2 minutes to read Posted on Thursday October 21, 2021

Updated on Thursday October 21, 2021

portrait of Tola Dabiri

Tola Dabiri

Director , Museum X CIC and Brick by Brick Communities CIC

Black History Month - an interview with Museum X

This October, as part of Black History Month, Europeana is sharing stories, projects and collections to highlight Black history in Europe and beyond. Today, Dr Tola Dabiri, one of the Directors of Museum X, speaks to us about the company’s work, plans for a Black British Museum in the UK and the importance of collaboration when telling the story of Black history. 

Museum X logo
Title: Museum X
Date: 2021

Thank you for speaking to us today! Can you tell us how Museum X came about and your aim to establish a Black British Museum in the UK?

Sandra Shakespeare, Cheryl Bowen and I formed Museum X as a CIC (community interest company) in March 2021. In the UK, a CIC is a company which can trade commercially, but reinvests its profits back into the community and not for shareholders. As a CIC, Museum X undertakes paid consultancy work as well as projects which further Black history, like the Museums Journal takeover in September/October 2021. Sandra began exploring a Black British Museum project in 2020, and we hope to begin work on this in earnest in the near future. 

Having a Black British Museum will be a big step in recognising Black British accomplishments throughout British history; would this be a first in Europe? 

As far as I know this will be the first, but I am happy to be corrected on this fact! There is, of course, the wonderful Black Cultural Archives in the UK, which in itself was a major step in recognising the long and rich history of the African diaspora here. A Black British Museum would be able to build on and enhance this. 

One of its aims in particular is to ensure that there is a physical space for permanent exhibitions. Over the past few years there have been some incredible exhibitions which have showcased Black culture and art; No Colour Bar at Guildhall (2015) and Get Up Stand Up at Somerset House (2019) are two examples of wonderful temporary exhibitions. We want to showcase this talent in permanent exhibitions in the physical Black British Museum space and online.

What other projects are you currently focusing on? 

This year has been very busy for Museum X! We have produced a takeover edition of the Museums Journal where we commissioned articles from across the UK, USA and Africa. We have also worked with English Heritage and we have conducted a research project for the Art Fund.

Can you tell us more about the Black History Month takeover of the Museums Journal and its importance?

We began working with the Museums Association in November 2020, after Sandra Shakespeare’s panel about the Black British Museum at the virtual Museums Association conference. The Museums Journal editorial team were fantastic and supportive throughout, and behaved like true allies. We were able to commission and edit all of the articles ourselves to shape an edition which truly reflected the experiences of ourselves and our contributors, and how we feel about our history. So often, the heritage of people of colour is mediated and repackaged by mainstream heritage institutions in a way that it loses its meaning and connections to its origins and uses. The Museum X takeover was an opportunity for us to speak about our heritage and what it means for ourselves. 

Does digital technology, practices or engagement have a role in this work? 

For me, definitely yes. I am a great believer in the democratic potential of digital technology and the ability to reach audiences. The Museum X takeover of the Museums Journal is online which means that all of our community can read it. We have also discussed a range of activities which Museum X could deliver online. 

I am also a Director of Brick by Brick Communities CIC. We have delivered a lot of wellbeing and creative activities and programmes online during the pandemic. 

Can you share with us a Black British historical figure that inspires you and why?  

There are so many! Ignatius Sancho, Phillis Wheately, Lilian Bader – I could go on and on. But the most inspirational at this moment for me are the activists and publishers Eric and Jessica Huntley. From their bookshop during the 1960s, this couple established Boogle-L’Ouverture, which published and sold works about the African diaspora, history and culture, written by Black authors, which were unavailable for the Black community elsewhere. The Huntleys were activists and fought fearlessly for racial and political equality and continued to do this even after their bookshop was firebombed by fascists. The title of the biography written about them is Doing Nothing is Not an Option (Andrews, 2014). And that’s how it feels today as we continue to fight racism and oppression. Eric and Jessica Huntley are an inspiration to us all as we continue the struggle.

What steps can cultural heritage institutions take to acknowledge, surface and highlight Black history in their own collections? 

There are many things. Working with people of colour in the interpretation of Black history in their collections is a must, so that high level research can be undertaken to improve our understanding of items in collections which relate to the African diaspora. I am also now an evangelist for a new model of international research, that is partnerships between European institutions and university and heritage groups across the world; for example, one organisation that we have worked with recently commissioned research from Caribbean scholars when reinterpreting the trans-Atlantic slave trade. I believe that such additional perspectives are essential in telling the whole story of Black history. 

Another step which would help in discovering and disseminating Black history in collections is cataloguing and metadata. It is impossible to search for what you don’t know exists! Ensuring that accurate and well-researched information is available on digital catalogues would also help enormously.

You reviewed Europeana’s Black Lives in Europe exhibition - could you tell us about your experience?

I was very honoured to be invited to review the Black Lives in Europe exhibition, and I also had the chance to see many works of art which were unknown to me. It was frustrating at times to read the way that some of the Black people were described in the metadata of the content. But it’s good to be part of the change!

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