springboard for a permanent museum, allowing them to form a concrete idea of the museum and access bigger pots of money.
And taking this community approach is important, Shakespeare says: “We need to structure something where it’s a conversation with the communities. The big criticism from a lot of museums is that they find it difficult to connect sometimes with their own diverse communities”.
On the whole, the act of creating a museum is far more democratic than it was before. “You can set up a museum in your front room. It’s no longer just this exclusive thing that belongs to an elitist type or an elitist part of the community. It’s very much open and accessible to all,” she says.
“Museums have had to change because we’re changing. Communities are changing, the language is changing, things evolve. What was once cool and okay 70 years ago is not cool and okay in 2023.”
As a result, there’s a chance to move beyond existing museums, and also to unearth hidden aspects of their collections. Citing the fact that just 1 to 2 per cent of museums’ collections are on display, Shakespeare argues a dedicated museum could bring these out of storage and tell their stories.
“The argument there is: what about those aspects of the collection that are significant to the story of Black Britain that just never get to see the light of day?” she asks.