Small Museum, Big Issues: What it Takes for a Small Local Museum to Address Colonialism

The ReStorying Project from Concept to Conclusion

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!

Duty of Care

No matter the size of a museum, it has a duty of care towards its community, from members of the public to staff and volunteers. This duty of care can take a lot of different forms, and we are more accustomed to seeing some of the following: looking after the wellbeing of employees, offering memory sessions for the elderly, offering internships for youths, preserving a natural area, etc.

But this duty of care must also be embedded in the way we display our collections: are difficult topics sensitively addressed? Is the diversity of the population represented appropriately? Do we include a multiplicity of voices when we curate our exhibitions?

During the last few years, the heritage sector in the UK has been shaken by the imperative to revisit not only the objects in our collections and how they were acquired, but also the way we display them to acknowledge the difficult colonial heritage they are part of.

Last year, we saw a proliferation of free webinars and discussion groups for museum professionals to address the issue of colonialism in our museums. It was one of the topics addressed during the Museums Association Conference 2020, and on their website there is a full list of free resources to support museums in their decolonising efforts.

It can feel difficult to tackle some of the big issues if you’re a small organisation, due to a number of different factors: the staff team is small, there is no funding for a project like this, fears of swimming into uncharted waters, not having a tested working strategy for decolonising collections, the possibility of receiving backlash from the public or not having the support of other staff or the Trustee Board, and even losing the support of long-term visitors.

But it doesn’t matter how big or small your museum is, you can always make a positive difference when addressing difficult heritage in your displays. As organisations that strive to serve communities, we have a duty of care to do this to ensure that every single member of our audience and museum teams feels appropriately represented and justly informed about the context in which the object was accessioned and about what facts surrounded its creation and subsequent use.

So, how did we get started?

I suppose that it starts by planting that little seed of change, born out of those discussions and conferences on the topic of decolonisation, and nourished with the accounts of others that have gone down this road before us. Decolonising is a collective effort, and sharing experiences can have a domino effect.

After realising that the Museum of Cambridge couldn’t be left behind in these conversations, and feeling inspired myself after attending many of the mentioned conferences, I decided to have a closer look at the displays we have. I took the time to really explore our labels and objects, how they were arranged, what the labels said, with what language, from what point/s of view. I eventually managed to come up with a list of c. 5 objects that were either explicitly linked to the UK’s colonial heritage, or had the potential to be and it was worth having a closer look at them.

However, this was as far as I was able to go on my own. As I mentioned before, the lack of human resources makes it difficult to undergo a full decolonising project, and I realised I was going to need help if I wanted to carry this forward.

The opportunity to receive help came when I was arranging for volunteer opportunities to engage with students from the Department of Archaeology at the University of Cambridge. I designed project volunteer roles for students who were interested in decolonising collections. During the interviews, the two candidates that ended up working in this project remarked the willingness to work with members of the community to carry out our decolonising efforts, and I thought this was such a brilliant suggestion that this became embedded in our project from the very beginning. If we are talking about including multivocality in our displays, it cannot always be the museum people who do the talking: we need to include community voices too in any decolonising projects.

That’s how our museum’s first decolonising team was born, and it not only had our truly amazing volunteers Kirsten and Ginevra, but also welcomed Aimee, our experienced Collections Officer. And so it was that the four of us embarked on this journey of rethinking the museum’s displays.

The journey

During the first half of the project, which lasted about 4 months in total, we held regular weekly meetings to discuss different issues, and sometimes there would be homeworking between (i.e. attend a talk or read an article), which we would discuss at the next meeting and use as a starting point for debate.

The debates helped us create a working ethos for our group: principles and attitudes to follow when carrying out research and especially when working with community members.
Developing a working ethos was especially useful to appease any fears and insecurities that undergoing this process could generate in the team members, and it provided a framework to guide our practice.

Because of the length of the project, I judged it appropriate to focus on just one object from the ones I had found in my earlier explorations of the displays, and unanimously the Tobacconist’s Sign was chosen by the team to be the centre of our research. Ginevra and Kirsten competently carried out research to understand not only the context of tobacconists shops in Cambridge, but also the wider, global context in which it was inscribed and what it meant for the UK and Cambridge in particular.

Session planning

Thanks to our incredibly engaged and proactive volunteers, the idea of running community sessions as part of this project was embedded since the very beginning, so that when the research was fairly advanced for the short time we had for the project, we moved onto planning the outreach sessions and recruitment plan.

These two tasks took quite a long time to figure out, especially as we haven’t done a project about decolonisation before. This is because there are extra considerations to take when you are dealing with very sensitive topics that can be triggering. Everything from the call out we shared on our social media to invite people to complete our Expression of Interest form, to the images we would show and the type of activities we would carry out, had to be sensitively devised and delivered.

Another challenge we faced was how to turn research findings and concepts into accessible activities for our participants, and ensure a coherent progression as part of our planning. On a few occasions, when we were particularly stuck, we had to try out the activities ourselves and discuss how we got on during the following meeting. I cannot say we came out of this with a formula, but embracing the method of trial and error, and thinking out loud in front of others until something makes sense is definitely what worked for us in this situation. It might be different for different groups of people. Whenever we were lost, it was also useful to go back to that working ethos, the guiding principles for our actions.

Organisation was key to having a panoramic vision of the sessions: after brainstorming sessions, we would write down all the ideas we had agreed on to be part of the delivery in more or less organized tables, with dates and times, a breakdown of activities, who was going to do what, etc. This made us feel more confident by the time we embarked on the facilitation of the community sessions.

We made a conscious effort to include a creative factor to all our activities. I might be biased because of my background in Fine Arts and Theatre, but creativity is key to re-imagining narratives and building fairer futures.
If an organisation is unsure about how to include this crucial factor into their planning, I recommend they do not hesitate to look for help: there are, thankfully, many creatives out there who can offer their professional help to help organisations and their staff embed creativity in their planning and delivery.

I think our most trying challenge was not to be able to recruit enough people who represented our initial target audience. We were looking for individuals who didn’t identify as ‘museum people’, or/and people that belonged to groups whose voices are underrepresented groups in our exhibitions narratives. For us it was important not to replicate yet another situation where the ‘museum experts’ talk at audiences from their professional perspective (well-intentioned as this might be), or where we don’t make an effort to amplify the voices of groups that don’t generally engage with our collections. In addition, another key thing we were looking for was that the applicants had a connection to Cambridge and had a keen interest in exploring its colonial heritage, but who were not already involved with museums or similar initiatives.

To be honest, we did not receive as many applications as we expected. There are truly a lot of things you can do for recruitment without a budget, such as advertising on social media and contacting other organisations in the area asking them to share your message with their participants. And although it is difficult to know exactly why we didn’t receive more applications, given this was a pilot project of a very limited timescale, it is possible that we simply didn’t advertise for long enough.

Our dilemma was: do we cancel the sessions due to insufficient applicants (the ratio of volunteers and staff to participants was something that concerned us, more about it below), extend the application deadline risking stretching the project too long, or go ahead with the applications we have?

In retrospect, and considering we have had to extend the overall project’s schedule anyway (wrapping up something like this also takes a lot of time if you haven’t done it before!), extending the application deadline would not have been too terrible, although it felt like that at the time.
And unless you have funding reports to complete by a certain date, or your schedule is truly and absolutely jam-packed with commitments, extending the recruitment deadline for an independent pilot project for a final advertising push is perfectly doable!

What did we do in the end? After sleeping on it (and I can’t stress how important it is to sleep on issues), we decided the next day that we had more to lose by not going ahead with this, than by doing it to a slightly altered plan. So we went through our recruitment criteria and the applications again, and came to the decision to recruit two of the applicants.

Session delivery

I cannot tell you how exciting and nerve-wracking things get when you finally start delivering a project like this to members of the local area! The good level of detail that we included in our planning allowed us to feel confident when facilitating, and the high levels of enthusiasm and how close we felt as a team by this time, really allowed us to create a friendly and welcoming atmosphere for the participants.

Something that did worry us was that the ratio of museum people/non-museum people was 4:2 in favour of the former. We resolved this by agreeing to do all the activities and participate in the debates alongside the participants, so it didn’t feel that they were being constantly examined by us. In addition, some of the activities had the potential to make people feel vulnerable by sharing personal accounts and opinions, so it was only fair that we should become vulnerable too by doing the same tasks.

For all the planning that the sessions took, they really went in a flash, we were enjoying them so much. But they did run very smoothly, and although we were following the planning very closely, we also allowed a good deal of improvisation to take part as this is also essential to explorative and creative processes. For us, planning was a guideline and not an inflexible norm: it is important to have that presence of mind to really be caught up in the moment and react to what is happening. This allowed a really good flow during the conversations and opened us more to discuss difficult topics.

Assessing outcomes

Apart from all the feedback we collected during the sessions, we sent participants a feedback form to complete, which included key questions about aspects of the project we needed to learn more about, and that might not have been conveyed during the sessions.

Apart from this, we held debriefing meetings the day after each session to reflect on how everyone had felt and what they thought worked well and what we might improve for next time. Allowing this time to share ideas and feelings as a team after a session is incredibly important to understand your professional practice better, and it is a powerful instance of bonding for the team which will lead to better delivery.

The feedback we received was incredibly positive, and our participants even mentioned how their perception about the colonial heritage and local history of Cambridge changed. In addition, they mentioned how they shared the insights gained in this project with those around them, which for us was a fabulous outcome as well, as we wanted to encourage those conversations to happen outside museum environments. You can learn more about participants’ comments here: ReStorying OUR Museum with Kirsten: A Volunteer’s Perspective

Once we finished delivering the sessions to participants we assessed the feedback together and everything that we produced during the sessions, and brainstormed ways to share this wonderful journey with others. This was not simple, and somewhat resembled the planning process. What do we want to share and how? Who does what, and what are the timelines? After much deliberation, we decided to create a series of articles for the general public and for museum professionals as well as an interactive online display, and a new label display to see at the museum.

Next steps

Although I cannot say what is going to happen to this project next, I know none of us has had enough. We have had a glimpse of how transforming projects like this are for staff, volunteers, and members of the local community, and what a positive impact they can have in understanding our collections better. We have asked feedback from participants and volunteers, which will inform our next steps in exploring these issues in a participatory way and involving more residents of Cambridge.

We certainly want to continue working to examine our heritage critically, and we hope to be able to find the resources to carry on more projects like this.

If you have comments, please get in touch with me at

This post was written by Forencia Nannetti, Community and Visitor Engagement Officer at the Museum of Cambridge.

Small Museum, Big Issues: What it Takes for a Small Local Museum to Address Colonialism