A question of care

JC Niala writes the second in a series of posts about the conversations about care which arose from the project Rethinking Relationships and Building Trust around African Collections.

Rethinking Relationships worked with community members, creatives and heritage professionals. The project focused on the future of Kenyan and Nigerian collections held across four UK museums, including the Horniman.

Collections care – what does it mean?

In my first post I talked about how the project was set up. How it began with community members’ visit to the participating museums before the onset of the pandemic. It also explained the choice of terminologies, and it ended on the question of care raised by community members with regards to the collections.

It may seem to be stating the obvious, but people who work in museums do care deeply about the collections.

It is common to hear them talk about the ‘collections in our care’. There are two things that are less often discussed in depth and these are:

  • who is doing the caring?
  • what is expected when the word care is used?

As a curator, community members expect me to care for the collections, but are not always aware of all my other colleagues whose care is equally important. In brief, everyone who works in a museum is caring for the collections, either directly or indirectly.

To explain some areas of potential misunderstanding between community members and museum staff (and possible ways of resolving them), I will use the example of collections online.

Collections online are increasingly (and especially since the onset of the pandemic) the first place community members are likely to ‘meet’ their material cultural heritage. Community members routinely make their assessments of how much care is being demonstrated by the museum with regards to their collections, dependent on at least some of the following:

  • whether high-quality photographs are present
  • the amount of information that is available
  • whether the information is accurate or not

What we found early on in Rethinking Relationships that there was a museum in the imagination of community members. This museum did not match up to the realities on the ground.

Community members understandably read museum’s beautiful websites to mean that the museums in question were abundantly resourced, made up of numerous departments with large numbers of staff, each with their own area of specialisation. This was further underpinned by the significance that objects in the collections have to community members.

To quote a couple of community members:

‘These objects are very important to my community so they must be staying in a special place.’
‘Museums make a lot of money from showing our things, they must have good facilities to keep them well.’

As a starting point – because paying to enter museums is standard in many parts of the world – there were community members who didn’t know that (apart from a few exhibitions) entry to all the museums in question is free.

Sharing such information lay the groundwork for the complex process of trust-building that was to follow.

There was also learning on the part of museum staff who might see a snag with the online collections as simply something that needs fixing. However, if a community member came across a broken link, misspellings, or missing photographs – amongst other obstacles – they were likely to interpret these as a lack of care on the part of the museum.

This led to a breach of trust, or in some cases, the reinforcement that museums were not to be trusted. This is particularly worrisome when there is the possibility that a disheartened community member might then just turn away from collections online, put off from engaging with their material heritage further.

How did we address this?

The answer was by working with very high levels of transparency.

We repeatedly engaged in the kinds of conversations that might have seemed pedantic but were of great importance.

How were community members to know that when museums moved their collections online it was with funding they received over the last 15 or so years? –Often this funding was ‘project-based’ meaning that it was a very challenging task for hundreds of thousands of objects to be completely digitised. This was because of both budget and time restrictions.

Museums are now beginning to recognise that community members were not placed at the centre of the digitisation process. Museum database systems that were set up for heritage professionals, and mainly used internally. They manage the practicalities of the collections and do not easily translate into the kinds of things that community members would like to see in collections online. There are also whole new vocabularies, like terms such as ‘accession number.’ This is the unique identifying number given to each object that is acquired by museums.  Terms like this need to be explained to people who have not had museum training.

Once we were able to identify these hurdles, we saw it as part of our duty of care to work in partnership with community members to see what could be done to overcome them.

What had previously been flash points turned into meeting places for conversation, exchange and collaboration.

It became clear that before carrying out collaborative research on the collections, the museum was responsible for ensuring that structures, working practices, databases and collections online needed to be unpacked and clarified.

Because many of the objects held in the collections feel deeply personal to community members – we asked ourselves the question – what do we need to do to make community members feel cared for and at home in the museum?

We asked community members the same question. There were patterns to these answers.  As we continued to collect the answers and work with them, we realised that we had the basis for a toolkit that could guide on best practice.

In the next post I will describe the iterative process by which the toolkit was developed and, after the project had ended, what parts of the toolkit community members found most useful, as well as some of the lessons we learned.