Kicking Down The Barriers – On Invigorating and Diversifying Museum Displays


Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery’s South Asian collection was trailblazing in its day, but opening the conversation up to new generations and stories has long been required, finds Emma Sumner… 

Tucked into the corner of Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery’s ground floor is a small unassuming space that documents the cultural heritage of the town’s South Asian communities. First opened to the public in 1990, the now dated displays do not reveal the ground-breaking and revolutionary project from which they emerged. The first gallery outside of London dedicated to South Asian heritage, it aimed to develop community cohesion through art and culture between the town’s then two predominant ethnic groups – white British and South Asian.

As the gallery celebrates its 30th anniversary, Blackburn’s demographic situation has changed significantly, but many of the displays have not. With a plethora of voices, and a 30-year history to uncover, the Museum and Art Gallery’s Kick Down the Barriers project commissioned me to investigate how this space could once again reflect the diversity of the Lancashire town’s communities.

“The first and second generations are almost gone, and we are now dealing with the younger generations”

Seeking out the team who originally developed and worked on the project, I was put in touch with Imtiaz Patel, who consulted with Blackburn’s South Asian communities and travelled to India and Pakistan to source items for exhibition. Promoting and preserving the heritage and history of the town’s South Asian communities, Patel helped foster the museum as a tool for integration and understanding for all, but understands Blackburn’s audiences are very different today. “The original target audience was the first generation, those who came in the 1950 and 60s, so they could relate to their own history and culture. The first and second generations are almost gone, and we are now dealing with the younger generations. Although the displays are important from an anthropological point of view, they are no longer relevant to Blackburn’s younger generations.”

As the years went by, and equipment broke, audio pieces documenting conversations with first generation arrivals to Blackburn recorded in English, Urdu and Gujarati were removed. Developed in collaboration with the North West Sound Archive (then based in Clitheroe Castle Museum) and produced in a local BBC studio, the project intimately documented their journey to Blackburn; and as Imtiaz explains, it is “material that could be uncovered and rethought for new generations”. Over the last 30 years, the Museum has concentrated its energies on integration and outreach, and less on what’s in the building. As such, the South Asian Gallery’s displays have faded, as its co-produced ethos has expanded into other parts of the building’s offer.


Adjacent to the gallery’s permanent displays, a rolling programme of temporary exhibitions and events showcased local talent. Referred to as the Community Gallery, art teacher and youth worker, Riaz Begum MBE organised many exhibitions in the space in the early noughties. Still active in Blackburn’s art scene today and acutely aware that budgets have since reduced dramatically, Begum retains faith that the gallery’s original approach could still have relevance. “When people visit their homeland, they bring back artefacts, arts and crafts, photographs and videos. There could be changing displays of loaned objects that represent the people, where they are from and their family histories. Many communities don’t automatically engage with the museum – we need to bring the gallery alive again and create new dialogue as it’s conversations that really spark ideas and make changes.”

The Museum still has an active exhibitions programme dedicated to local makers. As staff unpick and reinterpret more than 140 years of old-style curating and museum practices, their commitment to community outreach and the promotion of local artists’ work now includes supporting Blackburn’s independent artist-led spaces, including Prism Gallery and The Bureau Centre for the Arts. Celebrating the Community Gallery’s legacy, diverse programming remains a key component in encouraging participation from people who might not ordinarily visit.

“Someone of my age or a little younger often forgets, or doesn’t know, about the struggles our families went through”

Investigating how this might be expanded further in relation to the South Asian Gallery’s offer, I spoke with Blackburn Engagement and Integration officers, Faranisa Sharif and Mariyam Emam, to better understand how (or if) its redevelopment could support their work within Blackburn’s communities. Both of South Asian origin, their experiences of growing up in Blackburn have no doubt shaped the way they approach their roles, but are also prominent reminders of their own family history. As Sharif told me: “Within the South Asian community, someone of my age or a little younger often forgets, or doesn’t know, about the struggles our families went through – in my case my Grandparents who came from India. I think it’s important that the gallery re-jogs memories as a lot of people from our communities don’t have an understanding of the lengths our ancestors went to for us to have simple privileges today…”

Both Sharif and Emam say they take their choice of mosque, or the ability to celebrate their culture for granted; but through their work with refugees and those new to Blackburn’s communities, they are reminded of their ancestors’ struggle to settle in the town and their deep motivation to make a better life. It’s a history they feel is at risk of being lost and which needs to be recorded and shared, not just for the South Asian communities, but for those who have more recently settled in Blackburn having endured sapping journeys just to find safety and opportunity.

“It needs to showcase a wider representation of Blackburn’s communities today”

Picking up the recurring thread around the gallery’s scant connection to Blackburn’s younger generations, I spoke to Amina Khan, Blackburn University College’s Student Union President. Having actively diversified the Union’s extra-curricular events programme, Khan has committed herself to ensuring that every student feels a deep sense of belonging to the student cohort – a strategy she believes could help the gallery reconnect with its community. “It needs to include the voices of second and third generation South Asian community members,” she told me, “but there are many newer non-South Asian communities who are now going through what the first generation did… it needs to showcase a wider representation of Blackburn’s communities today…”

Throughout all of my conversations, there has been demand for the inclusion of content relevant to younger generations and to include a more diverse cross-section of Blackburn’s current demographic. For many, the key to wider engagement is making the space useful for those working in roles like Khan’s, Sharif’s and Emam’s, to provide tools and support that help them facilitate a greater level of understanding between different communities and welcome new ones. As Khan explains: “most people see museums as places you go to learn, so why can’t they be places where we learn about each other and from each other?”

“The key to success will involve bringing the outreach back in and inviting key partners to co-create”

While the SAG’s displays may have remained static, initiatives like Kick Down the Barriers have ensured the rest of the Museum’s narrative has not. Efforts to work in a more inclusive way have seen staff step away from dusty archives to undertake more active community roles working with projects including Blackburn Youthzone’s Strong Sisters Programme, supporting colleagues at Blackburn College and forming part of the delivery team for the National Festival of Making, British Textile Biennial and Our Community Our Future. To develop a new offer that’s relevant to the community, the key to success will involve bringing the outreach back in and inviting key partners to co-create.

As mentioned, Blackburn’s South Asian Gallery was the first of its kind in the UK outside London. Others have since followed, and Manchester Museum is currently developing the North of England’s first large-scale gallery of South Asian history and culture. Part of the Museum’s ‘hello future’ transformation, Community Producer Nusrat Ahmed is carefully balancing her role between the Museum and South Asian community.

“Galleries and museums need to be flexible and open to wider involvement”

Actively operating a co-created approach, Ahmed has formed a collective of community representatives, leaders, academics and specialists who are supporting with outreach. Building a strong core team she has been able to push the project out to the city’s many South Asian communities (although she admits there are still more to reach), with the ambition of ensuring everyone is represented within the gallery’s content. “If we don’t get the representation of everyone,” she says, “then this gallery is just the same as every other South Asian gallery that concentrates its efforts on India, Bangladesh and Pakistan.”

Ahmed’s bold approach is reminiscent of Patel’s efforts 30 years ago and comparable to those redeveloping Blackburn’s offer today through Kick Down the Barriers. Our communities are ever changing and if our galleries and museums are to speak to and represent them, they need to be flexible and open to wider involvement, not just through visitors, but active contributions to their programmes and displays.

“The town’s ongoing demographic evolution necessitates a shift for the gallery to once again be relevant”

While Blackburn’s South Asian Gallery was established as a ground-breaking project to better promote understanding within the town’s diverse community, 30 years on, it is no longer able to meet its original mission. The town’s ongoing demographic evolution means that its younger South Asian generations, and those new to Blackburn, require a shift for the gallery’s displays to once again be relevant.

With no big budgets to splash, Kick Down the Barriers will reimagine the gallery’s offer through a co-created DIY approach, allowing the community to reinvent the space with their own words, images and objects. While outcomes remain undefined, with strong community partnerships, the flexibility and endless possibility within this organic approach points towards real relevance to the town’s diverse communities. Building a space for them, whatever the final outcome, to once again work for the community and share their stories.

Emma Sumner

Images courtesy Blackburn Museum and Art Gallery

Posted on 23/11/2020 by thedoublenegative