“Black history is Welsh history”

There is one memory which has stayed with me from the many years I worked for Amgueddfa Cymru-National Museum Wales. In 2002, we launched an exhibition titled Belonging in the Oriel 1 gallery at St Fagans, known then as the Museum of Welsh Life. It was the first time the museum had reflected diversity in its narrative of Wales. During the launch, a guest came up to me and said “I’ve waited over twenty years for this.” She was a teacher in Butetown, a part of Cardiff with one of the longest standing Black communities in the UK. Yet that history had not been told in Wales’ national museum.

Oriel 1 was the first step in reinventing St Fagans as a participatory National Museum of History, working with communities to reflect the diversity of life stories and identities which make up Wales. There is yet a long way to go, but the Museum now has its first Curator of Black History, Nasir Adam.  To find out more about him, his role in the Museum and what Black History Month means to him, I had a chat with him via Zoom. He is a third generation Welsh Somali, born and bred in Butetown:

My grandfather was a merchant sailor and so was my father. I grew up in the Docks and I think that really made me the person I am. It was living in Butetown. Before the word multiculturalism existed, it existed in Butetown, because we have over fifty six nationalities all living in a square mile radius. I was fortunate and privileged enough to have been exposed to so many cultures, so many different religions, so many different people. And also amazing activists like Betty Campbell, Neil Sinclair, Chalky White, Gaynor Legall and Sheik Mohamed. There were so many inspirational people I’d kind of grown up around. But also the merchant sailors. I remember I used to sit down in one of the seamen’s teahouses at the age of about six or seven and just being in awe of them. They used to tell us about their travels to Argentina or when their merchant ships were torpedoed in the Second World War. It was so fascinating to me. I used to go back every day with my father just to listen to the elders and their stories.

And this is why working in the museum is such a privilege. It’s a privilege and a challenge for me because there’s been a vacuum of hidden history. It’s not only my responsibility but it’s the responsibility of the whole museum and all curators to really capture that and ensure that the museum is really a public space for everyone. 

Nasir Adam
Nasir Adam, curator of Black History, Amgueddfa Cymru

Nasir’s career move into curatorship did not follow the usual route. His background is in community activism, not history or museology. His PhD is a study of the barriers facing young Somalis, using intersectionality as a methodological framework. He has been appointed to establish relationships between the national museum and Black communities across Wales and develop its collections of Black History. He is also exploring opportunities to ‘decolonise’ already existing collections by reinterpeting them through the lens of Black communities.   

I remember when we’d done the Somali heritage event, we were in the background and we allowed the community to lead in coordinating an exhibition and an event in the museum. Seeing people who had never stepped foot in St Fagans – it’s such a beautiful place, but some people have lived all their lives in Wales and in Cardiff but not had that opportunity. And to see them on that day and their faces – it was quite emotional for me.  A lot of people thinking ‘Oh, wow! We do belong. This is our space.” And especially, what made a difference was seeing themselves and their heritage and their culture being represented on a national platform. Amgueddfa Cymru has seen how powerful it is to allow communities to take ownership of that space. More importantly, it’s about valuing our communities as curators, in the sense that we’re gathering information from the communities yet not valuing them as experts. I think that’s all changed and I’m really proud that I work for Amgueddfa Cymru, because they’re taking it quite seriously at a senior management level.  Representation is a journey, it’s not an end product. It’s always evolving. And I think we’re on the road to that journey.

For Nasir, oral testimony is a key element in setting to right the historical amnesia of the Museum’s collections and also capturing experiences of recent activism. 

Oral history is so important, because it captures that emotion. I love doing oral history recordings, honestly, because it just transforms you into another place, because it’s another gateway to that person’s feelings, their emotions. It’s a privilege, obviously, because they’re sharing a lot of personal information with yourself. But wow, how powerful is it? With oral recording, it gives that person the platform to directly engage with people who are coming into the museum, rather than us reinterpreting the narrative. It is the community directly speaking to the visitors of our museums. And that is powerful, because it just opens that window to really understand and get some dialogue. 

This is demonstrated in a exhibition opened this month at St Fagans. Windrush Cymru – Our Voices, Our Stories, Our History is the culmination of an oral history project delivered by Race Council Cymru and funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Other project partners have been Amgueddfa Cymru, Wales Millenium Centre, People’s Collection Wales, Windrush Cymru Elders and Black History Wales 365. All the recordings will be archived as part of the national collection at St Fagans National Museum of History. The exhibition will travel to all Amgueddfa Cymru sites across Wales. The exhibition features the stories of over forty people of the Windrush Generation in Wales, told in their own words. Their stories show how the Windrush Generation Cymru, and their descendants, have made their mark in all walks of Welsh life: through the jobs they worked, careers they built, the children they raised, and the contributions they made to our communities and culture. And this despite the discrimination they received.

This Black History Month, the Welsh Government has announced that Wales will be the first UK nation to make the teaching of Black, Asian and minority ethnic histories compulsory across the school curriculum. Government funding will support the development of new teaching materials and training for teachers. As Wales’ biggest provider of learning outside the classroom, Amgueddfa Cymru’s responsibility is to support the curriculum through its activities, its material collections and the collecting and archiving of oral histories. Though Nasir Adam acknowledges that Black History Month has played a necessary role in raising awareness, it is only the first step of many that are needed:

Black history is Welsh history. And, you know, we need to be proud of that and really celebrate that every single day and every moment. When my children go to school, and they’re taught about Black History, it becomes this huge event. But it isn’t a huge event, it’s a reality. It’s our reality. This is what we face on a day to day basis. It’s about acknowledging that reality and trying to change it. And I think we can only do that if we talk about it, or if there is space regardless of what month it is, just to continue with that every single day. Because this is our reality, it doesn’t stop for us. And I think Black history awareness shouldn’t stop either. Because racism isn’t going to stop. We’re at the stage now where we have to take the next step. And we have taken the next step in Wales. We are kind of leading the world really. It is in the national curriculum, whereas with our counterparts across the border, that hasn’t been the case. We’re also quite fortunate in that we’ve got a Welsh Government that really genuinely believes in every voice… We’re leading the way and we should be proud. We should really be proud.

Race Council Cymru’s project is one of many Black Oral History projects undertaken across the UK. If you have been involved in one, it would be great if you could write a blog article about it and send it to us. The Current British Work Editor of the Journal would also like to hear from you (contact cb@cydfx.net). And please consider attending or presenting a paper at our annual conference next year, on the theme of Home. The Oral History Society needs your input and involvement in our activities so that we can learn from you and better represent the diversity of those working in oral history in the UK.

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