Telling the stories of lives that matter

Locked down and exploring exhibition ideas during the pandemic, a group of 14 to 24-year old history-loving volunteers, known as the Preservative Party, started questioning why they didn’t see themselves represented in the museum’s galleries.

“Why are there no deaf perspectives in our galleries?” they asked. “Did trans people not exist in history?” “We know about rich industrialists but what about the people who worked in the factories?”

The group quickly discovered that the histories that really mattered to them either simply weren’t there or were skewed because of who had selected and told them.

“I remember sitting with one young autistic volunteer who wanted to look at the history of neurodivergent people in Leeds,” says Esther Amis-Hughes, the museum’s Community Engagement Manager. After doing some research, “They put their head in their hands and said, ‘there is nothing except asylums and misery.'”

Fired up by what they found, the Preservative Party members determined to do something about it, by finding and telling the missing stories of people and communities in Leeds who have been ignored or marginalised.

The approach which they devised has seen the city recognised internationally as a shortlisted best practice for the Eurocities Awards, taking place this year during the Brussels Urban Summit in June.

There is nothing except asylums and misery
— Esther Amis-Hughes

In giving young volunteers like Sammy Jacques a voice in this way, the goal was to ensure that everyone who comes to the museum can see themselves reflected in its galleries.

“It meant so much to me to work on the autism section of the exhibition for people who don’t see themselves in history or not portrayed in a very happy light,” says Sammy.

“It became about my experience and other people’s stories because in the past they weren’t allowed to speak. In the future when people look for autism history they will find it here.”

Trust and freedom to innovation and inclusion

The Preservative Party’s plans for their exhibition were radical and ambitious.

Not only did they want the autonomy to research, create and curate the stories they chose and to tell them authentically and transparently, primarily through video and audio content rather than objects. They were also passionate about presenting a rich and representative range of stories and taking accessibility measures to the next level.

They had the full support of the museum from the start.

When the young volunteers came to me with their idea, I thought, 'they're right'
— Esther Amis-Hughes

“When the young volunteers came to me with their idea, I thought, they’re right, why are remarkable stories that can give a completely different perspective on the hugely diverse stories that have shaped Leeds not in the museum?” says Amis-Hughes.

Preservative Party members at the entrance of Overlooked

It helped the cause that the museum had 12 years’ experience of working with the Preservative Party and trusting members to do things their way; even though, in this instance, ‘their way’ was to go further than ever before.

The volunteers were given a blank canvas, 18 months and a budget of 21,307 provided by the City Council and Leeds Museums and Galleries.  

A space for empathy

Each volunteer had a good idea what lives or issues they wanted to focus on from the start, from child labour and homelessness to LGBT+ identity and slavery and the experiences of people of colour, women in industry and deaf, neurodivergent and older people.

As well as delving into museum archives and books, the volunteers scoured the internet for information and contacts, met family members of notable individuals, interviewed charities and joined community meetings to find stories they didn’t yet have.

Not all the stories they found could be included. Sometimes, months of research led nowhere. On one occasion a particularly fascinating story had to be omitted. This happened to the work of volunteer Ethan Crabtree.

It was about empathy and understanding and a new way of working
— Jordan Keighley

Ethan had been struck by the fact that a successful Leeds-born music photographer had been largely overlooked by history. Finding members of his family proved pivotal to telling his story, but at the last minute they couldn’t commit to its inclusion.

Ethan’s grace in accepting their decision is important as a symbol of the project and its ethos, says the museum’s Youth Engagement Curator Jordan Keighley: “It was about empathy and understanding and a new way of working.”

Lessons like this added to the knowledge, skills and confidence the volunteers gained as they worked with the museum’s archivists and conservators, external archaeologists and filmmakers and over 30 partners.

As well as learning how to record oral histories, make films and install objects, they also ran outreach sessions, helped make budgetary decisions and became accomplished public speakers. They even painted the gallery walls.

Powerful testimonies

The exhibition opened in February 2023. Around 45,000 visitors are expected to experience its raw and revealing insights into overlooked city lives and groups – and to be inspired to consider how we can record a more accurate and inclusive picture of the past.

Visitors are introduced to Ellen and William Craft, an enslaved African American couple who escaped bondage and fled to the UK – with the wife impersonating a white man – eventually making their home in Leeds where they campaigned for the end of slavery.

The forgotten story of Leeds-born Angela Morley, the first transgender composer to be nominated for an Academy Award, has been brought to life with the help of her family, in the way they believe Angela would have wanted.

Visitors also learn about the life and death of David Oluwale, an apprentice tailor who travelled from Lagos to Leeds, where his hope and ambition crumbled in the face of racism, mental ill-health and homelessness.

Overlooked tells of the experiences of Leeds resident David Oluwale

The volunteers tell Oluwale’s story like it has never been told before, by presenting as much evidence as possible of his treatment and of the trial of the police officers charged with his assault and manslaughter.

The section of the exhibition dedicated to the deaf community was prompted by an email that popped into Keighley’s inbox from a deaf resident who wanted to visit with friends, asking if there was anything in the museum about deaf history. There wasn’t. So Keighley went to meet them.

They felt overlooked because they have not had their access needs meaningfully met
— Jordan Keighley

“They felt overlooked because they have not had their access needs meaningfully met,” he says. “And that’s why there are fewer deaf stories or voices in mainstream places. It’s partly down to the cost, as interpreters are needed at every meeting.”

“Red tape like this isn’t red to young volunteers, it’s amber at best and they said that’s not a good enough reason to exclude this group!”

The upshot was a partnership with the Deaf Arts Forum that led to volunteers learning British Sign Language and creating the first deaf-led curated display. This included short films and interviews exploring deaf awareness, identity, culture, community and technology.

Exhibitions as connectors and community builders

The volunteers had always been very clear that the exhibition’s inclusive approach to content must also extend to the visitors’ experience.

Nothing should be too bright. Or too loud.
— Sammy Jacques

“This was part of the project I was very keen on,” says Sammy. “Nothing should be too bright. Or too loud. All the content in the exhibition and the space itself had to be physically and mentally acceptable.”

To this end, no audio is played out loud in a way some might find over-stimulating. There are ear defenders, magnifying glasses, dyslexia-friendly and large print texts, a space of peace and quiet and a map showing where potentially triggering topics are displayed.

These accessibility adjustments are making a big difference, particularly for people with autism and children with special educational needs. Other curators at the museum have already picked up on them and their value too.

A collection of badges that act as silent communicators of identities and boundaries

Response to the exhibition as a whole has been similarly positive, with visitors saying the stories are so powerful and their telling so authentic and creative they leave feeling empowered and connected. Unusually, some come back the day after because there’s so much content they want to explore it all section by section.

“It’s so human-centred it took me by surprise,” comments one early visitor. “You don’t get to know the co-curators in such a way in most exhibitions.” Another describes it as, “A great example of how to do exhibitions. Thought-provoking, moving, comprehensible. I learned so much about things I didn’t know I didn’t know about. Brilliant!”

The Overlooked exhibition will not be just a four-month triumph.

It's so human-centred it took me by surprise
— Exhibition visitor

Much of its content will be acquired by the museum. Its co-curation approach is to be used for other projects. And, perhaps most importantly of all, the museum knows precisely how to nurture the next generation of empowered and innovative curators.  

Tiphanie Mellor