Exchange: Exploring experiences of empire, migration and life in Britain

Over the last year, the ‘Exchange: Community-Led Collections Research’ project has helped galleries, libraries, archives and museums to work with South Asian, African and Caribbean diaspora organisations to answer research questions identified by these community groups. National Museums Scotland and Royal Museums Greenwich, London, worked as a hub to gather evidence for best practice and provided expert guidance to partner organisations around the UK. Dr Yahya Barry, the Community Collections Research Hub Manager, tells us more about the project and its impact.

“Museums change lives.” These words resonate deeply with me. I am a museum debutant, a self-styled Black African Muslim who never saw themselves working in the heritage sector. But nine months into the Exchange 2022 project, I have come to understand those words. It’s an emotional realisation for me, especially with the burden of responsibility I feel to tell the story of this project. It has spanned two nations, nine museums and over 15 community groups with 83 participants.

People standing around a drawer of wooden objects, one Black man, two Black women and one White woman, all wearing face masks.
Workshop at David Livingstone Birthplace. Swipe to see more.
A group of Black, male musicians playing instruments and singing in a workshop space.
‘The Gig Group’ performing at the Tingatinga party. Swipe to see more.
A brightly coloured pamphlet in orange and teal with the words Tinga Tinga at the top. On the pamphlet it says "Reflections from the David Livingstone Birthplace Exchange group".
Exchange Group Zine designed and developed by the community group. Swipe to see more.

Thanks to a grant awarded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, National Museums Scotland and the National Maritime Museum, London came together to distribute funds to seven museums across England and Scotland. Their goal was to engage with communities of African, Caribbean and South Asian heritage and explore their collections and research. Each organisation would share creative outputs of this work to reflect the multiplicity of their experiences and perceptions of empire, migration and life in Britain.

For example, David Livingstone Birthplace in Glasgow worked with a community group to look at how their collection speaks to the different cultures, communities and individuals that Livingstone encountered. Creative outcomes include commissioning artists of colour and storytellers who explore Black histories and/or decolonisation within their practice to respond to objects from the collection and Livingstone’s story.

A group of Brown and White people standing together in an auditorium behind a plaque with the inscription 'Lascars Only'.
Lascar heritage seminar event. Swipe to see more.
Young Brown people sitting around the table in a library space chatting and taking notes.
Our Shared Cultural Heritage (OSCH) conducting archival research at Glasgow Life archives. Swipe to see more.
A poster with Brown men standing together in front of a sailing boat with the words "Scotland's Lascar Heritage" on it.
Poster for the ‘Scotland’s Lascar Heritage’ event. Swipe to see more.

Edinburgh Museums & Galleries, meanwhile, worked with Edinburgh Caribbean Association to focus on childhood experiences, exploring the histories of empire, migration and life in Britain through the eyes of the Edinburgh Caribbean community.

The lack of representation, politicisation of childhood and potential racism in the collections were themes of interest, and the project will culminate in an exhibition, Respect! Caribbean Life in Edinburgh, which opens at the Museum of Edinburgh on 16 October.

Four Black women standing in an art gallery facing paintings and pointing, chatting.
Edinburgh Museums & Galleries Exchange project. Swipe to see more.
An exhibition space filled with people exploring the displays.
Edinburgh Museums & Galleries Exchange project. Swipe to see more.
A workshop room with people standing around chatting and looking at food.
Edinburgh Museums & Galleries Exchange project. Swipe to see more.

The other organisations involved are Glasgow Life, Museum of the Home, National Museum of the Royal Navy, Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums, and SS Great Britain. Find out more about each project.

“The project has been, literally, a life changer for me. I’ve been able to do things I didn’t think I was going to be able to do.” This is Shani, a Bristolian of Jamaican heritage who, in partnership with Brunel’s SS Great Britain, published a book detailing the lives of people of colour on the historic ship. Shani’s journey on the project with her two friends Iwona and Soumia was transformative. I saw this first-hand and was there to see her celebrate with loved ones.

A young Brown woman in a museum taking a photo of a display.
Museum of the Home Exchange project. Swipe to see more.
A group of young Brown people sit around a table in discussion.
Museum of the Home Exchange project. Swipe to see more.
A group of young Brown people lined up with a White woman having their photo taken., all smiling
Museum of the Home Exchange project. Swipe to see more.

This project features many such moments that I hope will stay with the people involved across the different projects. The memories that stand out for me are colourful, vibrant and cheery. But there are also undertones of deep emotion as our partners engaged in brave conversations around some traumatic narratives. As members of this ‘Exchange family’, we always came together to support one another through those conversations.

This approach resonated with me as a person of colour from a minoritised ethnic background whose cultural roots are embedded in the partner museums’ collections, from the legacies of colonialism, empire and the transatlantic slave trade.

A group of South Asian and White women standing around a painting next to a dapper White man in a sailor uniform.
‘Appreciating the Situation’ and members of National Museum of the Royal Navy community groups. Swipe to see more.
A workshop with South Asian and White women around a table chatting and smiling.
Chat Over Chai group discuss Indian Tea Poster. Swipe to see more.
A table of display material and objects relating to India, the Navy and the UK.
National Museum of the Royal Navy’s community group’s research findings. Swipe to see more.

A common thread woven throughout this project was that our partners didn’t want to focus on narratives of victimhood. One community member at Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums said, “we want to celebrate Black and Brown joy!” Another at Glasgow Life proclaimed, “I am a Lascar!” sharing how his research into the history of the arriving 17th-century South Asian sailors reminded him of his own navigations of life in Britain.

A family of two children and a woman wearing a hijab are interacting with a reconstruction display of a horse and cart, with luggage and boxes around them.
SS Great Britain exhibition launch. Swipe to see more.

A piece of paper on a table, with a photo of a Black woman holding a ship model. The text on the page around the image says "About the author", who is Shani Whyte.
Do You Actually Know SS Great Britain? leaflet produced by Shani Whyte. Swipe to see more.
A woman wearing a hijab kneeling in front of a display on the SS Great Britain.
SS Great Britain Exchange project. Swipe to see more.

I think the Exchange project had such an impact because the people whose voices we sought to capture sang their stories. They sang, wrote, created, filmed and partied. The 13 events around the UK attracted hundreds of in-person participants and online content reached  tens of thousands of people. But most importantly, they produced knowledge that can/will inform leadership and strategy across all partner organisations.

A group of Black, Brown and White people standing in a line smiling in front of a smooth lake.
Interfaith Event held by the Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums community steering group. Swipe to see more.
A Black woman standing in the museum in front of colourful panels exploring the diversity of Newcastle's population.
Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums Exchange project. Swipe to see more.
A group of Black and Brown women stand beside a White woman in a museum smiling for the camera.
Tyne & Wear Archives & Museums Exchange project. Swipe to see more.

This is Exchange. It was by no means slick all of the time, but it was real. We, a collective of Black, Brown, and White people, came together and created something wonderful. We are contributing to a hugely important national and global conversation.

Find out more about Exchange.

Explore more stories about Black history and culture, from colonial legacies to contemporary fashion, and hear Black perspectives on aspects of the Collections.

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