It is also a time when Black talent is perceived to be most in demand than any other time of the year. How can we remedy this ‘shackling’ of our Black contributions and talent? I’m acutely aware of the racism, historical amnesia, and unconscious bias that continue to mask the threads of colonialism and imperialism. In my own practice over the last 11 years, I try to work towards redressing the imbalance and provide a platform throughout the year that celebrates Blackness in all its forms, including those of an uncomfortable nature, through Art, Design and Performance – the main research areas of the Victoria and Albert (V&A) Museum’s work.
As Programme Manager for African Heritage and Culture at the V&A, I am responsible for shifting the museum away from Black History Month (BHM), to a 3-month season, and currently a year-round series of events. I curate live interventions across the collections, for temporary displays, key headline exhibitions, and gallery redevelopments. You can hear the deafening silence of visitor disbelief when I say ‘I’m not doing anything for BHM’. A few years ago someone did tell me quite plainly, that they pay their taxes for people like me to offer BHM because I work for a place (the museum) who are the custodians of ‘artefacts’ some of which were plundered, and it was my responsibility to unearth their history, ensure visitor accessibility, and enable the narratives to come alive. What else could I do but to agree with them, the only difference was that I understood the museum’s working practice, the time it takes to make change especially within large institutions like the V&A with massive collections to re-interpret, for today’s contemporary world and future prosperity. We are moving forward in getting the voice of diversity out there in ways that impact greatly on the stories the museum chooses to tell, but there is still masses to do to elevate real change.
Through the V&A’s current gallery re-development plans, there is a commitment to ensure the inclusion of African and Diaspora related material. As part of the Heritage Lottery Funded (HLF) redevelopment of the Europe 1600 – 1815 Galleries I trained thirteen guides in January 2016 for a year, to offer permanent year-long ‘Africans in Europe 1600 – 1815’ tours. To date over 2500 visitors have experienced these tours.
The new ‘Caribbean Historical and Hidden Histories Tour’ covering 300 years of history, 8 objects across 6 galleries take place on Sundays until 15 October 2017.
A recent event ‘Ghana – A Nation in Retrospective’ in August 2017 celebrated Ghana @ 60 and the UNESCO Decade for People of African Decent 2015 – 2024 with over 850 visitors. The event was an opportunity, amongst other things, for visitors to view displays and discuss with curators the Ashanti Gold and Regalia held within the museum’s collection, previously acquired through military plunder by General Garnet Wolesley during the 1874 raid on Kumasi and the Asantehene Kofi Kari Kari.
‘Staying Power: Photographs of Black British Experience 1950s-1990s’ was a 7-year (2008 – 2015) partnership project between the V&A and the Black Cultural Archives, to increase the number of black British photographers and images of black Britain in the V&A collection. It raised awareness of the contribution of black Britons to British culture and society, as well as to the art of photography. Funded by the HLF, the Museum collected 118 works by 17 artists, and BCA collected oral histories from a range of subjects including the photographers themselves, their relatives, and the people depicted in the images.
BHM does matter to me especially as it creates moments when the UK are collectively contributing to this national initiative and probably when many institutions consider making changes to their staff profiles, or the content of what they offer and how they offer it. I am however, also concerned with the number of stories written out of history and what little time we have to make them visible, understood and inclusive within the bigger picture of history; so please forgive me if I rarely offer an event during October, and leave the 10th month to those who wish to celebrate this important subject, and who might not have the privilege, like me, to do so all year round.
Janet Browne is Programme Manager for African Heritage and Culture at the Victoria and Albert Museum, London.