In Episode 3, I speak to Sara Wajid, Head of Engagement at the Museum of London, about her sector-changing approach to ‘The Past Is Now’ (2017) exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. Infused throughout our conversation are references to Museum Detox, a networking group for BAME professionals in museums and heritage that we are both members of and which Sara co-founded when she was working at the National Maritime Museum, Greenwich.
We talk about how Sara brings her journalism and literary studies background to inject powerful storytelling into the projects she works on to explore and further develop decolonial methodology in a museum and display context. A key part of this approach is the two-way collaboration between people who work in museums and members of the wider community, including artists and activists, and the ’emotional sledgehammer’ this type of work can bring to a display like ‘The Past Is Now‘.
Experimentation and the freedom to fail is so important and this exhibition explored the possibility of finding a new language and way of talking about collections relating to empire, and how visitors responded to this. Within this context of testing, one of the aims was to display a more honest reckoning of empire and to explore how you tell stories - and whose stories are told - as part of Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’s redevelopment plans so it could be reoriented for a younger, diverse urban population.
For me, one of the key points in this episode is to recognise the incredible alchemy that results when you bring together powerful, innovative storytelling and experimentation into a museum. And the role of funders is vital to this: I wonder if The Past Is Now would have happened without Arts Council England’s Changer Makers programme.
This type of work is difficult, emotional and unsettling but what came out of the conversation with Sara is that it is also joyful and exciting. Her work shows how you can be brave when you are not naturally brave and that’s an important lesson for us all.
Links of interest:
- Photo gallery (by me!) of The Past Is Now - https://thewonderhouse.co.uk/photo-gallery-the-past-is-now
- The Art of Leadership - leading to create greater impact with Hilary Carty, Sara Wajid & David Jubb - https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=99uTvT6tqqs
- How can you decolonise museums? - Museum Next presentations by Sara Wajid & Shaheen Kasmani - https://www.museumnext.com/article/decolonising-museums/
- Untold Stories: Birmingham, the British Empire and Bangladeshi Curry - https://advisor.museumsandheritage.com/features/untold-stories-birmingham-british-empire-bangladeshi-curry/
- Birmingham Museum defends exhibition of ‘evil’ British Empire [behind paywall] - https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/birmingham-museum-defends-exhibition-of-evil-british-empire-nb05nsbzz#
Follow Sara @Waji35
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This episode was Presented/Produced by Sushma Jansari (@TheWonderHouse) and Produced/Edited by Nick Harris (@2ndThoughtTank).