The serendipity of it all One definition which I like of 'serendipity' explains it as "the gift of finding valuable or agreeable things not looked for" & this makes me think of the first time I heard about the 'Young Archivist' course. The founder, CEO & artistic director of Serendipity*, Pawlet Brookes MBE, gave an engaging & powerful session at the Black Europe Summer School (BESS). I had just found out that I was successful in gaining my Leverhulme Fellowship & until I heard her speak, I didn't realise how much this course was exactly what I needed to prepare me! However, I was immersed in my postdoc which was coming to an end & couldn’t quite manage to fit the course into my schedule. While I was upset that I was unable to be part of the first cohort of this one-of-a-kind course, I kept in touch & eagerly awaited the applications to open for this year. After applying & getting an interview, I was so happy to receive the acceptance email &, like a child just before Christmas, my excitement grew as I eagerly waited to start the course. Serendipitously, on the first day of the course, when I walked into the room at the Serendipity* office, I met & was joined by other amazing Black & Brown women- some of whom I had already crossed paths with & others who I found out during the week I had connections with! Had I participated in the course last year, I wouldn’t have met them… The power of access, knowledge & ‘pushing back’ The 'Young Archivist’ course was created by Serendipity* to address the underrepresentation of Global Majority (a.k.a: Black, Asian & Minority Ethnic people) interested in &/or working in the heritage sector. Funded by the National Lottery Heritage Funded project, ‘Unearthed: Forgotten Histories’, it provides Global Majority 18-30 year olds who live & work in the UK the opportunity to learn from leading experts in the heritage sector. Its uniqueness lies in the fact that it is Black centred, fully funded, jam-packed & Continuing Professional Development (CPD) accredited. Also, once the course is completed, 'Young Archivists' are able to access new networks to gain ongoing mentorship & support to progress in their careers.
Over the course of a jam-packed week, we were provided with expert masterclasses around oral histories, digital archives, copyright & so much more. It was great to have direct access to experts & tailored knowledge which empowered what many of us are already doing, enhancing our practice.
Photo credit: Mel Larsen
This is so necessary because our (Global Majority people’s) absence in heritage spaces means that it is more difficult to get into the sector as we aren’t privy to the unwritten rules or members of the networks that teach you what they are. When you do get into the space, not only are you more likely to be the only one, but to remain there is often a struggle of finding our ‘place’ or having to work harder to take up necessary space. In many ways, this taking up of necessary heritage space requires ‘pushing back’ to the normalised way of seeing & doing things in the sector- which may not be conducive to our work, research interests, who we are or our communities. Some of these concerns are addressed in an article titled Being Black in the arts & heritage sector by paper conservator, Ashleigh Brown, where she writes:
“It is depressing to see that equal opportunity policies do not translate into widespread opportunities for black people. On a personal level, it is even more depressing to me that despite being Black & having equivalent experience & grades as my conservation peers & alumni, I've only been offered one role by a public institution in five years of applying consistently for every paper conservation role advertised in the Southwest of England, & I rarely get invited to interviews”.
I have recently been in spaces where Black elders proudly beam as they say that it is “my generation’s turn to continue the fight to transform everything for the better!” They feel like they have done their part so they can now pass on the baton. While I agree that some have done a lot & do need to rest & recover, & while this expectation & belief in our abilities is wonderful, I have often thought (& responded to some) that this is HUGE pressure & requires continued support due to the times we currently live in. I write this to say that Pawlet is an example of a Black elder not just saying “it’s your turn now!”, but proactively doing the work to provide my generation with the tools such as access, knowledge, strategies & empowerment to lay a tailored & solid foundation so that we can do this crucial work in a sustainable way. For that, I will eternally be grateful for this course!
From Leicester to London & back again The first 3 days of the course were spent in the classroom punctuated by a mid-week film viewing of The First Rasta- part of Serendipity*’s Black History Month offerings. The film reaffirmed my pride in my Jamaican culture & heritage providing me with new perspectives, histories & strength!
As a group we then travelled to London for the final 2 days. This worked well as we were able to see how theoretical knowledge can be applied in real-world heritage spaces. We got to have tours of the Stuart Hall Library & Archive collections at Iniva; viewed an exhibition & went behind the scenes in the archives at the Tate Britain. We also got to enjoy the multiple exhibitions at Autograph. I personally enjoyed the reflective, critical conversations we had amongst ourselves, during & between each activity, as we shared our well-informed opinions about our experiences at each place. It was also nice to add some well-needed colour & alternative perspectives- based on our lived experiences & expertise- into a lot of these places & our presence certainly turned heads! After an eventful two days, I ended up back in Leicester.
Who’s gaze are we looking through & why?
One of the things that was reconfirmed to me from this course is the importance of actively contextualising yourself & others when doing work in the heritage sector. There is also nothing wrong with being culturally specific which will both impact the gaze that we look through as well as the approach that we take. This is not an exclusionary practice as there are always a range of connections mainly because of the legacies of Britain’s disruption of the world- but one’s own positionality or identity is a good point to start from. I also loved to hear about others’ perspectives & experiences working in this field which is no doubt coloured by who they are. In particular, our conversation with Jean-françois Manicom, the newly appointed senior curator for the London Docklands museum, was thought-provoking to say the least & I loved hearing his philosophy on how galleries & exhibition spaces have “different tempos which collide”.
Currently heritage places like museums, archives & galleries, are shrouded by a white (often middle-class) gaze catering for their mainly white, middle-class audiences. Therefore, it is no surprise that Blackness (e.g. people, histories, knowledge, contributions, cultures, emotions etc.) rarely appears & that when it does, it is often distorted &/or represented problematically to fit into a small, oft-times funding-dictated & time-limited box.
As part of my current research project focused on the enslaved Africans who built Penrhyn castle, from whom I descend, I am looking forward to interrogating this white gaze of how the his/story has been presented by providing a more authentic, truthful & caring Black gaze- starting with myself & then including more through my research findings.
Photo credit: Deanna Lyncook
Stepping forward in “my fur coat & knickers”
I really appreciated this course for so many reasons including being well-fed & watered, as well as being amongst a small group of powerful, courageous, unapologetic, brilliant & determined Black & Brown women who each had her own style, path & purpose. It was great to be around like-minded people who are all doing the work in their neck of the woods & in which our participation on this course also exemplifies. It became apparent that we all cherished this sacred safe space that Serendipity* had created for us as part of the 'Young Archivist' course. As Collins (2000:110) explains:
“Historically, safe spaces were “safe” because they represented places where Black women could freely examine issues that concerned us….Black women’s safe spaces were never meant to be a way of life. Instead, they constitute one mechanism among many designed to foster Black women’s empowerment & enhance our ability to participate in social justice projects”.
Furthermore, the care & love as well as the joy shared throughout the week was so profound & moving- especially when we were often dealing with the realness of our intersectional oppression in the heritage sector & beyond.
So in summary, this is why I didn’t just become a 'Young Archivist', I became a Serendipity* 'Young Archivist'- armed with tailored tools, confidence & affirmation to continue stepping forward with my head held high, in my beautiful velvety, fluffy fur coat & my knickers- not without!
Big up Pawlet, Lauren, Hafsa, Tasmin & the rest of the Serendipity* team as well as the other 'Young Archivists'! I am so enriched & full. I highly recommend this course to anyone that would like a transformative experience.
For more reflections on the course, check out & listen to one of my coursemate’s, friend & soon-to-be Dr, Deanna Lyncook’s dedicated episode on her podcast ‘The History Hotline’: here.
Collins, P.H. (2000) Black Feminist Thought: Knowledge, Consciousness & the Politics of Empowerment, 2nd edition. London: Routledge.
Brown, A. (2020) ‘Being Black in the arts & heritage sector: Paper conservator Ashleigh Brown offers a reflection,’ The Institute for Conservation, 6 June. Available at: <Being Black in the arts & heritage sector (icon.org.uk)> (Accessed 9 November 2023).