The Uncomfortable Truths project

Posted on by Lauren MacCarthy.

by Claire Simmons, Engagement Officer for young people

Many object labels in museums do not tell the full story.

This project seeks to uncover uncomfortable truths behind museum objects – how they were collected, what they represent and the difficult pasts that are hidden behind them.

We are looking to face up to the legacy of dominant cultural and colonial practices and perspectives inherited from the past. We need to address the histories of objects that were collected in a different context and position them in the present for contemporary audiences.

About the project

I am working with Lisa Graves (World Cultures curator) and students from the University of the West of England (UWE) to design a trail that will look at a number of objects – including a Benin bronze head, an Egyptian mummy, and a taxidermy rhino – and introduce the audience to the uncomfortable truths that have been hidden in our collections.

Clear labelling next to the objects will reveal an ‘uncomfortable truth’ about it, and invite the visitor to find out more. Alternative perspectives will be presented through podcasts, produced by the students, that can be accessed via a visitor’s own device, or from an MP3 player obtained from the front desk.

The audience will be able to choose to hear a two minute extract or an extended 15 minute version (both can be accessed online too).

A printed trail will also be available to guide the visitor around the museum.

About the participants

The students have been recruited by our project assistant, Stacey Olika – she is a UWE Graphics graduate who we are paying to support the project. Stacey is gold! Read her thoughts on the project.

Her connections with the students has meant we have been able to recruit a diverse group of students, many of whom are prominent figures in BME student societies and inclusion groups related to their subjects.

Some students also have connections through their own cultural heritage with the country of origin for some of the museum objects. It’s great knowing that the participants feel the project is relevant to them.

How’s it going…

Photograph of curator showing two young people museum display

We began working with the students in February. They have attended research and development sessions, being matched in pairs with a team of curators and collections staff to introduce them to their object and assist their research.

The experience of working with the students has been fun and stimulating as well as there being moments of sadness, anger and defiance as we explore the histories behind the objects.

The students have also had podcast training from the Broadcast Media staff at UWE. We have students studying art, law, engineering, filmmaking, history and architecture on the project.

This diverse range of participants has been reflected in the style of the podcasts being produced; which includes traditional interview format, discussion and debate, as well as soundscapes and poetry.

The first edits of the podcasts are being developed, and the students are currently having a summer break. We are aiming to install the additional labels and make the podcasts available by November 2019.

What are we planning to do afterwards?

Once the trail and podcasts are available, we plan to conduct audience research to capture responses to this pilot project. We hope this can inform a more long-term approach towards dealing with the legacy of dominant cultural and colonial practices and perspectives in the museum.

All images by Cidella Brown.

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