Journeys to Oxford
‘This project has really opened up Oxford’s museums to give more people a voice and include more of the community.’
Josie Long, comedian
‘Journeys to Oxford’ was a community heritage project delivered between June 2016 to November 2017, celebrating the vibrant contributions made to the cultural life of Oxford by those who have travelled to the city to live, work, visit and study.
‘Journeys…’ was co-developed and co-delivered with a range of organisations and groups, consisted of a number of projects and events, and culminated in an exhibition co-created by several different communities. It was led by the Museum of Oxford’s Community Engagement Coordinator, Neil Stevenson.
Project activities were collaborative and participatory in nature. The aim was to create space and time for participants to reflect on their memories of their countries of origin, as well as experiences of coming to Oxford and making it their home. This was enabled through guided sessions where local artists supported participants in giving artistic expression to their reflections. The outcomes of these – objects such as a textile map, collages, a papier-mache sculpture, drawings, and more – were brought together in a free exhibition at the Oxford Town Hall (June – November 2017), which was attended by over 10,000 visitors.
A snapshot from the ‘Journeys to Oxford’ exhibition at the Town Hall.
An important goal of the project was ensuring participants got something of value from it; rather than pivoting it on what the Museum ‘wanted’ or ‘needed’, the community engagement coordinator focused on building meaningful relationships with participating groups, and developing an understanding of where the groups’ needs and the Museum’s offer could meet. An example of what resulted from this approach was a series of ESOL sessions carried out in Barton for a group of 8 learners who had the chance to share stories of their personal journeys, cultures and countries of origin.
Other elements of the project included: guided reminiscence sessions for older people; research on Welsh immigration to Oxford carried out by ‘Searchers’, a non-academic, accessible research group who meet weekly at the Museum; participatory arts activities at community events such as Oxford Mela (a Hindu community event in Rose Hill) and the Oxford Polish Association’s Community Fun Day in Blackbird Leys; and collecting oral history recordings from 8 Oxford residents, each of whom had come to live in Oxford from another country.
The decision to centre personal stories, artistic expressions and oral histories, rather than original objects, allowed for including a variety of voices which would have been limited had the Museum chosen to be object-led: even those stories of migration which are not marked by overt violence contain a possibility of a fractured life, one which isn’t always supported by a host of physical objects in the same way that settled lives are.
The positive impact of this flexible and story-centred approach can be seen both in its legacy, which I outline below, and in the diversity of project participants, who included: clients of Refugee Resource (local charity providing support to refugees), members of the Oxford Polish Association, members of the Oxford Hindu Temple and Community Centre Project, pupils at the Oxfordshire Hospital School and Bayard’s Hill Primary School, members of BKLUWO (a community organisation for women founded in 1999 by refugee women from Northern Uganda), Museum of Oxford international volunteers, and Museum adult learning groups. Over 300 active participants, ranging from 2 years old to those in their 90s, engaged in the project, with the majority saying they had not heard of or visited MoO before. Over 45 nationalities were represented.
Reflections of one participant in the ESOL workshops in Barton.
Connections made and nurtured during ‘Journeys…’ resulted in subsequent projects. In 2018, the Museum opened ‘Windrush Years: Next Generations’, an exhibition created in close partnership with BK Luwo and the Afrikan Caribbean Kultural Heritage Initiative (ACKHI); both these relationships were developed by Museum officers who led on ‘Journeys…’ Planning ‘Windrush Years’ was a galvanising point for creating a Windrush steering group, made up of representatives of the city’s cultural and community organisations, which now coordinates a programme of Windrush celebrations every year.
In 2019, the Museum contracted an Oxford University researcher, JC Niala, to conduct additional research based on the Journeys to Oxford theme; through her work, more stories of migration to Oxford were uncovered, and as a result new original objects will be loaned to the Museum in time for its re-opening in 2021 (following an extensive refurbishment). These include, for example, a miniature tuk-tuk representing Royal Taxi – a well-known local company started in 1991 by two Patan/Pashtun men, Mr S Khan and Mr N Mohamed.
And in 2019-20, the Museum has been carrying out ‘Mixing Matters’, a project designed and co-led by the Oxford Hindu Temple and Community Centre Project (OHTCCP), one of the Journeys to Oxford participants. Through ‘Mixing Matters’, we have worked with the Filipino Community of Oxfordshire, African Women in the UK, Nepalese Community of Oxford and the OHTCCP, documenting material and oral heritage relating to culinary traditions of the participating groups’ cultural backgrounds, and creating space to reflect on how these have been both upheld and changed in their life in the UK.
Overall, the impact of ‘Journeys…’ has been incredibly positive – new relationships were formed and impactful projects initiated. More importantly, it has been part of presenting a wider range of voices and a less known side to Oxford’s heritage. The word itself to many evokes white, Anglo-centric, immutable elitism; the outcomes of this project show a different story, one of a dynamic and ever-changing city where diverse communities settle, grow roots and build lasting relationships.
With time-bound projects like these, challenges are inevitable and they form part of the learning process. Here are a couple of questions we are still tackling – and will do so for a while to come, as I’m sure other similar institutions are.
In this project, we focused on the theme of migration, which allowed us to engage with new audiences. Going forward, how can we frame marginalised histories in a way which amplifies and centres traditionally excluded voices, but does not other them further through separating from the ‘main’ narrative?
In order to ‘dig deeper’, cultural institutions work through carrying out short-term projects which focus on particular themes and/or communities. How do we ensure long term legacy of short term projects and maintain relationships, especially in the current financial climate?
We hope that by asking these and other questions, and continuing to work with communities to find the answers, we will keep building a museum which is not just inclusive of diverse voices, but led by them.
I have worked as Community Engagement and Exhibitions Officer at the Museum of Oxford since September 2018. I have led on two community exhibitions: Healing Spaces, co-developed with the Oxfordshire Hospital School, and Queering Spires: a history of LGBTIQA+ spaces in Oxford, co-curated with members of Oxford’s LGBTIQA+ communities. I am currently delivering Mixing Matters, a food heritage project, in partnership with the Oxford Hindu Temple. Outside of work, I am co-chair of CAG Oxfordshire, a network of over 70 community groups who take action on issues relating to climate change, and co-lead one of them, the Oxford Food Surplus Café.