Engaging for Change – ReStorying OUR Museum

Ginevra’s experience with the ReStorying OUR Museum Project

ReStorying OUR Museum was a pilot project that ran from January to May 2021.

The Museum of Cambridge wanted to start exploring the colonial heritage in its collections, and how different ways of displaying and curating could offer more diverse and contextualised versions of our objects’ stories.

Throughout the project, staff members and volunteers researched and discussed ‘The Tobacconist Sign’, to try to understand more about its link to Britain’s colonial heritage, with a focus on the impact it had in Cambridge in particular.

In addition, three workshops were held with members of the community to think creatively about how we can contextualise this object better and re-imagine its label.

We’ve captured some of the results in the panels displayed around the object, where you can learn more about it and what our community sessions achieved.

You can also learn more through our blog posts, resource library, and interactive online display!

Engaging for Change

I had just moved to Cambridge for my Master’s degree, was starting to adjust to the British weather, and was looking for ways to keep busy outside of schoolwork when the opportunity to volunteer at the Museum of Cambridge came along. Immediately, I was welcomed as part of the talented and supportive Decolonising Team, where we set out to challenge the narratives around the museum and displays that for so long hadn’t been addressed. 

Our journey began with the desire to understand the ways in which colonial narratives permeated the museum collections, and we started out by learning more about the history, local and global, that had shaped and continue to shape the collection, but we soon discovered this was really just the beginning of a much bigger quest. There is so much that lies underneath the surface and there are so many items with hidden meanings. A specific object in the museum soon became our main focus: the ‘Tobacconist’ Sign. What could be problematic about an old piece of wood? A lot, it turns out. 

Thus began the first part of my process as Project Volunteer: research. From the context of the sign within Cambridge, to its use and larger meaning within an interconnected global context, the more I researched and educated myself on Britain’s and Cambridge’s colonial past, the more I realised that it was all too easy to become indifferent to its provenance, especially when the object came nicely packaged in an innocuous label. 

What I came to understand is that it is never about the object alone. A sign still is just a sign. But it has meanings that extends far beyond its physicality. That carved piece of wood recounts a story about tobacco plantations, power imbalances, exoticism, fetishization, and social disparities. 

This new awareness about where the object is inscribed historically and socially is what then linked us to the second part of our project: labels. Never has an experience I have undergone opened my eyes to the importance of language as much as this one. Words have the power to frame objects, people, and events, and portray them in completely different lights. They have the power, if used appropriately, to finally bring to light the uncomfortable truths that for so long have been hidden in the shadows. 

Our team understood two key things as a result of my research and that of my fellow volunteer: the context of the object, and the ways in which it was framed by labels and museum database entries. With this understanding we as a team felt the necessity to change this narrative in order to ensure it becomes more inclusive and transparent. With this in mind, we began the third, and arguably most exciting, part of our journey: The ReStorying OUR Museum project. 

Through 3 webinar sessions that included a few participants from the local community, we analysed the sign a little deeper (from its context to what its label should include). The ReStorying OUR Museum project was a way for the Museum of Cambridge to actively engage with community members and reaffirm its commitment to decolonise the museum. 

With each session, I was able to take part in incredibly thought-provoking discussions surrounding the importance of labels and language, from what a label is, to how to write it, and who should write it (what voices to include). The community members who participated in the webinars went above and beyond to actively engage with the arduous tasks at hand. Every week they shared their points of view, produced incredible personal labels, and participated in stimulating conversations voicing their opinions. 

The Project might have been limited in length, but not in scope. It called for actions that extend beyond the virtual webinar space. How, then, can we ensure that we are no longer turning a blind eye to the deeper meaning that lies beneath these objects? Should they not be displayed? Should they be hidden away and forgotten about? If there’s anything this journey has taught me, it is the importance of having these conversations and of coming to terms with the colonial past of the objects we encounter in our daily lives and the places we inhabit. 

Finally, this dialogue must extend outside academic or museum spaces. Active engagement with friends, family, co-workers, and classmates must be an integral part of decolonisation efforts so that we don’t detach ourselves from the topic. Change can happen within our small communities and can be part of our everyday efforts towards ensuring that history doesn’t repeat itself. 

This post was written by Ginevra Rollo, a volunteer at the Museum of Cambridge.

This post is the first in a series. Come back next week to read our next article on the project ReStorying OUR Museum: Voices from Our Community

In addition, you can head to our Resources Library, where we have included links to articles, videos, books and podcasts that talk about this topic.

You can also visit our online display or visit the museum to learn more about the Tobacconist Sign and the ReStorying OUR Museum Project.

Engaging for Change – ReStorying OUR Museum