When museum activism comes to life

Geraldine Kendall Adams, 11.07.2019
Q&A with Carrie Supple, founder of the Journey to Justice exhibition
Journey to Justice (JtoJ) is a travelling exhibition that takes an explicitly activist approach, founded with the aim of galvanising visitors to challenge injustice and “fight for social change”. 

Currently on display at the Library at Willesden Green in Brent, London (until 1 September), the exhibition tells local and international stories of those who have fought for civil and human rights, freedom and equality, and examines the events, themes and tactics that made those movements succeed. 

Alongside the exhibition, the JtoJ charity runs arts and education events tailored to address local issues, and offers resources and training to inspire other organisations to take a more activist approach. Museums Journal spoke to the exhibition’s founder Carrie Supple to find out more about what activism looks like in a museum context.

11072019 Brent JtoJ 4

What makes the exhibition unique?  

Carrie Supple: Our multi-arts, interactive exhibition is a catalyst for local communities and action for social justice. We tell little known stories of successful journeys to justice by individuals and groups in the USA and the UK, as well as stories local to wherever the exhibition is based. It includes stunning photos, poetry and a juke box of international civil rights songs. 

Working with local partners from community, cultural, heritage, artistic, educational, political and faith sectors, we enable a series of arts and education events and activities addressing local issues. These take place alongside the exhibition, which is very flexible and has been hosted in art centres, libraries, universities, a community centre and a cathedral. Our priority is to work with marginalised people - including refugee groups as we did in Middlesbrough - but we are keen to connect with everyone. The exhibition is a focus of activity for months leading up to its arrival and is an opportunity for volunteers to develop skills during its stay and help ensure a lasting legacy. 

Our approach is unique, using a combination of history, stories, the arts and understanding how social change happens. It enables us to make strong partnerships and speaks to people all over the country who are concerned about inequalities and human rights.

How has it changed and evolved since it launched in 2015? 

The exhibition has visited 14 very varied communities to date, and the programme is different in each place, though there is an agreed framework within which it's created following advice in the form of a guide developed with our local partners. 

The exhibition content hasn't changed much, though we had it assessed for accessibility and made several changes in the light of that (text enlarged, panels lowered etc). There has been a growing emphasis on the local less-told stories of ordinary people's involvement in movements for human rights. We see time and again the impact this has on people's awareness of their own potential. As one visitor in Tower Hamlets said: "The stories are very relevant. They are from local people of the same ethnic background as me." 

When we were in Newham, east London, we worked with Maria Xavier, whose father Asquith challenged the “colour bar” at Euston station in 1966. His story is now part of our permanent exhibition so it can be seen all over the country.

We have also developed bespoke teaching resources to use with school and other groups, linked to our main and local stories. Some programmes have led to more follow-up activities than others: popular civil rights walking tours and more in Sheffield, for example, and a successful partnership project with the Somali community in Bristol called I Belong Here.

What are the stories that people respond to most?

There are local stories which often affect visitors most powerfully. The story in our permanent exhibition which people find most moving is that of six-year-old Ruby Bridges and her teacher Barbara Henry, who both showed phenomenal courage and resilience in the face of violent hate and racism.

Another that affects visitors is that of the Memphis sanitation workers’ strike of 1968 and the role played by one worker, Elmore Nickleberry, and his wife Peggy. Black workers were paid less than their white colleagues and were denied protective clothing, showers and even shelter when it rained. Dr Martin Luther King  Jr came to support them as part of the Poor People's Campaign and that's where he was assassinated. 

The exhibition aims to galvanise people to challenge injustice and fight for social change. What impact has it had?

When we ask visitors and participants whether they feel encouraged to take action as a result of contact with JtoJ, they say:

 "Yes. I am more determined than ever to not be silent, but speak out from my own little corner of course." 

"As an ‘everyday’ citizen sometimes I am unsure how to help oppressed people, or if I can even have a real impact. The stories of ‘ordinary’ people show that anyone can play a role in the fight for justice." 

"Reinforces my commitment and lifts my spirits in these difficult times." 

Of course, as with all education projects, we can never know whether most people go on to take action or how much JtoJ is a trigger. By “taking action”, we mean campaigning but also singing and dancing for social justice, a career choice, challenging a bully or speaking out against injustice.  We have many examples of impact as a result of participants' involvement in the exhibition programme.

How does activism work in a museum context? What are the challenges you've faced along the way?

At its best, a museum can be the hub in which discussions about activism take place. With our partners, and often led by them, we hosted activists from local, national and international campaigns about housing and wages when we were at Morley Gallery in Lambeth, or landless workers in Brazil and anti-apartheid campaigners when we were in Brent. 

Local activist community groups, artists and students have curated sections of our exhibition and run events as part of the JtoJ programme. Local stories in Nottingham at the then Galleries of Justice focused on poverty and gay rights and, in Bristol, the 1963 bus boycott. One of its leaders, Paul Stephenson, is a JtoJ patron. When we launched the exhibition at Discovery Museum, Newcastle, five Tyneside activists' stories were featured. 

The International Slavery Museum in Liverpool ran a civil rights banner-making session. We hold workshops at museums and encourage people to sign up with JtoJ and get involved. 

Challenges include not always having capacity to ensure there are volunteers or staff to welcome and engage with visitors. Another (connected) frustration we have is how difficult it can be to signpost to people who feel inspired to do something. Ideally we would have a means of directing them to opportunities related to whichever human rights issue they cared about. 

Of course, funding is a perennial challenge but it's amazing how much you can do anyway! And it goes without saying that so much depends on the quality of relationships, so where venue partners are welcoming, open and easy going, challenges can be overcome.

What advice would you give to other museums that are interested in taking a more activist approach? 

Outreach is crucial and of course many museums nowadays have superb local knowledge. We have developed strong links with activists in each community thanks to staff giving us good leads. By inviting local artists and community organisations to be part of our exhibition and programme, an activist approach is clear. 

There are also numerous opportunities to link activism with existing collections, such as the pottery at Sunderland Museum& Winter Gardens which lent itself to discussing historical and current issues of working conditions and ceramics as a vehicle for powerful social justice campaigning. Or how young people in Dorset told stories of radical local history in the form of social media when the exhibition was at Shire Hall Historic Courthouse Museum, which linked to current issues of rural poverty.
 
What ambitions do you have for the future of the project?

We hope the exhibition programme will continue for as long as there is a demand for it. We want to visit more rural places and those not well served by touring arts projects and we would like to be truly UK-wide and follow up contacts in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales. 

There is also discussion about taking the project to parts of Europe where the far right is in the majority - I've just returned from Hungary for example. There are ways in which we could make links between the US and UK history in our exhibition more explicit but that would be expensive, and securing core funding is a greater priority now. 

Our next project is about economic (in)justice in the UK, working with local partnerships we secured through our exhibition programme. Developing networks and continuously learning from each other in solidarity is one of JtoJ's main aims.

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