STEP into the Smithsonian: Pre-Departure Reflections, Part 1

Ahead of a once-in-a-lifetime trip to Washington DC, Mohammed Rahman is thinking about what the STEP into the Smithsonian programme will have to offer in this two-part feature. Mohammed says…

Let’s chuck rationalisation out the window for a sec. Bottom line, how am I feeling? Excited. At least that’s the best word I can find; I can’t make heads or tails of it yet. I’ve never been to the U.S. despite the fact I was raised on The Fresh Prince of Bel Air and Malcolm in the Middle, A Tribe Called Quest and Nirvana, Sylvia Plath and James Baldwin. Honestly, it has the place of a strange, absent parent in my life- I’ve been reared on its images and lyrics, but America doesn’t know me.

Now, here I am, en-route to one of the cultural hearts of the nation, Washington D.C. There’s something of an overdue reunion about this…

I’ve been reflecting on the STEP bootcamp which ran in London from April 23rd-25th, preparing us for our departure for the Smithsonian on May 12th. The STEP participants (Chess, Iguette, Abondance and myself) got an insider look into museums and archives of varying scale, by speaking to people representing The Smithsonian, Tate, Youth Club and the Black Cultural Archives. We discussed all the burning questions: What makes a good museum? Why are museums important? What kind of work goes on in museums?

I’m gonna dwell, on three thoughts I’ve been having inspired by these visits. Partly to start a conversation with you all and partly to get my brain gunk in writing so I can track how it’ll change over the programme.

Here’s my current take:

1) Museums are for the living! On our first day, we spoke to Dr. Thomas Wide who is the manager of the Smithsonian programme in London. We came to this idea after discussing the Freer Sackler Museum of Asian Art and some changes made to its programme. To celebrate its reopening in October 2017, the Freer Sackler hosted Illuminasia, a festival which consisted of live music, food and arts events, all in the form of a night bazaar. The hubbub and interactivity of events like Illuminasia marks an emerging trend in the lives of museums.

People are scrapping the idea of the museum as something dead, a fossil collection, a crumbling house of snapshots. All good museums also have a life of their own and breathe new life into the future. In this vein, a recent and relieving move made by big London institutions like the V&A, Tate and The Wellcome Collection, has been to run late events. By reframing the museum as a place to hang out, a more diverse crowd is engaging with collections and the buildings that house them.

The digitalisation of collections is also adding to this trend. We spoke to Jen Aarvold, Head of Digital Content and Nikta Mohammedi, Assistant Producer at Tate Digital. We gathered that not only do virtual tours and digital archives let the public navigate collections on its own terms, but also how Digital teams use data and feedback to update and curate on the fly. I’m a fan of this conversational way of curating, because in theory it yields PHRESH ways of engaging with collections. It was helpful to clock how culture is becoming increasingly personalised and decentralised. Digital teams are the real MVPs in making a place people want to be both IRL and URL

I think by growing apart from the traditional institution ruled by rigid tours and Do Not Touch signs, we’re jumping out of a flaming bus. In doing so, institutions aren’t ‘dumbing things down’ as the old guard might grumble. The question of complexity isn’t it, chief. When we lift the glass boxes, mass media has just as much if not more social significance than what is considered high culture; the two interact and are consumed together. If ‘dumbing things down’ means taking the mic away from an affluent academic elite that considers others a subject of study and nothing more, then so be it. Let them flinch at the cacophony. Institutions need to realise that it’s not just their reputation, but the quality of their work which is at stake. Platforming unexpected, conflicting and plural ways of reading culture, spells something altogether more sincere, interesting and (yes for God’s sake) complex.

Museums are beautiful because they open up nerdy, exclusive worlds to the public. They’re the front line of exposure for so many niche cultural projects and all the artists, actors, biologists, engineers, archivists, coders, anthropologists etc. involved! If culture reaches our museums, in ways that silence, alienate and marginalise us, then we’re doing something wrong.

2) For conscious curation, we need to understand our own experience and bias around how history is presented v.s. how it’s lived. Dominant narratives can be dangerous! From my own experience growing up in the UK, I’ve been taught that history is linear, sequential, based on cause-and-effect-events and that it’s just about the past- cue the primary school Tudors timeline with the tacky WordArt headings. When you think you’re done with those cringey reductions, heavily past-oriented collections *ahem British Museum ahem* sneak up on you in adulthood.

In my humble opinion, the bad news about this way of presenting the past, is that it silences other voices, doesn’t meet us in the present and makes us forget that we’re making our own histories all the time!

Our visit to Youth Club, a youth subculture photo archive at Printworks, helped us think beyond museums as places that present a straightforward past. Youth Club are doing amazing work in bringing marginalised histories to the fore. Lisa Der Weduwe and Jamie Brett told us about the scanning days and exhibitions Youth Club runs with all sorts of communities considered subculture. Lisa and Jamie also mentioned how these events bring people together as they allow lived memories to surface in the present.

During our discussion at Printworks, Iguette made a point, when she saw pictures of people in the 70s dressing for carnival; how sometimes it’s startling to be reminded that once upon a time our uncles and aunties had swag. We see ourselves, our present aspirations in them.

The importance of alternative histories is key! Maybe the past can seem irrelevant in traditional museums, not because we don’t relate to the subjects represented, but rather, we don’t relate to the curators that speak over them. It was so refreshing to take family and friends’ photo albums seriously as a part of wider history and its uncanny cycles. I think the answer to engaging exhibits lies in letting people speak for themselves.

A good exhibit lets us plot ourselves in relation to places, things and people on the timescape. Knowing our own place in history can be really empowering. We saw this on our trip to the Black Cultural Archives in Brixton with trustee, Patricia Hamzahee. Patricia gave us a tour of the current photo exhibition, Radiating Greatness: Stories of Black Leadership by Franklyn Rodgers. Here we got the backstory behind inspiring black women at the top of their industries, including Dr. Sandie Okoro, Miss Miss Samantha Tross, and Baroness Valerie Amos. Each portrait was symbolically presented on doors, as a gesture towards the future and growing representation for POC women across sectors.

We also had a talk with archivist Hannah Ishmael and looked at some primary materials from the Organisation of Women of African and Asian Descent (OWAAD) from the 70s and 80s; pamphlets, books, letters and their meeting minutes, doodles in the margins included! It was great to see the human touches like drawings on these resources. There’s something very grounding, knowing that this kind of community organisation been done before, by people just like us (who get bored at meetings), against the institutional racism and sexism that persists decade after decade in the UK. It’s a shame they don’t teach us about OWAAD in school. Knowing where we stand historically helps us adapt more thoughtfully to patterns in our present and future. Museums are a forefront for alternative education.

With this in mind, when I go stateside, I’m interested in the Smithsonian’s treatment of painful and violent histories, namely in the National Museum of African-American History and Culture and the National Museum of the American Indian. It’d also be great to speak to people raised in the U.S. and compare what they’re taught at school versus what the museums say.

…to be continued. Click here for part 2, including the third and final idea that is inspiring Mohammed before he leaves for the USA!


You can find Mohammed’s work on Instagram: @m.z.r.art

Photography by Ketishia Vaughan, illustrations by Mohammed Rahman

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