Led by Ruchika Gurung

The University of Cambridge Museums (UCMs) are committed to a long-term programme of work that confronts the legacies of empire and enslavement within our collections. We urgently need to make changes around how we display objects with difficult histories that have not previously been valued, displayed or interpreted. We believe listening to and involving communities in our research is essential to transforming our approach to these legacies.

In 2021 the UCM embarked on a shared line of inquiry exploring the legacies of empire and enslavement. The project has included new and ongoing research into the legacies of empire and enslavement present within our collections, workforce and important engagement developments in how we approach sharing the material we find with our wider audiences.

Underpinning the programme and exhibition is a commitment to opening the history of our collections to interrogation from a range of perspectives, using them as an opportunity for examining challenging topics, including racial inequality, our existing collections and programming practice, as well as building dialogue and connections with our diverse audiences. Acknowledging and understanding the complex histories of our collections and how they may have benefited financially from the proceeds of enslavement will be an important part of this work.

2022/23 will mark the first major public milestone in the project, as the UCM come together for a year of shared programming exploring the legacies of empire and enslavement. This will include cross-UCM interdisciplinary, research-led displays and exhibitions, including a joint exhibition led and hosted by the Fitzwilliam Museum, and associated programming and learning initiatives.

Through this project, we have worked to support staff by enhancing their confidence and skills in developing and delivering projects underpinned by participatory research, community consultation and collaboration. Drawing from the focus group, several conversations with community collaborators had led to deeper engagement with collections and will have encouraged more diverse communities seeing themselves represented in our collections and proposing to work with the UCMs in different ways.

The project supported by the participatory research funding and Esmee Fairbairn funding has resulted in new ways of interpreting, displaying and engaging audiences with collections; understanding of teaching and engagement assets with community collaboration; furthermore, the community collaboration expertise will be further embedded, providing the basis for this approach to be sustained and used to develop larger-scale funding applications and projects connected to societal challenges.

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