Sonia Sarah

As a young girl my mum would often bring me and my brothers to the museum. On my tip-toes, I peered through movie cameras shooting different angles, framing scenes and composing images of the fairy-tale display. It sparked my curiosity and wonder.

Sonia Sarah, Wahid Shaffi and Sean McLouglin (right to left) in the Islamic Soundscapes story in Above the Noise: 15 Stories From Bradford. Image credit: National Science and Media Museum / Science Museum Group

I am a Youth and Community Development creative practitioner, skilled in conflict resolution, radical disagreement and peace education work. I became involved in the ‘Islamic Soundscapes’ project, for the Above the Noise exhibition, through my contact with academic and activist Wahida Shaffi and Professor Sean McLoughlin. I was at a personal turning point in my life and this project provided the ideal platform to help re-ignite my creative spark. We saw this as a brilliant opportunity for the Museum to break with the status quo and really make a joint and concerted effort to do things differently.

All those involved in co-producing the story were proactive and inspirational Muslim women living across Bradford District. The ‘Islamic Soundscapes’ workshops were enriching. They enabled me to develop new skills and facilitated safe spaces for story-sharing and confidence-building through mutual peer mentorship. I found collectively listening to these recordings spiritually uplifting. They documented memories of giving birth and dealing with death, encompassing both special ritual moments and the non-ritual everyday.

The Above the Noise launch event. Image credit: National Science and Media Museum / Science Museum Group

The Above the Noise launch event was exciting, and the first time all 15 community-led story-makers came together to see the final curation of the exhibition. I initially felt this was a real and meaningful way for the Museum to collaboratively call upon the rich expertise found within the local community. It offered the potential for mutually beneficial community engagement as opposed to extractivism – an all-too-common experience in my professional and voluntary practices. However, this was never truly optimised.

Post-launch the momentum waned, and rather than capitalising on the brilliant relationships and ideas forged, the Museum and Bradford’s National Museum project struggled to achieve this. The stop-start process saw collaborators navigating a cyclical wave of hope and despair. Whilst fantastic ideas were generated, unfortunately these didn’t come to fruition, which inevitably led to disenfranchisement, disengagement and people simply moving on.

A real turning point for local Muslim collaborators, which led to a strong sentiment of frustration, was when the Above the Noise ‘Living Library’ event – organised by Bradford’s National Museum project – was initially planned to coincide with the end of Ramadan and Eid period.  After this issue was raised the date of the ‘Living Library’ was changed but it shows how vitally important it is that staff in public institutions take the time to truly understand the communities they are embedded within.

The ‘Living Library’ did ultimately provide an opportunity for museum staff to learn from community partners’ wealth of wisdom, and a chance to network and discuss further opportunities for co-working. The small conversations revealed a disconnect between the aspirations of frontline staff and management power structures. Although the right intention might be there, some staff lack confidence and diversity awareness, which cannot simply be checked off through a few training workshops. The lack of confidence with human diversity and faith leaves the museum unable to fully harness the vibrancy of the District’s multi-faceted cultures and faiths. In the context of Black Lives Matter, and a pandemic, it is crucial that the Museum looks both inwards and outwards in a brave action-orientated way to take urgent intentional action in equality, diversity and inclusion on all levels.


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Sonia Sarah's bio

I am a Youth & Community Development creative practitioner, skilled in equality, diversity, inclusion (EDI) conflict resolution, peace education, radical disagreement and safe spaces work. I became involved as a Community Researcher with a group of women on the Islamic Soundscapes story for the ‘Above the Noise’ collaborative project with activists and academics from the University of Leeds. Our research, the rich trajectory of interviews conducted and our broader input was part of a larger programme of work taking place between the National Science & Media Museum (NSMM) and other academics and creative partners, with the aim of influencing and co-designing the final exhibition/story. I have over 15 years’ experience of equality and inclusive practice and pride myself in behaving as an advocate for inclusion. I currently play an advisory role for multiple organisations, working with them to develop new strategies and policies in relation to inclusion and diversity, based on the principle of authenticity in diversity.