ICOM 2021 Working Internationally Conference Day 1: Social Justice

Each year ICOM UK organises a one-day Working Internationally Conference. This year, ICOM are hosting a three-day online event. Each day will focus on a major global issue.

The ITP team will be sharing daily blogs to round-up each day of the conference.  We hope to share some useful and insightful information we learnt at the conference, along with any resources.

Day one is Social Justice: Museum responses to decolonisation, restitution, Black Lives Matter, representation and youth.

In Conversation

Richard Benjamin, Head of International Slavery Museum, National Museums Liverpool
Zandra Yeaman, Curator of Discomfort Project at The Hunterian, University of Glasgow

Richard Benjamin began this session by introducing himself and the International Slavery Museum. This museum classes itself very much as a museum that fights for social justice – they have never seen themselves to be neutral in these discussions.

When working with local communities to address social justice, Zandra Yeaman asked an important question: Why do museums want to engage with museums in the first place? What benefit will they get out of it? Zandra believes there should be transparency and honesty. There has to be some sort of equity among the people you are working with around who has the authority. Zandra argues that calling people ‘experts’ in these issues negates people’s personal responsibility to do the work. Actually, everybody has a responsibility to be anti-racist.

International Slavery Museum

Richard Benjamin asked whether the sector of museums as a whole can truly be anti-racist? And what does that mean?

In response, Zandra said that she believe museums can be anti-racist. The way to do that is to take a conscious effort to be anti-racist. It needs to be acknowledged that racism does exist in the UK, also understanding how multidimensional racism is. There is overt racism that you can clearly witness. It is the covert racism that does so much harm to our society, to individuals, to institutions.

We live in a society that is afraid to actually tackle this head on. Sometimes we will make mistakes, but mistakes is where we learn.

Richard is a firm believer that organisations can bring in practices, develop strategies and terminology documents, but responsibility is on the individual to go out there and find out what it is, not be fed all the information.

It is important to remember that Black Lives Matter is not a moment, it is a movement. We sometimes forget that there are generations of people who have been anti-racist. Decolonisation didn’t start when people started talking about it.

Projects can take an organisation forward, but they are often short-term – they finish. What can we do to make sure these conversations continue?

Hunterian Museum, University of Glasgow

Richard and Zandra then took some questions from the audience:

How can museums change public policy?
Zandra: I’m a big fan of evidence based. There is plenty of evidence out there to show what the legacies of our British history is and how it impacts present day. I would suggest keep pushing and putting forward the evidence of the history. Look at the wider societal issues and try to use that to push forward the agenda.

Richard: Museums in the sector need to be at the right tables. We know how important they are.

Considering a lot of museums are local history ones run by volunteers, how realistic is it most museums can get involved in the inequalities and recollection stories?
Richard: Go out and seek partners who will be happy to work with you on something. Second, if you are in an area that is not diverse, lead the way. Go out there and find what things mean. Help will be there from other institutions.

Zandra: When we talk about equality we talk about everybody. As people are making up a museum, the responsibility to address inequalities impact the people who work in that museum also. People who run smaller museums should and can be involved in addressing inequality.

Live from Queer Britain with Joseph Galliano, Queer Britain’s Co-founder/CEO

Dr Justin Bengry, Goldsmiths University of London, Director, Centre for Queer History, Lecturer in Queer History, MA Queer History
Asifa Lahore, Britain’s First Out Muslim Drag Queen and award-winning activist who was part of the Open Letters to Queer Britain campaign
Dr Molly Merryman, Queer Britain’s Research Director, Founding Director of the Kent State University Centre for the Study of Gender and Sexuality and Associate Professor from the School of Peace and Conflict Studies
Dan Vo, Queer Britain Advisory Board Member and Co-project Manager Queer Heritage and Collections Network, supported by ArtFund, freelance museum consultant and media producer.

‘Queer Britain recognises that history exists in the here and now. It resides in ordinary, everyday people’s lives, as well as in the extraordinary. We also need to make an extra effort to capture the thoughts and voices of under-recorded and under-represented communities. A lot of LGBTQ+ heritage has been lost and we need to ensure that the flow is stemmed’.


‘Open Letters To Queer Britain is a collaboration between Queer Britain, Levi’s and Post Office. It invites LGBTQ+ people and their allies across the UK to write a letter to Queer Britain for our collection, future exhibitions and publications and to feed a collaborative research project, Queer Pandemic, being undertaken between Queer Britain, Kent State University, Ohio, and Goldsmiths University of London. The main focus of the Queer Pandemic study is digital filmed oral histories but the letters will also be studied. Together they create a valuable snapshot of life for LGBTQ+ people in lockdown, their hopes, fears, experiences, memories and thoughts’.



This fascinating session opening with a very moving film which looked at the development of the Queer Britain museum and was followed by a special focus on their interlocking projects, Open Letters to Queer Britain and Queer Pandemic.

Dr Justin Bengry talked about how, as a historian of the queer past, so many stories and experiences are London-based.  That the partnership with the Post Office in the Queer Pandemic Project brought 11,000+ more UK-wide locations into the project and meant it was able to diversify, geographically and record, the pandemic experiences of LGBTQ+ people across the country. 

This project happened in the middle of pandemic and Justin shared some of the challenges – and opportunities – they have faced.

Typically, oral history is done in person, through either audio recording or video recordings.  This clearly has not been possible during lockdown when we cannot leave our homes and it was not safe for students or volunteers to go into people’s homes.  Technologies like Zoom have been essential, and a lot of work went into ensuring the team got the most from the technologies and the films.

Dr Molly Merryman spoke about using video as an oral history methodology.  She felt that oral history, recordings and transcripts, just aren’t enough and can feel ‘lifeless’ while combining video technologies with the collection of oral histories, gives much richer data. 

Molly gave the example of using Zoom, where you can look at people’s backgrounds, what they have on their walls or their shelves, you can hear their accents, look at what people wear and how they present themselves.  This tells us so much more about people’s personalities, their character and all those things become valuable data to scholars.

Something to consider when collecting these kind of histories is that the experience are often very emotional.  The experience of the pandemic is now, and experiences can be very raw.  This is not looking back at our histories; its dealing with them today.

Sculpted figurine of two lovers

Molly spoke about how the pandemic is not an LGBTQ+ crisis – it is a human crisis that LGBTQ+ individuals are living through.  Those experiences are unique and should not be lost and will contribute to the overall understanding of the pandemic and preserve them for future scholars.

Molly also highlighted how the LGBTQ+ community has been adversely impacted by the pandemic, more so than others.  It has had a greater physical, emotional, and economic impact which has highlighted the ways in which so many LGBTQ+ lives are marginalised.

Joseph Galliano talked about how partnerships were essential for Queer Britain and its projects.  He shared the benefits of global research and of connecting with corporates – with appropriate companies.  He also spoke about connecting with other LGBTQ+ communities – for example Deaf Rainbow UK – who were able to bring a new perspective and a new audience.

Asifa Lahore talked about the inclusion panels she had worked with which looked at the barriers to the LGBTQ+ community being involved in museums.  She was delighted to see how, in group discussions, people were not afraid to share their opinions.  The groups talked about the physical barriers, about ‘rural vs urban’ experiences and about religion and politics.  She highlighted how the LGBTQ+ community feels that the right time for an initiative and a museum like Queer Britain but spoke about how while the laws are in place to ensure inclusion, socially there is so much more to do.  She feels that Queer Britain is the voice of the community.

Voices of the Future Session

Dr Errol Francis, Culture& New Museum School
Vanessa Otim, Trainee, Culture& New Museum School

To round up the last session of the day, Dr Errol Francis, talked about the programme he has worked on for five years: New Museum School.

Culture& and Create Jobs worked together to create the New Museum School which ‘delivers work-based, nationally accredited training in cultural heritage focused on known skills gaps within the heritage sector.’ Their strategic objective was to expand who makes and enjoys arts and heritage, opening it up. The programme included training in conservation, collections management, digitisation, public engagement and traditional craft skills for the restoration of heritage. They constantly work with leading national, regional and local cultural heritage organisations who manage collections and run development programmes with a commitment to diversify the workforce and invest in a new generation of talent.

Errol explains that they now have an impressive 130 graduates and they are now ready for their next challenge to tackle the lack of progression within the sector by launching the New Museum School Advanced Programme. This aims to address the lack of career progression in the arts and culture sector, to provide confidence to their programme heritage partners, to embrace change and to nurture diverse talent and leadership that in the sector that will contribute to expanding audiences.

Errol says they are working with the University of Leicester and other partners and also sees the private sector art world, such as Sotheby’s, as ‘a key place to diversify because it is even less diverse than the public sector.’ Slides from Errol’s Powerpoint can be seen below, setting out the programme’s aims, what the participants will gain from it, what the cultural sector hosts gain from the programme and what the initiative wants to achieve:

Errol also shared some other projects that have come out of this training, showing how audiences are enriched and diversified by expanding the workforce. Some projects recently worked on by the programme trainees include:

The Memory Archives, was delivered in 2019 at the London Metropolitan Archives and used the archive to provide memories for those with dementia.  The aim was to bring the material to life in a multi-sensory way and to allow contact with these objects whilst using the archive and was co-curated by a New Museum School trainee. This will be repeated this year but won’t be live because of the pandemic. Instead, audiences will be engaged remotely by delivering archive boxes to the participants in care homes and settings.

Another project called Cyborgs looked at how we classify humanity and the living world in relation to machines and technology and other living species. Errol says, ‘It was an intersectional debate and performance.’

Another project they collaborated on was with the National Trust, one of their partners.  This was an event called The Hole Away from Home, which was about seeing an Indian restaurant in central London as a heritage space where we could reconsider Indian history in relation to living in Britain.

Vanessa Otim, trainee at the Royal Collection Trust, presented on her podcast, The Enigmatic Face of Queen Charlotte next. This project looks at the politics of portraiture and the contradictory artistic depictions of Queen Charlotte, wife of George III. What happens when the accuracy of a portrait is brought into question, and what does this say about the sitter and the artist?

Vanessa explains that she took part in the New Museum School in 2018 where she and the other cohorts were given the opportunity to research a topic of their choice. Vanessa spent a year at the Royal Collection Trust as a trainee to form the basis for a podcast series and her episode was called The Enigmatic face of Queen Charlotte. Vanessa explains that, ‘Since graduating from the school in 2019, a lot has changed socially. Our understanding of race has changed, has been alluded to, and I felt like it was necessary for me to reflect on my research during my time at the Royal Collection to re-evaluate the subject because I felt like the subject reveals a lot about our understanding of race and history.’ Vanessa talks about the offensive and outdated language used in the past to describe the appearance of Queen Charlotte in the artwork by Allan Ramsay, seen below.

Some related links: