“I could really tell just how much effort and care went into preparing for the session!” Charlotte* exclaimed, reflecting on her experience as a participant during the first ReStorying OUR Museum community engagement session.
Hearing her words reaffirmed the value of the months we volunteers and staff had spent grappling with how to embed care in our approach to reinterpreting one of the museum’s objects, a tobacco shop sign, connected with Britain’s colonial past.
As Community and Visitor Engagement Officer Florencia Nannetti emphasises in her recent post, every museum has a duty of care towards its community, and this duty extends to displaying its collection sensitively and inclusively. In recent times, heightened attention to the colonial legacies of museum collections has underscored the importance of this duty. For those of us facilitating the ReStorying project, embracing a multiplicity of community voices to sensitively address difficult topics has been vital to better fulfilling the museum’s duty of care. And it is those voices I aim to amplify in this blog post.
So, what do our Cambridgeshire participants have to say about the ReStorying project?
- Do they think efforts like this one matter, and if so, why?
- How do they envisage reinterpreting colonial objects in the museum?
- How, if at all, has this project changed their perceptions?
- And what do they think the museum and its community should do next?
Let’s let the participants speak for themselves…
Meet Participants Camille and Charlotte**
What is your connection to Cambridgeshire?
Camille: I’ve always lived in Cambridge and have been going to the Museum of Cambridge since I was a child. I’ve spent a lot of lockdown learning about local history.
Charlotte: I have lived in Cambridge for many years, though I was not born here. I studied here too; I knew very little about Cambridge’s history and was interested to find out more.
Why were you interested in joining this project?
Camille: It seemed like a good time to be rethinking our colonial past.
Charlotte: I was interested in which objects in the museum have links to colonialism and in what way. I liked the idea of thinking around this subject and hearing different points of view.
What was your reaction to reading the tobacco shop sign’s original museum label for the first time?
Camille: I was surprised that the label sounds very neutral, that it doesn’t even say that slaves were involved in tobacco production. I was also surprised that the label doesn’t connect to [the history and legacies of tobacco shops in] Cambridge specifically.
Charlotte: I was surprised by the label’s “that’s-just-how-it-was” tone. The label certainly makes assumptions about visitors’ previous knowledge. It’s economical with the truth—skirting around difficult issues.
What are your main takeaways from this project? And how (if at all) have your perceptions of Cambridgeshire or the Museum of Cambridge changed during the sessions?
Camille: I learned much about Cambridge and connected to these [colonial] histories. I now feel invested in knowing about them. I didn’t realise how Cambridge had benefitted from slavery, it was something I hadn’t considered before. I think it’s something we all need to talk about. It’s great that the museum is making a real effort to engage with members of the community and I’m now much more aware of this.The Museum of Cambridge is a small museum wrestling with some big issues in a sensitive way.
Charlotte: I didn’t know that the museum was thinking so deeply about issues of race, colonialism and slavery and how to inform and engage the public on these. [This project] has challenged me to find out more about how wealth created through business associated with slavery funded the University or the city. I guess I tend to think about Cambridge’s wealth as coming from medieval patrons but no doubt many forms of exploitation and slavery were involved too.
It’s been years, but now I want to pay a visit to the museum. We can learn a lot from just looking at objects; there are always multiple layers of meaning associated with an object and the meanings that we read into something say as much about us as about the artefact. Also, information and data can be presented in very creative and interactive ways. [Having participated in this project] will make me go into museums more and notice how things are curated and labelled. It was really interesting to look at the [tobacco shop sign’s] label. I am never going to be the same again when I visit a museum. This experience was a revelation!
We were delighted to hear that you’ve already shared about this experience with your family and friends. How else might you share about this project and your main takeaways from it with your community and network?
Camille: [This project] surprisingly was very relevant to my day job! These issues of slavery and colonialism are also things we are considering right now.
Charlotte: This project informs my work as well. [Thinking about these issues of colonialism and its legacies] also makes me want to know more, including more about links between capitalism, climate change, and racism.
What do you think the Museum of Cambridge should do going forward with this ReStorying project?
Camille: This is an important process. It’s important not to hide from this colonial history, not to hide these objects. It was good to focus on one object, but we potentially could have looked at another one too. Another session would have been nice.
Charlotte: I agree that this is an important process. It encouraged me to think around this topic and think creatively. [In the future, the project should be just as] engaging, asking interesting questions through interesting exercises. I think the project should continue giving more information to visitors who want it. The museum could also encourage participants to write first-person narratives or other stories [to reflect on and engage with colonial objects].
The Ripple Effect: Concentric Conversations on Decolonisation
Hearing these participants’ perspectives underscores that, while the tobacco shop sign’s original label told a singular narrative that silenced key issues and differing perspectives, the ReStorying project raised questions, encouraged close reading and critical thinking, and fostered the exchange of perspectives through what participants described as “stimulating,” “thought-provoking” discussion and online collaboration that “challenged the participants to think creatively about how we view objects and think about their meanings and stories.” Both Camille and Charlotte agreed that the sessions “provided a safe and non-judgemental space for them to express opinions and share ideas comfortably.” Camille felt the engagement project “was a supportive and open forum where we could speak freely,” and Charlotte added that the discussions helped participants “think around the issue and allow our preconceptions to be challenged.”
In this project, fostering respectful, open dialogue became a means of overcoming the original label’s silence on colonial violence; and foregrounding local perspectives, a way of offering care for participants and future visitors. Together, these approaches countered the original label’s monopoly on museum interpretation.
Although only a pilot project, ReStorying OUR Museum brought outcomes beyond our expectations. This effort to confront difficult histories attracted new volunteers (myself and Ginevra) to the museum. It also shifted past visitors’ perceptions, and these visitors-turned-participants emphasised that, as early as the week of the first session, they began sharing about the project with family, friends, and colleagues of their own accord. By the end of the final session, Camille envisaged potentially influencing emerging diversity and inclusion initiatives at her workplace through her experience during this project. Thus, although the pilot project had few participants, their conversations on decolonisation continue to ripple outwards. The value of pilot projects like this one lies in their potential to spark shifts in perceptions one conversation at a time—even beyond museum walls.
And in the end, this project left participants wanting even more—wanting to consider more colonial objects, through more sessions, more dialogue, and yes, even creative “homework.”
Want more, too? For more on participants’ perspectives on reimagining the tobacco shop sign’s label, check out our new display at the museum! There, you can even follow a QR code to add your voice to the ReStory. Or feel free to email us any feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org. And be sure to watch this space for information about potential future ReStorying OUR Museum project expansions informed by participants’—and your—perspectives and feedback.
*Names have been changed to protect participants’ privacy.
**Some quotes have been edited slightly for readability.
This Post was written by Kirsten Huffer, a volunteer for the ReStorying OUR Museum project.