dead museums

I couldn’t help but crack up when I presented my “death” question to my Culture Reset cohort. When you talk about death and mortality, you’re in a moment of suspension because in and amongst the faces, you’ll see a mixture of “OofThisIsBareAwkward”, the earnest sideway bobs, and some meaningful smiles from those who are familiar with loss. You never know how the conversation is going to land, everyone holds their breath. (But thank you anyway to my cohort who saw me through!)

As part of my time on the programme, we had to come up with a question which would hopefully renew our practice and give us a kick up the bum – especially now during Covid. My question was

“How can museums have a bereavement-informed approach when talking about the legacy of the British empire?”

I don’t know where or how I’m going to follow the question through. I don’t know if I’ll go for that postgrad life even though this question feels like an academic essay in and of itself. But I feel like my question shows where I am right now. It’s a question that comes from my own lived experience of grief. I wanted to honour how the personal bits to you can drive your work too.

For those who didn’t know, 2019 was the year my Nani died from terminal cancer. It’s tough to lose someone who was one of the main constants in my life. There were a lot of things that were left unsaid and I’m still finding out more of what I don’t know as time pushes me along. It’s been a year since she died. 

When I wrote for Museum Detox, I was only 3 months in from losing Nani. I didn’t present it as the gospel, because everyone grieves in their own way. But it was a “How to” when you’re navigating white spaces, where emotions are meant to be banished to the personal sphere, and the grieving rituals of your communities are not to affect your work. “It’s not professional” apparently. I wrote the post because I work in the arts, and for a sector which prides itself as being anti-corporate, my grief was heightened by recruitment and staff members who lacked compassion and had their self-made policies which reified and enabled them to not care. I looked at the scam of it all, and denounced it as a:

Screen shot of Amber and Anna from Love Island, there is a subtitle which says "Dead ting"
Credit: ITV

So I wrote and re-wrote that piece so many times, and it was a bit of therapy tbh. Not to show “progress” because I dunno if that exists when someone dies, but more for me to make sense of the emotional mess and carnage that was last year. I don’t know what I expected when it was published. But it was the gentleness of those who work in the arts and humanities which encouraged me to…I guess, keep going? You can imagine how surprising and unsurprising it is to know that there’s a death community out there, and it will always be there because loss is a universal experience. 

Grieving at a time of Covid has been strange. I wasn’t going through it in the same intensity as I once did this time last year. It’s grief which makes you concerned for others but you’re at a safe distance. That’s because unlike others, I haven’t experienced immediate loss this time around. I know of people who’s loved ones have died.

During peak lockdown, I fell into a rabbit hole because of how much more resources there were to help those who are grieving. It helped me when I had the terrible thought that I was glad that Nani wasn’t around any more now we live in the Covid era. I guess there were more “liked” and “shared” posts on my feed because everyone was grieving someone. But also because for people of colour, especially Black communities, 2020 has been awful. I found more Instagram slide shows and resources made by us (e.g. check out Bereavement Room folks). It underlined how even within the death community, there’s a lack of diversity in practitioners, services, and mental health support. 

So when I go back to museums, it’s strange because the word “grief” is used to apply to people losing their jobs as opposed to literal death. It’s been weird to see the word “grief” used in that way. I get why. But it’s weird to see the word that made everyone clench their bums, be the word to encapsulate how much they missed their office rituals and to have a livelihood in something they cared about.

Has the word “grief” become popular because we mean “sad about losing” instead of talking about death? And if we talk about grief in this way, would that pave for conversations about death? And what would that mean for the overall wellbeing of workers in culture and creative fields?

I dunno man.

When it comes to museums specifically – the spaces filled with literal remains and objects bequeathed and stolen from people who are now dead, you’d think we’d be the space comfortable enough to talk about death. Especially as museums are spaces for the historian in us all, the figure who is aware of things being lost to time.

But

should museums be the spaces to talk about loss if in-built into its DNA is to protect against it? 

As a grieving museum staff member, does that add to the discomfort of talking about death?

Why do we only talk about death when someone we love dies?

We need a better, healthier death culture – especially in museums, and especially for people of colour who work in those spaces.

Given the plethora of work in advocacy at the moment, especially to do with anti-racism, it wouldn’t be remiss to say that for people of colour working in heritage – we’re pining for our lost futures, our potential not being met, and saddened when we actually deep what our ancestors went through. Our past and present trauma is something that our media, museums, education system don’t recognise because it’s messy. It means feeling shame about white supremacy. And it doesn’t fit into what it means to be a British citizen. It’s interesting how since the beginning of lockdown, our news recognised how terrible it was that disproportionately POCs died from Covid. Where is that outrage now? And why during lockdown, did the sympathy fall short when it came to Black Lives Matter?

For POCs, our grief is only acknowledged when our pain is recognised by whiteness. When it is not, our emotions are seen as anger (which by itself is an utterly valid emotion anyway) but is invalidated by the powers-that-be because it’s seen as irrational, an emotion that can’t be tone-policed. 

What can museums do about this? 

When I think about the field I’ve been invested in for my adult life, I came to the unhappy conclusion that if the collective grief of people of colour isn’t recognised when it comes to empire and racism today, we don’t have a chance when it comes to navigating our individual, personal grief. 

My question goes into research rabbit holes on museums and citizenship, the role of emotions, death, and colonialism. I’m still in research mode, but if you’re someone who would like to talk about this:

A Venn diagram where there are four circles. Starting clockwise, you have "healing", "grief, "museums", "legacies of the British empire." Where the four circles intersect in the middle is text that is circled and inside it, it says "THE BIT I'M INTERESTED IN"
Credit: Aksana Khan

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