Staff Breakfast: The Sikh Fortress Turban

Members of the UK partnerships team delivered a presentation on one of our successful touring exhibitions: The Sikh Fortress Turban.  We were also honoured to have three of our partner museums – Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, Leicester New Walk Museum and Museum of Lancashire, Preston, give a talk on their own experiences adapting and interpreting a shared exhibition.

The Sikh Fortress Turban is a tall, conical turban worn for ritualistic purposes by members of the Sikh faith. Made in the late 19th century, it was restored and prepared for display by British Museum staff. It is currently being exhibited in collaboration with our UK Partner museums.


Museum staff heard how communities were at the centre of this project. Exhibition ideas were created by bringing together the expertise of the Sikh Community, museum professionals and others, to help recreate the turban; community consultations were vital to ensuring that everyone’s voice was heard, not just in how to display the object, but how to tell its story.

With this, the exhibition evolved into a tour of seven locations over two years. The involvement of our partner museums, three of which spoke at the breakfast, shed an important light on the impact of museums on communities across the UK. Their own interpretations and work with their local communities show how members of society across the UK engage with history and with objects.

Adam Jaffer from the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (one of our ITP partner museums!) spoke of Birmingham’s large Sikh community, and how the Turban exhibition formed part of their larger South Asia programme. Given how long it had been since the museum had worked with Sikh communities, the exhibition was a way to restart dialogue and complement their small Sikh collection. Work with community partners, including a blessing of the turban and a communal celebration, added to this sense of involvement.

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Adam spoke of the process of partnership with the British Museum and Birmingham – with the BM providing the object and the touring pack, and BMAG developing their own interpretation.

This creative interpretation included interviews with local residents, and a film which focused on the responses of young Birmingham residents to seeing the turban behind the scenes at the British Museum. The film personalised and localised the exhibition, however, as Adam remarked, the local nature of the film meant that it would be difficult to travel and use nationally.

Adam finally mentioned the importance of freedom when working in partnership – to allow museums to interpret in their own way, and adapt an exhibition to reflect the needs of their community.

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Malika Kraamer from the Leicester New Walk Museum spoke of how some museums might have concerns about hosting the Sikh Fortress Turban – for example, a museum with a small budget may have questions about the costs of displaying, interpreting and organising a programme around such an object. Further, with a museum which works with Sikh communities often, there is a wish to ensure plurality, and have other communities heard.

However, working with other museum partners such as BMAG and Preston led to a wonderful and worthwhile exhibition. Malika enthusiastically spoke of the benefits of sharing good practices and how this truly helped her organisation with the development of a programme.

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With the support of other partner museums, New Walk was able to create an engaging events programme for the local community, which shared Sikh cultural heritage and identity with local residents. One of these events was a turban wrapping session, which helped visitors to understand both the meaning and the physicality of wearing such an important religious object.

Furthermore, the exhibition gave New Walk museum the opportunity to explore how to bring different voices together, even within Sikh communities. The result was an opening which invited all members of these communities, with presentations and comments encouraged.

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Charlotte Steels and Kate Eggleston-Wirtz from the Museum of Lancashire, Preston, also spoke of the importance of community engagement when holding the Sikh Fortress Turban exhibition. It allowed the museum to work with newly involved communities, and offer local people a chance to express what the turban meant to them.

This was facilitated through the use of media, similarly to Birmingham, with video and film work in Manchester and Preston offering personal testimonies.

Key to the interpretation of the turban at Preston was a focus on art and community. Art-based workshops and sessions encouraged the creation of a community gallery – with people creating their own Sikh ‘houses’.

Overall, it is clear how important partnership on a national and global level is to museums and to their communities. Through sharing and collaboration, the British Museum and partner museums were able to display a beautiful and important object in their own unique way, giving voice to local people and encouraging dialogue.