London’s many communities can now enjoy a new website about culturally diverse history in time for Black History Month.
UntoldLondon seeks out exhibitions about different cultural experiences, whether they are in famous museums or your local library.
“It describes where Londoners can find their story, whether hidden in plain view in the British Museum or tucked away in small archives,” Kate Smith, the website’s editor, told the 24 Hour Museum.
“It’s also a quest for us to find out what histories communities are gathering themselves.”
A preacher in St Giles Church around 1860. Courtesy London Metropolitan Archive.
The site was designed and built by the 24 Hour Museum in partnership with the Museum of London. Funding for the project came from the London Museums Hub, part of Renaissance in the Regions, the Museums, Libraries and Archives Council’s groundbreaking programme to revitalise regional museums.
As Kate explained, the aim of the site is two-fold: “Firstly to find out what is there, and let people know where to find it. Secondly to hold up a mirror to museums so they can see what isn’t there that ought to be.”
This is not simply an exercise in political correctness but of widening access to exhibitions that are worth seeing.
“It’s a matter of telling the truth,” said Kate. “When we go to a new exhibition and it’s a tiny embryonic thing, we’ll say so. We won’t drag people across London to see something that is barely there.”
Caribbeans in Trafalgar Square in the 1950s by Harold Dearden, part of the Museum of London collection.
She added: “People are not stupid. They know when a museum is going through the motions. But there’s an appetite for history events when people feel it’s relevant to them.”
The success of the Black British Style exhibition at the Victoria and Albert Museum (October 7 2004 – January 16 2005) stands out as an example of how substantial a ‘minority’ history event can be.
After six months of visiting museums and communities around London to get the website going, Kate still gets surprised. For example, she learned about the archives of the Asians in Harrow group, not well known outside that community.
“I’m not an expert on all the cultural groups in London, but nor could anybody be,” she said. “The only way of knowing if we’re on the right track is to ask.”
A tailor's Sweating Den in the east end, 1904. In the early 20th century many Jewish immigrant tailors lived and worked in one roomed tenements. Courtesy Jewish Museum, London.
In November and December, the site will invite comments and suggestions about how it can be improved.
UntoldLondon is launching at a good moment as Black History Month sees museums and galleries across the capital, and indeed the rest of the country, running events, exhibitions and activities throughout October.
In London alone there is a whole host of events planned, including such major exhibitions as Roots to Reckoning at the Museum of London, Amazon to Caribbean at the Horniman Museum, and West Indian Front Room at the Geffrye Museum. All three exhibitions will be featured on UntoldLondon.
To find out more, visit www.untoldlondon.org.uk.