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Seeing the past differently – museums look to the future

New perspectives

The international Black Lives Matter movement has strongly featured in recent headlines. One of its key aims – to affirm the contributions of black people to society and promote resilience in the face of oppression is reflected in the major re-evaluation by British museums of many of the artefacts in their collections and how they are being interpreted.

Seeing yourself represented in culture is necessary to value and want to participate in it.  Strategic collecting from underrepresented groups and additional narratives on existing collections are needed.’ Collections 2030 representative, Wales.

Britain’s colonial past

Much of recent discussion has been focused on colonialism and Britain’s role in the slave trade of the 17th and 18th centuries. Historian David Olusoga during a recent webinar for the National Museum Wales was urging an audit of statues, place and street names which memorialize members of a white elite who built their fortunes on the misery of others. He believes museums in 2020 have a key role is speaking powerfully to history and telling a different and more truthful narrative.

Action in Wales

On 26 November the results of an audit commissioned by Welsh Government identified 209 examples, located in all parts of Wales, which commemorate people who were directly involved with slavery and the slave trade or opposed its abolition. First Minister, Mark Drakeford, said

This is not about rewriting our past or naming and shaming. It is about learning from the events of the past. It is an opportunity for us to establish a mature relationship with our history and find a heritage which can be shared by us all’. The research also found there are alarmingly few Welsh people of Black or Asian heritage commemorated across Wales, showing there is a need to consider how we should celebrate the contributions that all parts of our community have made to our country. This is starting to be addressed – this week plans have been approved to erect a statue to honor 3 great black sportsmen in their home town of Cardiff intended to inspire the young people from the community well into the future.

Interpretation of life in earlier times

However, some museums are going back even further in time and re-evaluating their interpretation of pre-history.

Earlier this month one of a series of talks at Pembrokeshire Coast’s Archaeology Day. Rhowan Alleyne took the audience back to the Mesolithic period, when waves of people from mainland Europe arrived in the British Isles after the Ice Age.  The archaeology display at Oriel y Parc Gallery and Visitor Centre in St David’s includes a range of artefacts from this period and there is a renewed interest in finding ways for all visitors to connect with the stories around them.

The museum has decided that the images of Mesolithic people on display created in the 1970s are outdated, reflecting an assumption that activists in society were white, heterosexual, dominant men. It has concluded that other people’s stories needed to be told and Rhowan shared one of the new images with her audience which more accurately portray the people in Britain at this time as dark skinned, with dark curly hair. Evidence for this is provided by the reconstruction of the skeleton of a young man who lived in the Mesolithic period found in the caves in Cheddar, Somerset in the UK. The images also question the rigid gender roles portrayed in the earlier pictures. Although facts about the Mesolithic lifestyle are limited, the aim is to question the assumptions common in earlier centuries and to inspire conversations and questions.

New Skills and Attitudes are needed

This radical reappraisal by museums of their institutions, collections and interpretation will require those working there to develop a range of new skills and approaches. The Next Tourism Generation Alliance has identified the growing need to demonstrate cultural sensitivity and learn about different cultures.

To eliminate prejudice in policies and practices and to be willing to respond to change and is developing a range of tools to help museums develop their staff’s skills to meet the exciting challenges and opportunities the future holds. One of these tools is a Skills Matrix, an on-line tool which provides information about the skills needed for the next tourism generation to help the different stakeholders in the tourism sector to promote specific training and to develop policies aimed at improving skills amongst students and professionals. Another valuable tool developed by the Next Tourism Generation project is a Skills Assessment Methodology which provides a mechanism for analyzing the rapidly changing skills and skills needs in the tourism sector in order to develop strategies for addressing skills gaps in the EU tourism sector. For more details head to the NTG toolkit.

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