Museums and Voices from the Margins

I really love research seminars held for PhD students by the School of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, and I take advantage of them whenever I can. The diverse experiences of fellow students, researchers, and practitioners of various disciplines and backgrounds come together for mutual learning. Both informal and formative, these seminars feel more like a learning lab, where one great idea sparks another as connections are made and bridges built.

Today’s session, Say My Name: Voices from the Margins, featured Elaine Cheng and Yewande Okuleye, who shared their curatorial experience of exhibiting the narrative of Sergeant Major Belo Akure, a Nigerian soldier that fought for Britain during World War I. The case study examines a hot topic within the museum sector as the profession struggles to represent underrepresented narratives and populations within their exhibitions and programs.
Cheng and Okuleye sought to share an incredible, personal story that was embedded in larger historical events. For Cheng, Sergeant Major Belo Akure became a powerful lens to explore World War I. His story personalized a history that was previously unfamiliar. For Okuleye, a Nigerian British woman, her personal experience and culture became the lens and perspective to tell Sergeant Major Belo’s story. The dichotomy between unfamiliar and familiar made the process and project highly collaborative, but more importantly, this collaboration was extended into the community. The curation process became co-curation as a marginalized narrative was given voice by a marginalized community.
The story of Sergeant Major Belo Akure reveals much of the struggle museums face in telling previously untold and underrepresented narratives. In this instance, where is the history found? Has the history been recorded? Have associated artifacts been preserved for posterity? More importantly, who gives voice to a narrative from a marginalized community? The outsider, without cultural context, or the insider, with personal understanding? The museum professional or the community? Does it have to be an either/or scenario, or can the process embrace collaboration?
The process and the product can be a struggle to navigate as traditional museum roles and perspectives are challenged by previously silenced voices. Based upon her experience, Okuleye - who was both insider and outsider/ museum professional and marginalized community member - became a strong advocate for communities telling their own stories. For museums, this requires collaboration that grants equality to the community partner in both process and product. Curation becomes co-curation. Authority becomes collaboration. The process is not without tension as traditional methods adapt to accommodate new voices, sometimes at the challenge of existing stakeholders. Failure is also possible if collaboration does not share ownership of the project. However, this example illustrates the beautiful potential in exhibiting narratives from the margins given voice by the marginalized community. In my opinion, bring on the institutional growing pains. Both the process and the product are worth the effort.

Want more information about the exhibition that inspired this blog post? Check out Okuleye's blog post on African Soldiers in World War I


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