Co-curation in Action

Last week saw the last of two Action for Southern Africa/Anti-Apartheid Movement (AAM) workshops held at the Bristol Record Office (BRO), with the aim of selecting material from the papers of Bristol AAM for an exhibition that will run throughout the summer, alongside the ‘Forward to Freedom’ exhibition designed by the national Anti-Apartheid Archives Committee. ‘Co-curation’ and ‘participation’ are buzzwords in the museums and heritage sector today, just as they are a central plank of the various ‘Know Your Bristol’ projects. But, what is ‘co-curation’? Over the past five-ten years, museums and galleries have increasingly sought to engage with the public to create a ‘participatory’ experience. Leading institutions have attempted to design exhibitions and exhibition spaces so that visitors are involved, rather than simply an audience for, the production of heritage.

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Of course, these efforts also reflect a burgeoning desire, not least on the part of funding bodies, to effect forms of public engagement that are ‘impatcful’ in both material and intangible ways. Already, the Map Your Bristol website has facilitated the production of a history of Bristol AAM grounded in key locations around the city. The exhibition at the BRO will bring some of this material into public view, allowing further reflection on the ways in which the movement has contributed to the development of Bristol’s radical and engaged political culture.

Over the course of two workshops, I began to see another form of ‘co-curation’ at work, the result of the peculiar genius of activists as archivists, deftly identifying material for display. Across the country, former activists have been assiduous in shaping the history of the movement in Britain, from the work of Christabel Gurney, a former editor of Anti-Apartheid News as a force behind the Forward to Freedom website and exhibition, through the work of organic intellectual Gavin Brown, geographer and editor of the ‘Non-Stop Against Apartheid’ blog. But Bristol’s anti-apartheid activists are themselves both source and inspiration. Over the past year, they have been willing to bear witness to their part in the story of the movement, but also have taken up the challenge of helping to shape the ways in which that story is communicated. I, for one, am very grateful to have had the chance to work alongside them.

‘Forward to Freedom: the story of the British Anti-Apartheid Movement’, including materials from the Bristol AAM collection, will be found in the lobby of the Bristol Records Office from 28 July to Friday 16 October 2015. There will be a talk from Ken Keable and other ‘London Recruits’ on 10th September. Watch this space for further events.

For more details on Bristol Action for Southern Africa, please contact: