Re-Thinking Britain, Re-Thinking Portsmouth

If there was ever a good time to think about what diversity and inclusion mean in Britain today, the time is now argues Dianna Djokey, as she examines the role of the city’s museums in reflecting Portsmouth’s communities.

I am a firm believer in museums taking a stand, making a change and challenging people’s way of thinking. Recently, I was invited to visit the Greenwich Maritime Museum’s Re-think exhibition (now ended) exploring the human story of immigration to Britain, which challenges some of the more negative narratives surrounding migration and refugees. I was reminded of Portsmouth’s recent struggle with the issue of refugees and I began to reflect on the role our own museums can play in challenging negative local perceptions towards migrants and refugees who make their home in Portsmouth.

The Re-think exhibition was developed in partnership with the Migration Museum and the International Maritime Organisation (IMO) and emphasises the human stories of migrants and refugees. For me, the timing of the exhibition couldn’t be better. As the refugee crisis continues to play across our screens, the exhibition separates the viewer from the media storm, reminding us that each statistic and soundbite hides a human being.

Most powerfully, the exhibition asks questions like: what does home mean to you? or what would you take with you if you were moving to another country? but the question that resonated with me the most was how much do you feel that Britain’s migration story is your story too?

The last question is the one I would like to ask the majority of museums in Portsmouth.

In October, Portsmouth City Council voted to request of the government that Portsmouth no longer be a hub for asylum seekers. The motion was passed with 21 votes to 16, and was met with anger and disappointment by many protesting locals in the city.

With this vote in mind, I realise how much work still needs to be done. Much of this work will take place with and across the local community: for example, through inspiring projects like Don’t Hate Donate. But I also believe that our museums have a role to play, both in reflecting the stories of, and reaching out to, local communities.

How do local museums tell the story of migration in Portsmouth?

There has been some great work from the Portsmouth Museums Service as part of their Oral History Project to collect stories from local Bangladeshi, Chinese and Caribbean communities, for example, although this work is some years past now. However, many museums around Portsmouth tend to be conservative in their outreach work, keeping within what they know, and staying firmly inside their own comfort zone. Indeed, the manager of Portsmouth Museums Service, Dr Jane Mee, highlighted this herself in a 2009 article in the Museums Journal titled: `Why are we so cautious when we could be bold and challenging?

Portsmouth’s cultural heritage is amazing and has been ranked 9th nationally for local heritage and related activities. But we should not allow ourselves to get comfortable in our reliance on well-used stories of the city. We need to push to build inclusion within our communities and within the arts and heritage sector, not only so that our understanding of Portsmouth’s heritage grows ever more rich and diverse, but also as a key way of increasing the city’s social capital.

Museums can be the bridge stretching local communities and museums towards this goal.

Greenwich Maritime Museum’s Re-Think exhibition shows many of the ways in which museums can engage local communities in a meaningful way and I would like to see Portsmouth building on the success of past projects like the Voices of Portsmouth oral history project. But too often, such projects are a one-off, they are not embedded in reflecting and telling the stories of all our communities, wherever in the world they originated. Too often, our migrant communities and refugee groups become ‘stakeholders’ called upon to give views, feedback or contributions to existing projects run by heritage and cultural organisations, but rarely embedded at the heart of the museum itself.

The way we tell the stories of our cities needs to change. We can’t treat the inclusion of our local communities like throwing a dog a bone once in a blue moon to keep the marginalised at bay. Instead, we must work hard in our museums and broader cultural institutions to include all our communities in the everyday running of museums, as well as the design and delivery of the exhibitions on display there. This should be our benchmark and our norm – after all, policy conversations about diversity and inclusion in heritage and culture have been going on for more than 20 years now, at least. How many more conversations must we have for many people in the sector to truly embed the lesson that our museums are not about artefacts, but about people?

What is the role of a 21st century museum? As organisations located in local communities it is our responsibility to let our most marginalised residents know we are listening. When the local council closes doors with the voice of hostility, our culture and heritage organisations can extend a welcome to let refugees and migrants in Portsmouth know we stand with them, as part of the city’s story.

My advice to Portsmouth museums? Talk to communities. Work with them. We have the tools to do it. This may mean your work may get harder, more challenging, but if as an organisation you care about diversity and inclusiveness within your audiences, the rewards will be huge.

Our changing communities are our future heritage, just as they were in our past. The babies of refugees hoping to begin a new life in Portsmouth are the future leaders of our cultural and heritage sectors.

“To tell you de truth I don’t really know where I belaang. Yes, divide de ocean, divide to de bone. Wherever I hang me knickers – that’s my home.”

Grace Nichols, poet, 1989. (Quote used in the re-think exhibition)

Photography by Dianna Djokey.