Next in our series of interviews, Sarah Ledjmi (Associate Curator of Sound and Vision, National Science and Media Museum) reflects on how the broadening and deepening of her understanding of racial politics during our recent research trip to Chicago and Washington DC has impacted on her personally and professionally.
In November a group of us connected to the Bradford’s National Museum Project went to Chicago with the aim of exploring the cutting-edge participatory, co-creative and community engagement work going on in the City. Some of us also travelled on to Washington DC to exchange ideas with the Smithsonian Institution about the specific issues facing ‘national museums, libraries and archives’ aiming to do place-based work in their local area. In this series of interviews participants share with me (Lynn Wray) how their experiences on the trip have impacted on their own working practice in Bradford.
LW: Did any one moment stand out to you from the trip?
SL: It was less about any specific moments and more about how I have made sense of what I experienced since I came back. This opportunity to reflect has had a profound effect on how I view my own identity and heritage, how I understand racism and social justice, and also on how I view the museum and the work we do.
Entering an institution that clearly demarcated itself as a ‘black space’ (Stony Island Arts Bank) made me think about my own mixed race identity – and in particular how ‘whiteness’ and ‘Frenchness’ had stood for each other in my identity formation, and how my own self was and continues to be the site of colonial and decolonial struggles. Quite practically, it made it really urgent to me to engage with decolonial politics and literature.
This is of course very personal to me, but it does connect to my thoughts about the museum’s practice and how it operates in Bradford. It has reinforced to me the importance of acknowledging histories of Empire and resistance, of power and racism, and to do this in conversation with people in the city who have different experiences and stories from the museum’s own staff.
One particular conversation I had whilst there about our exhibition ‘Above the Noise’ did stick in my mind and was a bit of a ‘Road to Damascus’ moment for me. It has led me to further question my own understanding of racism and to critically investigate how the museum thinks about and enacts diversity and representation. Exploring the questions this conversation opened up with participants of colour in the exhibition, since coming back, has shown that issues of power are fundamental in the way the museum works.
These conversations and others I had whilst in the US about racial politics triggered me to read further about racial politics in the UK and speak with others in the museum and beyond as much as possible. Previously, I have always thought…’I am not racist, I have good intentions’ but I have come to understand that ‘racism’ is not ‘what some people are’ but is structural. I need to come to terms with my own place in these structures. And I am left feeling most deeply, that if the museum is really going to connect properly with people of colour in Bradford it has to also properly face up to the role it plays it maintaining systemic racism and take positive steps to challenge how racism permeates its own structures.
LW: Did anything you experienced in Chicago or Washington DC make you think differently about your practice in Bradford?
SL: At first everything seemed very specific to the US context, particularly in terms of racial politics, so I questioned how much the examples of good practice we saw could be applied in the UK, or Bradford specifically. However, since coming back I have become more aware of certain similarities. As I have said already it has triggered me to think deeply about what I can do in my own role to challenge some of the ways in which current museum structures, processes and practices reinforce and sustain systemic racism and to open up more meaningful forms of participatory and co-creative experience with people in Bradford. Mainly I want to focus on working alongside local grassroots organisations in Bradford and understand how I can be more responsive, supportive and useful to these groups through my work at the museum.
LW: Did your three words change during the workshops? Did you come away with any new vocabulary/ thoughts about how you use language in your practice?
SL: Yes, I have thought about this very hard and about how we use language in the museum since returning from the US and this has been perhaps my biggest takeaway.
In the workshop at Stony Island Arts Bank the word that stuck out for me was ‘position’. This is the word I changed when we had to revisit the three words that meant the most for us in our practice. Through talking to others during the workshop it brought into sharp relief the impossibility of maintaining any sense of ‘neutrality’ as a museum or a museum practitioner. We spoke a lot about the civic role of cultural organisations, and the need to be transparent about our personal and organisational ‘positions’. In Washington DC when we spoke more about this and the role of the national museums with the Smithsonian Institute. I reflected further on how this idea of ‘national’ is used to distance from immediate social issues and claim a detached point of view. But we are always speaking for someone and we are always saying something. It is never neutral. So we need to think deeply about who it is we are speaking for? And what are we trying to say?
Since returning I have been thinking about what we mobilise our ‘national’ status for when we speak. For example the impact it has when we say things like ‘the museum is not about Bradford’ or ‘we can’t be just about Bradford’ which we often do. I feel now that when we stay things like this it pushes people away. It serves to maintain our distance from local communities, whether this is intended or not.
Perhaps the clearest learning for me has been since coming back and reflecting on the language used around participation and why this often makes me feel uncomfortable. I have realised that what disturbs me is that we co-opt the language of grassroots democracy and liberation movements – words intended to take down hierarchies – to prop up a system which ultimately benefits the already powerful or maintains the status quo. I believe using this kind of language without having a political impulse or project you are aligning with is problematic. It is all very well saying phrases like ‘participation’, ‘democratisation’, ‘co-creation’. But what does it mean if it is not ultimately rooted in a political goal? Why are we trying to do these things? Are we about social justice? And if so, what kind of social justice?
LW: How will you take forward the learning from the trip?
SL: At the moment I am still working through all this, challenging my own prejudices and beliefs and talking as much as I can about systemic racism with as many people inside the museum and outside as possible. I don’t yet know how I will take things forward but I want to continue learning and talking about inequality, racism and social justice.