Decolonising the Curriculum: what does this mean for museum learning?
By Kate Fellows and Emily Nelson, Leeds Museums and Galleries
Over the last few months, we have had a few conversations with local teachers that have begun thus…
‘Hello Leeds Museums and Galleries, what resources have you got for a Windrush topic? We thought we would add that in to diversify our curriculum…’
It didn’t sit comfortably with us. Just ‘dropping in a Windrush topic’, does not address some of the wider, deeper changes we would like to support schools to make using cultural learning, although it can be a good start. But it did open up a conversation with those teachers about making the changes together.
We did some thinking. With our collections colleagues, we thought about how there is no single story related to most of our objects, and that to tell just one story about something doesn’t give the full picture. We thought about the language we use in terms of commemoration of the past and current celebration of our diverse city, and the language that schools use. We thought about where there are gaps in the voices in our collections, gaps in topics taught in schools and the gaps in our workshop programmes.
We are not the only museum service having these conversations internally. In response to Black Lives Matter, many organisations released anti-racist statements and have begun to take action about decolonising collections and buildings, and increasing diversity through learning, programming, staff and interpretation. This came through loud and clear when we facilitated a workshop for GEM a few weeks ago. Here are some of the things we talked about…
Think about the language we use: We asked what ‘decolonising’ meant to fellow museum learning professionals in their work. The responses were varied in language, but all encompassed the same ideas of ‘recognising and actively working to eliminate bias which came with historical imperial power’, ‘broadening perspectives’, ‘questioning narratives’, ‘amplifying voices’, ‘giving others control’, ‘co-produced’. Language has power. One participant raised the question of whether ‘decolonising’ as a term is deceptive in itself, because we are institutions with colonial collections and we can never truly decolonise. Food for thought. ‘Decolonising’ also means very little in a school setting. So, how else can we frame the conversation?
Think about the context we are living in: We looked at the political context we are working within across formal education, funding and policy decisions, and how we navigate the ethics of that alongside the practicalities. We talked around telling ‘whole narratives’, rather than simple ‘one-sided stories’. We are shaped by the world around us, and how much do we push for change in other arenas?
Ask some key questions:
- What gaps are there in the way you approach your learning programmes, and what examples might you be able to bring in to make it a more rounded picture?
- What are the more fundamental ideas and concepts that might need to be shifted?
- What objects are we using? What objects could we use?
- Whose voices influence how we approach our workshops/sessions, and whose are missing?
- What help do you need and where can you find this information?
Talk to schools: Ask your local teachers the same questions as about your learning programmes.
At Leeds Museums and Galleries, we whole curriculum plan with a number of primary schools across the city. We ask them big questions. What is the intent behind your curriculum? Where’s the local relevancy for your pupils? What do you want to achieve? Are you using an arts-rich, creative curriculum, or just topic teaching? Where’s the progression? Then we go into detail… when you teach your Explorers topic in Yr1, how do you present that? Whose voices do the pupils hear, or not? Do you centre your ancient Egyptians topic in the context of an African civilisation? How do you relate that to what’s going on around the globe? Is that a better connection for your rocks and fossils topic (linked to ancient tool making)? What books are you reading in literacy, or scientific language are you using in class? What do they say about our biases? Then, we map their newly developed curriculums against objects and stories in our collections, resource them through MyLearning.org and our school membership scheme, and delivered whole school CPD for staff so that everyone is comfortable teaching sensitive topics and exploring colonial legacy.
We have helped shape, change and develop the curriculums of all our member schools and others, going into curriculum deep dives and building impactful, long term relationships. It means the pupils in our city are being told whole, diverse stories across the primary curriculum. Stories, histories and interpretations that are relevant for them in their school, make sense for them in their locality, ground them in their city and their diverse heritages, and help us all to celebrate the Leeds we have now.
This is the start of our journey as a sector, we have a long way to go. Talking and questioning are good starting points.
Quotes above taken from the workshop session chat.