Making connections and staying connected

JC Niala writes about the connections that were made, the relationships that developed, and the ongoing work of the Rethinking Relationships and Building Trust around African Collections project.

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.

Forming connections

As part of the care for the communities we worked with, each of the museums involved in the Rethinking Relationships project looked for ways to carry on the relationships that had been formed.

This took many different routes. At the Horniman, one of the ways this happened saw the Horniman as a site of bringing communities together. A project that overlapped with Rethinking Relationships was Community Action Research.

Community Action Research sought to remove barriers to access and supported African and Caribbean community members to carry out research of their own interest in the collections at the Horniman. There was overlap both in terms of community members’ interests, but also in some of the methodologies that were being used.

It seemed that fruitful connections could be made and so I offered participants from both projects the opportunity to have a joint Zoom workshop. Everyone leapt at the chance.

The result was even better than any of us could have anticipated.

As well as sharing information, friendships were made, and Community Researchers from Kenya delivered excellent training sessions for Community Action Researchers during the second iteration of the project.

Museum as a ‘Home’

It became clear that there were several stages of engaging and working with community members.

Initially, there had to be invitations which took into account that, just because an invite arrived from a public body – such as a museum – it was not necessarily enough to guarantee that people from the communities would respond positively and accept the invitation.

The museum had to work actively work toward welcoming community members into its spaces, and collaborate with them to support the research that community members wanted to carry out.

The Horniman doors at sunset

The museum had to work actively work towards welcoming community members into its spaces

Part of this collaboration involved providing community members with a platform for their research to be published and shared publicly. It also meant helping community members to navigate the exposure their work received.

Participants of the project have gone on to speak at conferences, deliver papers, and set up or be involved in other museum and cultural projects. That said, even though the project has drawn to a close, it is important for the Horniman to find ways for the project’s legacy to continue.

African Collections Research Hub

A key learning from both the Rethinking Relationships and Community Action Research projects was the transformation that can happen when an invitation is accepted by community members to work with museum collections.

One important critique from community members was, as welcome as projects might be, what they wanted to know was how they could carry on working with the museums and collections should they wish to.

They also wanted opportunities to meet people from their wider communities to share common interests. The Horniman Museum and Gardens were grateful for a successful bid to receive a digital and innovation grant from the Museums Association to carry on this work. The funding will go to the development of an African Collections Research Hub, which will be an online (and in-person when possible) space for the important work that has been started and will continue to grow.

Main image: Ehimetalor Akhere Unuabona via Unsplash

Read the rest of this 6-part series by JC in Related Stories: