Today’s guest blog comes from Will Taylor, a researcher and producer for the Uncomfortable Truths podcast.
January 2020 saw the launch of the Uncomfortable Truths project at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery. Uncomfortable Truths is a podcast series delivered by 14 UWE students and alumni, managed by Stacey Olika and supported by the museum’s participation and curation teams. I had the pleasure of being one of the 14 producers charged with exploring an artefact and designing a piece to capture our audiences’ imagination.
The artefact me and my co-producer, Sam Zubair, (who at the time was an Engineering Masters student) worked on was the Benin Bronze Head. My background is in the creative sector so it was great to work with someone who would be approaching the project from a different perspective.
The ‘Benin Bronze’ is a ceremonial head from Benin City. It arrived in Europe as a result of the British ‘Punitive Expedition’, in 1897, when the British destroyed a palace and looted a large amount of Beninese art and took it to Britain.
It became clear that Sam and I had polarising views about the legacy of the artefact and the project. Sam initially believing that the item should be repatriated whilst I contended that there was value in having the item exhibited here. Great start!
And it really was! Not only was a great friendship borne out of the project but a new appreciation for the Museum, our respective heritages and the truth. We realised we had been asked to explore an issue that was very dear to us whilst being given the opportunity to ‘make’ history by rewriting a section of British colonial history. The story was an uncomfortable one personally as it brought into question our agency over our culture as diaspora. This had a profound effect on our sense of citizenship as the project began to take shape. Fortunately as a result, Sam and I found ourselves devoted to the potential impact we could make in sharing this story in an engaging way. We wanted to encourage several awkward conversations on the drive home from the museum. These ‘new’ accounts of days gone past would hopefully fuel some reflection around our responsibility to totally committing to Bristol’s (and Britain’s) cultural complexity.
Upon reflection this was a real gamble by the museum and a worthy one too. Giving the community an opportunity to contribute to the presentation of a diaspora’s history is very rare. It implicitly encouraged a great deal of self-discovery for the organisation as well as the participants. We were lucky enough to commission two incredible poets and an amazing voice actor for our piece. All of whom bought into the importance of collectively contributing to a new type of historical archive and the importance of legitimising our histories so as to avoid us making the same mistakes in the future. People want to hear these stories and as a result of this project, I can’t help but feel a responsibility to continue highlighting the things that have gone unsaid. I’m looking forward to seeing how we can build on this project in the future.