South Asian Heritage Month: truth-telling and transformation

Sadia Habib and Stephen Welsh
Dr Habib and Stephen Welsh with project participant, Urussa
As South Asian Heritage Month ends, it’s a good time to look at how more UK museums are considering ways of deepening engagement with South Asian communities and heritage.

It’s vital for museums to seek exciting and creative new ways to promote social justice, anti-colonial thought and critical education. This is the only way they can remain relevant in multicultural societies, and representative of the UK in the 21st century.

Some institutions are using co-curation, often involving local people developing projects in collaboration with museums.

"Engaging with South Asian communities must encourage a joint critique of the obvious connections between museums and the British Empire."

This is great news. But they must also acknowledge that some of their collections owe their presence in UK museums to the exploitation of South Asia by the British during centuries of colonial rule.

Therefore, co-curation cannot simply be a benign exercise in selecting objects. Engaging with South Asian communities must encourage a joint critique of the obvious connections between museums and the British Empire.

New ways for young people to connect

Four young women
Dr Sadia Habib and OSCH participants

 

At Manchester Museum we have been doing this through the Our Shared Cultural Heritage project (OSCH), jointly funded by The National Lottery Heritage Fund and British Council. 

OSCH seeks to test and evaluate new ways for young people from the South Asian diaspora and their peers to connect with heritage. The project supports young people aged 11 to 25 years old to experiment, create and lead on activities and events that allow them to explore the shared histories and cultures of the UK and South Asia.

"Some of the young people, who might not have previously felt welcome in a colonial establishment like a museum, are now thoroughly embedded here." 

OSCH has been running for over a year. In this short time, we have worked with over 300 young people from South Asian communities. Some of these young people, who might not have previously felt welcome in a colonial establishment like a museum, are now thoroughly embedded here. 

Some make up a core group of leaders, organisers and decision-makers. They have the freedom and support to organise events, activities and campaigns that are meaningful, useful and relevant to their lived experiences and heritage. They plan and participate in activities led by young people for young people and their communities.

Poster

They do not shy away from difficult conversations about colonialism, empire and exploitation. For example, they have set up a Radical Readers group in collaboration with the DecoloniseUoM student group at the University of Manchester to explore contested histories. The OSCH young people tell us that they feel like they belong at Manchester Museum, while still being able to challenge the status quo.

We want young people to help change the heritage sector. From the start of the project, we’ve been committed to elevating youth voice and action.

For instance, during the recruitment for the OSCH project coordinator, around 18 young people participated in the interview process.

They asked candidates questions, listened to their presentations, and scored them accordingly. 

Interrogating traditions

Young people in museum

 

 

Often young people are busy with their studies, work and life generally, so we must make every effort to engage them with spaces that they might have deemed irrelevant and inaccessible. We seek to offer them opportunities to develop skills and experiences, but also encourage them to apply for paid opportunities within and outside of the Museum.

We’ve found that young people are keen to organise and lead on campaigns, activities and events in the heritage sector. But they will only feel a true sense of belonging if museums interrogate traditional ways of engaging with diaspora communities. 

"These young people want to challenge the homogenous and stereotypical tropes about their communities and identities, especially as South Asia is so diverse."

Young people want museums to be honest, for example, about how colonialists took vast quantities of cultural heritage items and natural science specimens, and deposited them in western museums. They want to confront how museums used these collections, taken from their ancestors, to promote an exoticised and subjugated image of South Asia and its peoples. 

These young people also want to challenge the homogenous and stereotypical tropes about their communities and identities, especially as South Asia is so diverse.

This truth-telling process must be supported from the outset of a project. Otherwise it would be unethical and undermine young people’s trust.

A broader, more inclusive approach to collections and institutional histories, can strengthen relationships, support decolonisation and encourage debate and discussion.

Working with young people like this can help transform heritage spaces, making them relevant, useful and inviting for the multicultural communities we serve. 

About the authors

Dr Sadia Habib is the Our Shared Cultural Heritage Coordinator at Manchester Museum. She explores identity and belonging in her work, research and writing. 

Stephen Welsh is an independent curator and consultant. He is also a Committee Member for the North at The National Lottery Heritage Fund. His practice involves embedding co-curation, decolonisation and inclusion in museums.  

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