Next up in our series of interviews reflecting on our personal experiences of Chicago and Washington DC, our own researcher and co-facilitator, Julia Ankenbrand, talks resonance, race, rhetoric and relectivity.
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 from the trip stand out for you?
Part of my role on the Bradford’s National Museum Project is a focus on how we learn together as collaborative researchers. Therefore, I was very interested in seeing what the trip would do for us as learners.
Yes, we were looking for learning in the form of inspiration for our practice. But more importantly we were looking for learning in conversation, for really understanding some things on a deeper level. Our research project is based on learning by collaborative doing, learning by lived experience. My main hope for the trip was that it would allow us as a group to experience with all our senses socially engaged, courageous and openly political arts and heritage practice in a different context to ours. And I hoped that we would have lots of opportunity to speak to each other in our Bradford delegation. Everybody is always busy, practitioners don’t often get the chance and time to sit down, reflect and learn together.
While we were in the US, I couldn’t tell whether what I had hoped, was working. We had lots of conversations, but I wasn’t sure yet what they were doing for our learning. How far were we able as a group to move from looking for techniques to copy into our practice and rhetoric, to discussing the core logics of what we do? How much were we be able to have difficult open conversations, for example about power and race and how our own individual practices related to those? And how much would we understand the concepts not only on a logical level, but on an emotional level, really grasp their extent, their impact and our roles and responsibilities in either holding them up or taking them down?
With this focus, many moments stood out to me. They were small instances in conversations, in workshops and meetings, around dinner tables and over coffee. The group was amazing at taking the opportunity to go deep and examine what the logics and politics we saw meant for their own practices and lives.
My favourite moments happened after the trip and haven’t stopped since. Since the trip museum staff we traveled with delved into learning more about systemic racism in our own UK contexts and museum sector. Bradford is a massively diverse place. For the Science and Media Museum to be able to be open, collaborative and locally rooted, being able to understand and speak to the issue of racism is an indispensable quality. (More about what this led to in the last interview question.)
LW: In the workshop at Stony Island Arts Bank we were asked to pick out three words that are important to our practice. Did you come away with any reflections on the way you use language to describe your practice?
What I found fascinating in this exercise was how our language was a great starting point to drill deeper into the logics of what we do. It’s so easy to forget that all we do is political, everything we do has aim and purpose. It is part of my job as a co-facilitator of our research process to be aware of the politics of our language. It was great to be part of a workshop that facilitated a conversation about this amongst a group of such interesting, knowledgeable, and diverse people so well.
The three words led us to looking at what is behind or underneath words. What does it do to our political project in arts and culture to hide behind the well-rehearsed arguments of museums and arts organisations? What does it do to self-organise into different forms instead? It was great to have a conversation about the political differences behind words that seem too similar: inclusion and equity, poverty and deprivation. What power relations do we create by using them to describe and build our practice and by that our worlds? Do we create agency or dependency? Do we inadvertently uphold institutional practice that reproduces injustice, or do we create alternative forms of organising?
But the main thing I took away from speaking about this in the workshop was my experience of what it felt like. For the whole day I was aware of where I was and who I was talking to in our diverse group and in the building we were in. I am white European. I had the privilege to spend the day in the explicit black political space that is Stony Island Arts Bank. The space is framed so amazingly, the people I met who work and volunteer there were fantastic at embodying the political message they stand for and so generous in helping visitors to grasp it. Us white people need to keep learning so much more to keep working on developing worlds that are less systemically racist.
I think having a conversation about our words there made it much more difficult to hide behind the flowery and dangerous nonsense terms we so often use to keep silent, and through that keep injustices in place.
LW: What were the similarities and differences between Chicago and Bradford? How easy was it to transfer any learning or ideas between these contexts?
It is amazing to read your interviews with Rich, Jo, Sarah and Helen reflecting on what shape their learning on the trip took, Lynn. It seems to have really paid off to travel with a group with various Bradford focusses.
We could of course not guarantee that would be the case while we planned the trip. We hoped people would take lots from the projects and organisations we visited. But would it make sense to compare them with Bradford, would we take anything away that would be translatable to our context and research project?
I think what we learned was that it wasn’t about finding things that directly fitted with what we do back home, but about what resonated. As I said before, a lot of the learning we hoped for was experiential. We exposed ourselves to a different reality.
It turned out that one of the biggest things for NSMM museum staff to take back home was the realisation of the importance and influence of race. I think that came on the one hand from visiting spaces and events that had a clear focus on lived experiences of racism. On the other hand, we learned a lot from how race is spoken about in the US. There seemed to be a more open and better equipped public discourse about race and racism.
What we mainly took from that was a lot of motivation and inspiration to keep that conversation going and carry it into the National Science and Media Museum and the Bradford’s National Museum project.
LW: Did the trip inspire any new ideas or changes to your practice in Bradford? What will you be taking forward?
This has been the best thing about the trip, the way it seems to have worked as a catalyst for lots of conversations amongst museum staff about structural racism and whiteness. Our conversations about what it means to be a locally rooted and collaborative museum were transformed.
I was reminded of the power of experiential learning, of the value of putting effort into relationships and trust and time and space to have the possibility to learn and grow together. We found energy in resonance.
All this has impacted our current phase of researching and learning. One tangible outcome was that museum staff have founded a reading group on issues that impact their practice. They discuss texts, podcasts and videos around societal and individual issues like radical hope, whiteness, structural racism and more to inform what they do.
The Covid-19 pandemic has made professional life in the museum sector difficult, but the reading group is going strong. In our last session we discussed with Aamir Darr his recent blog post on our BNMP website about experiences of Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic communities in Bradford’s politics. Having this conversation after the killing of George Floyd gave it extra urgency. Since the murder, and the anger, sadness and grief that has been felt about it, something has shifted further within the museum. It has made way for the conversation we were already starting to have about race to flourish, deepen and extend.