Social Media, South Asian Heritage Month and So Much More


As part of the OSCH/ Kick the Dust project, throughout 2020 and 2021, Manchester Museum recruited six impressive interns. As a result of COVID, the interns worked digitally and taught us so much about how young people can engage with heritage online in collaborative ways! I’ve asked each of the 6 interns to share their journeys and experiences with us, and what has resulted is 6 fascinating must-read accounts of young people writing about cultural heritage…

In this article, law student Roheema shares her experiences as a digital producer doing a range of activities including social media management, event organising and hosting, supporting work experience students and much more…

by Roheema Yasmin

As a Digital Producer for Manchester Museum, I created digital content for South Asian Heritage Month (SAHM) between July and August last year. This mostly consisted of working on the social media team therefore, I posted on Instagram, Twitter, Facebook and LinkedIn every day about the upcoming events and opportunities available to people during this month. I also helped create the calendar on the Manchester Museum in Quarantine website which highlighted the amazing variety of events being hosted during this month; for example, I attended the fashion bizarre panel discussion which discussed cultural appropriation versus cultural appreciation. It highlighted how people have immersed themselves into South Asian culture and the pros and cons of this.

Furthermore, I hosted a South Asian history panel discussion in collaboration with my colleague Hawwa Alam, with Shalina Patel, a history teacher and founder of @thehistorycorridor on Instagram, and with Salma Khaliq who is also a history teacher. We came together to discuss and explain different aspects of South Asian history, from India’s partition to the Liberation War. This was an amazing experience for me as someone who always felt like they were never truly represented in the history that they were taught at school, this opportunity allowed us to speak freely about our history and celebrate the great parts and also shed light on the more unattractive parts.

Additionally, as digital producer I had the opportunity to manage 8 work experience interns. They had the task of creating content and I helped mentor them to ensure they finished their projects on time. There was a range of projects from interviews to blog pieces to podcasts. It really was an amazing experience to work with them as they’re all so talented and I gained some new skills. I strengthened my leadership skills and teamwork skills which are vital skills to have.

Additionally, as digital producer I had the opportunity to manage 8 work experience interns. They had the task of creating content and I helped mentor them to ensure they finished their projects on time. There was a range of projects from interviews to blog pieces to podcasts. It really was an amazing experience to work with them as they’re all so talented and I gained some new skills. I strengthened my leadership skills and teamwork skills which are vital skills to have.

My most favourite moment of working at the Museum is definitely being interviewed by BBC Radio Manchester. Myself and my colleagues were interviewed by Talat Awan who asked us about how got involved in this role and why this month is so important to us. I was thrilled to share my own experiences as a South Asian woman and how representation is really important to me and I really appreciated this opportunity to share the amazing work would we be doing for SAHM and promote it to many other South Asians and non-South Asians to get involved. I definitely think 15-year-old Roheema would be very proud of this particular moment knowing that I helped contribute to the first ever SAHM in the UK and being able to have my voice heard on BBC Radio! 

What I learned from this experience was the importance behind this month. Being able to share so much history, culture and experiences demonstrated that South Asian history is crucial to Britain and in understanding why I am here today. If I was not aware of my own history, background and ancestry then I don’t think I would’ve been able to resolve the identity issues that 15-year-old Roheema seemed to have as after this month I felt like it finally gave South Asians a safe space and a month dedicated to them.

Moreover, the fantastic and creative parts of this job have been learning consistently. I don’t think I have stopped learning since day one in terms of training, knowledge, experience and skills. When I thought I knew one part of history, my role would allow me to explore this further and develop deeper into alternative narratives and gain a full picture of historical context which is always fascinating to read and learn. 

Finally, I’ve built some amazing relationships with my colleagues at the Museum. They have helped me gain and develop a plethora of skills ranging from digital content creation, time management and organisational skills and social media marketing skills which are impressive transferable skills to take way from this role and utilise future jobs.

In contrast, the first main challenge I faced in my role has probably been communication with other people to ensure the consistent branding promotion and marketing of the work that we did during SAHM. For example, there were many people working on this one month, however we needed to advertise all the promotional content through one channel, so this created some difficulty in communication and marketing. Eventually, we all worked together to promote the content effectively and it gained high exposure and insights on our social media platforms.

Another challenge I faced was time management. This is because I am a Law student at the University of Manchester, and I was also working at TK Maxx at the time alongside other extracurricular commitments. Therefore, I had to consistently balance my workload and all my other commitments to ensure I met deadlines on time. Fortunately, I have an amazing manager who was very supportive if I ever needed to take a day off work or needed some extra time to get back to him with something. 

On top of this, I think the amazing thing about being part of the OSCH Young Collective is that it’s already starting to create change and transform museums with the help of young people. It provides them with the crucial opportunities like workshops, panel discussions and podcasts to share the alternative narratives for museums to work with more young people in order to make it more accessible and appealing to them.

Furthermore, I think museums need to have close relations and build relationships with communities. This is to create community building and maintain their engagement so that they’re aware of how to get involved in museums are what is available to them and how they can get involved to showcase the modernisation of museums.

I would like to thank Baz, Sadia, my colleagues and Esme for this amazing opportunity to work at Manchester Museum. Baz and Sadia have been amazing mentors whilst working in this role and have shown me the importance of having more diverse representation in the museum and providing an avenue for the young people to get involved into museums. Ultimately, I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to work on SAHM and this internship was fortunately continued after this. Thank you so much to everyone at the museum for welcoming me and allowing me to celebrate who I am and educate others on my history.

Navigating Identity, Creating Space: My experience as a ‘digital producer’


As part of the OSCH/ Kick the Dust project, throughout 2020 and 2021, Manchester Museum recruited six impressive interns. As a result of COVID, the interns worked digitally and taught us so much about how young people can engage with heritage online in collaborative ways! I’ve asked each of the 6 interns to share their journeys and experiences with us, and what has resulted is 6 fascinating must-read accounts of young people writing about cultural heritage…

To kick off the series, we begin with Hawwa critically examining what it means to be a young person of colour navigating white eurocentric education and heritage sites…

by Hawwa Alam

I never particularly liked museums, or art galleries when I was younger. White walls, whispers, art you could not get close to and had to murmur under your breath about, avoiding the gaze of adults who would look at you disapprovingly for breaking the ‘aesthetic’ silence of the gallery. Or just: stuffed animals, objects in glass cases, small labels with bare minimum information that did not offer anything interesting to me – no cultural stories, very little living/social history, nothing that made me feel connected or represented. My opinions did not change even after starting university and studying history. The more I read about museums and public history, and the more places I visited and exhibitions I explored, the more disconnected I felt. Instead of encouraging a greater appreciation for such spaces, learning more about the past and the way it is currently represented made me dislike these institutions even more.

Studying history didn’t really allow me to find a group or a place of belonging to explore ideas and concepts and aspects of the past that meant a lot to me, that interested me, or that contributed to my own identity and existence, because the history I was offered was still that ‘bare minimum’. A week dedicated to ‘race’ or ‘gender’ or ‘slavery’. A module on colonial history and a module on Islamic history with lecturers who did not represent/were not related to any element of the knowledge they were teaching – and this is not to say they were not good teachers. Many of them were completely open to me finding alternative avenues within the given topics on offer that I could explore in more detail, & it doesn’t mean they did not have a right to become a specialist in such subjects – but it just goes to show the lack of effort at an institutional level that is given to cultivating a diverse and dynamic group of professors in higher education [not to mention the many reasons students of colour never become professors in the first place] to teach on topics that are close to them. In my entire time studying history, I was never taught by a single person who was Asian, and I’ve only ever seen one individual who was. Yet how many white professors were there? I couldn’t keep track.

Because of this experience, and the way I have existed around and within spaces of history and culture that have perhaps sometimes been about my identity, but never felt constructed or created for me (to contribute, to feel comfortable within) – I honestly hesitated a little when I saw the advertisement for the role of a ‘Digital Producer’ for Manchester Museum (to work on South Asian Heritage Month). I’d never seen a person of colour working in a museum space before, and I was scared that I would be working around people who again, would be attempting to build and develop a space they had no connection to besides their job, who did not have the lived experience and immersion into the culture/heritage they worked on to truly appreciate the need for nuance and alternative narratives when conveying SA history to an audience. Even if you are a renowned specialist in a topic, if you cannot walk a mile in someone’s shoes, you arguably can never truly understand how it is to live, to just exist and see the world from their perspective.

They always say people make the job – and it’s true. Without Sadia, and Baz (and my colleagues/the OSCH Collective!), OSCH would not be as wonderful as it is. Before, discussing & learning about my identity, culture, heritage and history made me feel empty. The conversations felt hollow. Yet for once in my life, being part of a space completely made up of people of colour, led by people of colour, felt so freeing. It meant I could discuss topics or comment on subjects that would have never even been a consideration, and I got to work on producing events and participating in workshops that I genuinely cared about, things that made me feel excited (which, within the museum industry and when related to non-Eurocentric narratives of history, is very rare).

Through the role, I participated in the ‘Whose Stories? Whose Statues’ project (thinking about alternative ways to view the act of memorialising, and working on creative responses), I spoke on BBC Radio Manchester about the importance of sharing South Asian history/heritage to a public audience, I was involved in a History Q&A Panel with two South Asian history teachers and my colleague Roheema (where we talked about hidden South Asian histories, navigating higher education as a person of colour history student and the importance of ‘decolonising’ the curriculum). I wrote a poem about my relationship with South Asian history and museum spaces which was picked up by a number of high schools in London and used in history classrooms/in school diversity trainings, and I have created posters/promotional material & participated in a whole number of other events: a workshop on the Birangona & the Bangladesh Liberation War, a series of creative workshops on colourism, monologues about identity, a poetry night, a podcast on belonging, and so many other events and opportunities that allowed me to learn & grow from the people around me.

Every now and then I wonder why other museums don’t follow the lead of Sadia, and how she has cultivated OSCH and created a space for young people to feel seen and heard and comfortable to express themselves, and to take the lead on projects and events they want to produce, because on the one hand – it’s not hard. If I learnt anything at all from my history degree and my studying related to public history, is that it’s really not difficult for big institutions to give people a voice. But then I remember why other museums don’t try: because people make it complicated. People who prefer ‘normalcy’ and ‘tradition’ and fear change because it disrupts what they are used to and what they know and what they prefer. Because it shifts power dynamics and highlights that hierarchies within creative and cultural institutions are fundamentally built on structural discrimination and institutional racism. Because it means assigning value to things that some don’t think are ‘worthwhile’. Allocating funding to initiatives that are too far removed from what they are ‘comfortable’ with. Reading for my public history course and my dissertation at university often brought up the issue of ‘funding’ and ‘time’ as a reason for the upkeep of tradition, but there is always money, and there is always time. It just depends on who you want to give it to, what you want to help grow, and what you think is or isn’t important.

I’ve seen the behind the scenes of how museums operate, either first-hand, from conversations with others or from people sharing their thoughts from other institutions, and how difficult it is for people of colour to exist within the creative/cultural/heritage industries, and it usually makes me feel angry. But that anger makes me want to keep going, and try anyway, and continue to be involved in places like OSCH, to see if anything will ever change, and to continue to help create spaces that so many young people want and wish for. My time working with and participating in OSCH events emphasised how incredible everyone I work with is. How many fantastic ideas they have for exploring and sharing their identity, culture and history and how – if they were given even more room and opportunity to grow, they would take up that space in such beautiful and inspiring ways.

One of the moments I will always remember from my role is from a conversation a few members of the collective had with Sadia, on a museum podcast about belonging. She encouraged us to reframe our understanding of our identity, and to move away from using the term ‘identity crisis’ to represent the way we feel about our faith/culture/heritage/history, and to instead question the reason for this narrative, rethink it, and to see (and feel comfortable with) identity as a process of learning and development that doesn’t necessarily need to have an endpoint, and hence is never in ‘crisis’, but rather just in constant growth. The discussion really epitomised for me my entire experience working for/participating in OSCH – a role where, yes, I developed my practical skills, but more importantly for me, where I was able to contribute towards building spaces where young people of colour felt comfortable sharing their thoughts and opinions in a variety of ways. As basic as that might seem to some, for people who haven’t felt comfortable their entire lives when discussing their identity, culture & heritage – or have never even had the opportunity to do so in a non-judgemental space – that opportunity/experience (for once) makes you feel so full.

The Gothic in Bangladesh

By Helen Abdul

It is common, when you are in Italy or in any European country, that you may have heard of ‘Bogeyman’ (in Italy, it is called ‘Uomo Nero’). It is a fantastical creature that scares, and kidnaps ‘bad children’ and it is used by many parents to frighten their children when they are being naughty. Underneath, there is a lullaby’s version of “Ninna Nanna Ninna Oh” that briefly mentions the Bogeyman (Uomo Nero). 

“Ninna nanna, ninna oh,

questo bimbo a chi lo do?

Lo darò alla Befana

Che lo tiene una settimana

Lo darò all’Uomo Nero

Che lo tiene un anno intero

Lo darò all’Uomo Bianco

Che le tiene finché è stanco

Lo darò al Saggio Folletto

Che lo renda Uomo perfetto!

Lo darò alla sua mamma

e il bimbo fa la nanna!”

Text from (2017) 

However, in this article, I will focus on how the Bangladeshi parents and relatives usually scare the children and my personal experiences of horror based on my memories. 

I visited Bangladesh when I was around seven or eight years old. We had to visit someone in Dhaka, the children that lived in that apartment told us that we could not go outside at evening and night because, at that time, there were trees that welcomed the ghosts inside their trunk and roots. Now that I contemplate, it is analogous of when my ‘aunties’ in Manchester advised me to not take the children out during the Maghrib time because ‘jins’ will do something to their children’s heads.

Note = jins are creatures made of fire, unlike angels and humans who were made of light and clay, respectively. They are invisible (like the angels) but have free will (like humans) and it is said that the majority of them are ill-natured and hence follow the ‘Damned One’. 

I am not completely sure of how this works and if I must admit neither my mom mentioned such hadith or verse of the Qur’an in regard to the fact that children cannot stay out at evening time. Mom never practiced such act when me and my sisters were little – even though she comes from a religious family. Therefore, I think that this ‘routine’ may depend on different families’ background or education.  

Yet, few days ago, as I was watching a natok (drama) with my dad – the mother of the protagonist pleaded her ‘now adult child’ to close the windows and doors during the evening, revealing the same precaution of the mentioned auntie.

I visited Bangladesh at different times.

Still when I was little, my nanu (maternal grandmother) used to tell us ghost stories on her bed – the one that I reminisce was about dogs, but I do not remember more details than that. She used to make us mango sweets with her bare hands and my sister would eat them instantly – she simply adored those bittersweet sheets of desiccated mango. 

I still recall when my cousins and I watched a Hindi horror movie – one by one, all characters just turned into lifeless skeletons and that alone scared me a lot! The night with my cousins finished in us throwing the glitter all around us – a decision which I paid harshly as I was itching my arms and body continuously. 

I used to spend most of my time swinging on a black, metal, Indian styled swing, in fufu’s (paternal aunt, dad’s sister) balcony. Although it got really hot in certain parts of the day, I just enjoyed staying in that balcony. Fufu used to let my sister and me watch Thakurmar Jhuli, a cartoon where a lady narrated episodes of monsters and fairy tales. 

Myself, I believe that I encountered a ‘jin’…

When I was around fourteen, before leaving Narayanganj to come to Dhaka, my cousins organised a sleepover-party. However, I could not participate as one of my kalamuni (maternal aunt, mom’s sister), requested me to sleep with her for that night. I was not enthusiastic as I really wanted to have more time with my cousins but also knew that kalamuni had a hard day as well.

I was sleeping on the floor and woke up in the middle of the night for no reason. 

I saw a figure on my nanu’s sofa. It appeared to be a bald child with a streak of hair behind his head. It was so thin that he seemed ‘pointy’ (his bones were visible) but had a rounded belly. I tried to wake up kalamuni (who was sleeping close to me), and when I told her what I saw she dismissed me with ‘kicchu na, ghumate jao’ (it is nothing, go to sleep). I hid beneath my blanket, and recited suras. 

I tried to check whether the creature was still on the sofa. It disappeared. However, a big cockroach quickly flew on my face as I opened my blanket. I panicked and moved to remove it immediately!

Morning came, my cousin (I will call her X) came in the room I was sleeping in. She was surprised! She saw that in my place, ‘cousin Y’ was sleeping close to kalamuni. She went to the sleepover-party room. She saw ME sleeping with my cousins. She again rushed to the first room. This time, it was me who was sleeping near kalamuni and cousin Y with the other cousins! 

I was scared when she told us this!

I revealed my encounter and my mama (paternal uncle, mom’s brother) told us that there were indeed ‘jin’s baccha’ (jin’s children) on our location. I went in the shower in the highest floor of nanu’s house, obviously for the same reason that I wanted to stay away from that dreaded room I was sleeping in. I was alone. When I tried to come out from the bathroom, I could not. Someone locked me inside the bathroom! I screamed as much as I could – no one showed up. Eventually, my youngest cousins (they were around three to five years old) reached and went instantly to tell others that I was blocked. 

Uncle freed me and I was momentarily shocked – indeed I cannot remember what happened next. I highly suspected that it was a jin – first the cockroach and second me being locked in the bathroom when nobody was present in the highest floor. 

Note – it may not be Bangladeshi, but I have a movie recommendation. It is a Hindi movie, called Bhool Bhulaiyya (2007). It enhances the fascination of the South Asia’s ghost stories and their mystical auras through Manjulika (a Bengali dancer) and Avni, one of the protagonists of the movie. 


From Persecution to Peace:

By Nadia Shamas

My parents made the decision to migrate from our country and fight for a new kind of independence – religious freedom, as we are part of a Muslim minority – the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community. To this day our community still persecuted in many parts of South Asia and the world.

Moving to the UK was one of the hardest decisions my parents made. Even now they are reminded of the houses they used to live in with their open roofs and beautiful courtyards. But above all else, they never forget the community they were born, raised, and loved in. My dad tells me stories about the mosque that he used to go to everyday. He particularly remembers getting ready in his traditional shalwar kameez for Jummah prayers while multiple adhans would be recited from all the mosques nearby. Although there is a sense of fondness in his tone, there is also a hint of sadness as he explains that the greatest day of the week involved meeting, greeting, and praying alongside his loved ones – it also required him to stand outside his beloved mosque and act as a point of security for all the women and children who had braved to visit the mosque.  

It is still surprising for me to think that despite the fact that my family performed the duty of every Muslim by going to the mosque for the five daily prayers, helping those in need and by pledging their allegiance to the one Allah and His prophet Muhammad (peace and blessing be upon him) pbuh, they were still always in constant danger. There had been instances where they would come to know that a fellow Muslim brother had his business looted and then his shop burnt to the ground. Other times you would hear an entire family had been sieged in their own homes and the fathers and sons had been fired at, resulting in them being martyred. All because they were Ahmadi Muslims.  

As Ahmadi Muslims, we believe that the coming of the Promised Messiah which many religions have prophesised has been fulfilled. We believe that this prophecy was completed by the birth of a humble man, known as Hazarat Mirza Ghulam Ahamad (May Allah’s peace be upon him) as. He as was born in India in a village in the Punjab known as Qadian. His sole purpose in life was to bring people back to the religion of Islam and propagate the true to teachings of Allah and His holy prophet Muhammad pbuh.

Hazarat Mirza Ghulam Ahamad as, the Founder of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community and The Promised Messiah.

Hazarat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad as tried to fulfil the divine decree given to him by God through writing over 80 books on various theological and religious aspects, by holding various seminars and religious conventions – which to this day our community practises, but most of all through his own actions. Just last week, our community worldwide celebrated our 133rd ‘Masih e Maud day’ or ‘The Promised Messiah day,’ which represented 133 years since the founding of the Ahmadiyya Muslim community.

After the demise of Hazarat Mirza Ghulam Ahmad as, the community of 400,000 Ahmadi Muslims continued to preach the message of Islam under the guidance of their new leader, the Caliph of the promised messiah, known as Khalifah tul Masih I. As time moved on our community saw many remarkable men take the role of Khalifah tul Masih and continue the legacy which began by The Promised Messiah as. In current times, the worldwide head of Ahmadi Muslims, Hazarat Mirza Masroor Ahmad (May Allah be his helper)adba, Kalifah tul Masih V, guides our community which has flourished in over 200 countries and has over 10 million followers. 

The Ahmadiyya Muslim community has faced a lot of persecution over the course of 133 years, more so in Pakistan, whereby we are declared non-Muslims. There are many upsetting accounts in our history, the most recent and large scale one being the Lahore attacks in 2010, whereby over 120 Ahmadi Muslims were injured, and 87 were martyred in simultaneous attackes taking place during Friday prayers in two mosques. Our mosques have been covered in the blood of peaceful worshippers and families have lost loved ones. 

I will never forget the day when I was walking home from school with my mother in year 4 and she told me what had happened. As a child you don’t fully realise the extent of hurt and pain that such horrific acts cause. But when I saw the footage of our mosques in Lahore stained with the blood of my fellow Ahmadi Muslims and the livestream of the mass funerals of all 87 Ahmadi Muslims being held, it seemed as if there had been an immense hole punched into not just me, but my parents, my family and my entire community. That was the day I truly recognised how blessed I had been to be raised in a country where religious freedom was a right which was upheld. 

An Anti-Ahmadi, police officer scraping off the Shahadah (the pledge of a Muslim) on an Ahmadi Muslim’s mosque in Pakistan.

The Ahmadiyya Muslim community while originates from Qadian, moved its headquarters to a village in Pakistan, after the partition in 1947, called ‘Rabwah,’ formally known as ‘Chenabnagar,’ after the controversy arisen by non-Muslims in Pakistan who believed that we cannot use the word ‘Rabwah’ as it is mentioned in the Holy Qur’an and since they do not consider us Muslims they believe we do not have the right to name the place after a word in the holy book. Nevertheless, the rise of anti-Ahmadis and the increased danger on our lives continued, therefore, the fourth caliph, Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad ra made the heart-breaking decision to leave his country and his people so he could relocate the entire headquarters of the community to London.

In 1984, after a very risky journey, by the grace of God, Hazarat Mirza Tahir Ahmad ra reached London. Here he moved into Fazal Mosque, an important location for Ahmadi Muslims, in Southfields, a town of Wandsworth. It is here in the Fazal Mosque, where we continued to flourish and promote peace among people more than ever before.  In 1994, Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahamad ra launched MTA – Muslim Television Ahmadiyya – a family friendly TV broadcasting channel to propagate the peaceful message of Islam. 

Fazal Mosque in Wandsworth, London. 

A lot was achieved during the caliphate of Hazrat Mirza Tahir Ahmad ra but one that I will always be eternally grateful for is the establishment of our community in Manchester. In 1992 on 15 Greenheys Lane, situated in the City of Hulme, The Darul Aman Mosque was established. This mosque would become a hub for not only the few Ahmadi Muslim families living in the city of Manchester at the time, but twenty years later Darul Aman would once again go through reconstruction and achieve a much bigger purpose.   

The Darul Aman mosque, just like every mosque, was not only built for the use of the Ahmadiyya community, it was built for the entire community of Manchester. It was created to be a centre where people from all backgrounds could come together to learn, educate, and uplift one another. It was built in the hopes that one day, when the community would increase in numbers, they could serve humanity for the better and indeed, that is exactly what happened. 

It became a place where interfaith seminars would be held, blood drives would take place so people could donate blood. It became a place where charity fundraisers would be organised, where the annual peace symposium would take place. Which is an annual convention where MPs from all the boroughs of Manchester come together to discuss what more can be done to achieve peace and cohesion between all communities. It has also developed to be a place for primary schools, high schools, and University students to come and learn about the pure and peaceful teachings of Islam. 

I still remember the day of the inauguration in 2012 very clearly. Amid all the excitement to see the new look of our dear mosque, the greatest excitement was the fact that Hazrat Mirza Masroor Ahmad adba, Khalifah tul Masih V, was travelling all the way from London to Manchester to officially inaugrate the mosque and give his keynote address. During his address, I remember finally learning what “Darul Aman” meant – The place of complete peace and security and now that I reflect upon this, I realise why our Caliph decided on naming our mosque as such. 

Nearly a decade later, I can say that we as a community try to live by our motto of “Love for all, Hatred for none” and as my experience as an Ahmadi Muslim woman has enriched I have realised, that while we try to uphold a sense of justice for all people in our society, the same has been done for us. People have welcomed our mosque and our community with open hands, they have listened and accepted us. Darul Aman did not become a place of peace and security on its own, rather it was the people who accepted us and were willing to open themselves to us just like we did. It is these people who finally gave us the freedom that all people deserve. It is the entire community which made Darul Aman a place of peace and security. 

This is why when I still hear of the suffering and persecution of my fellow Ahmadi’s in countries such as Pakistan, Bangladesh and Algeria, I have hope. As South-Asians living in the UK, we are becoming more understanding of one another, realising how our roots unite us and that there is strength in this unity. While, at the same time, willing to educate ourselves on the differences between us. Today’s South-Asian youth has become much more accepting of my religious background and that through this understanding we are able to appreciate one another on a larger level than our ancestors could. We understand that there are things that set us apart from one another but we all can unite and strive for a better world, however this takes courage and the need for people to take a stand. Never has the South- Asian’ youths been more determined for this cause than today. The simplest proof of this is the fact that you have read this article which if I was back in Pakistan wouldn’t have been possible. 

Since the origin of the Ahmadiyya Muslim Community we have had to sacrifice a lot to be where we are today and there are still many who are suffering injustice because of their beliefs. But as I have grown and learned when we as a community extend the hand of friendship to one another, we forge stronger connections and bonds that outlast the hatred formed. As a result, this is the very reason I know I can hope that Ahmadi Muslims, despite being a minority, can continue to spread peace and one day be liberated by the constraints of the intolerance by the few members of society. May Allah bless all efforts which strive in the name of peace and may He protect all those who suffer injustices across the world. Ameen! 


Adhan – Call to prayer, in the Islamic faith, before any prayer the Adhan is recited in order to let people know that it is time to pray

Allah – the Islamic term for God 

Caliph/Khalifah tul Messiah: The spiritual leader and head of the worldwide Ahmadiyya Muslim community. The current Caliph is the Khalifah tul Messiah V, Hazarat Mirza Masroor Ahmad adba

Jummah Prayer – Jummah translates to Friday. So Jummah prayers relates to Friday prayers which are a holy day for Muslims where they will go to the mosque, listen to the Friday sermon and preform their Friday prayers under one Imam

Shalwar Kameez – the traditional Pakistani dressing for men and women. It consists of a khurta (a long shirt) and a Shalwar (a pair of loose-fitting trousers which taper to a narrow fit around the ankles)

Salutations: ‘pbuh’- Peace and blessings of Allah be upon him, ‘as’ – May Allah’s peace be upon him, ‘adba’ – May Allah be his helper, ‘ra’ – May Allah be pleased with him

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Museums Are Trees

By Mymona Bibi

Why do some love going to museums? Why do others avoid them? 

Why do so many simply not care?

There are a range of museum visitors. Some go to study specific objects or cultures, some hope to admire famous art and artefacts and some simply walk in for the café on their lunch break. Many people, however, would not even count themselves as any kind of museum visitor – this group may have been on a few school trips to local museums and felt no connection – therefore having no reason to return in their own time. Consequently, perhaps these people never cultivated any connection to the institutions around them. These people are often described as ‘unreachable audiences’. But we may do better to call them ‘unreached audiences’

Everyone has a culture, a connection – a way into the museum. If a group of people haven’t found their way in and haven’t formed their connection, it’s not through any fault of their own. It’s because they haven’t been connected. In fact, somewhere, somehow, they have been disconnected. 

When we think of ‘connections’, a prominent image that springs to mind is that of trees. For example, we often make family trees to portray our connections to our families and near ancestors. 

I would imagine the museum to be a tree. A large, fruitful plant. 

One who may love going to museums looks up at it and is in awe at the beauty this plant holds. From the small intricate details on objects, to the large, marble columns that often loom over them; they admire it all. Inside, the well-lit rooms radiate like bright, green leaves – showing our loving museum visitor that the museum is healthy, nourishing and strong. 

We trust that there is a wealth of knowledge behind the scenes, tying the different branches across galleries together. We can’t see it, but we know it’s there – we trust that the museum is doing its job. 

I want this metaphor to help us reconfigure our view of museums and the work that goes into – and should go into –  the growth of heritage institutions.

So why do others avoid museums?

Perhaps they see more than the fruits and the branches and the trunk. They have been pushed down enough to see the roots. The hidden birthplace of the tree.

And what do we see here? Most of these roots are rotten. They are infested and drained of life. Their rot spreads through the soil, touching our feet unknowingly.

So why are these roots rotten? Who is it that is seeing these rotten roots – and more importantly, who is it that cannot see these rotten roots? 

Firstly, we must realise what it is that has caused the rot. To put it simply, where the origin and foundation of the museum plant lies is rotten. Two important examples are the collections of Pitt Rivers in Oxford and the collections of Sir Hans Sloane in London. These collections can be viewed as prime examples of the rotten roots of the museum plant. The reason for this is because they were both rich, white men who had the resources and ability to travel, explore and acquire objects through various problematic means. Sir Hans Sloane was a well-known slave owner – therefore, his collections were acquired through the riches he enjoyed as a result of generations of suffering. Thus, their collections were acquired through immoral means and cruel funds. These collections (and many others!) are deeply rooted in colonialism and the colonial project – that is, to cherry-pick other cultures and hold the fruit in the white man’s hand without understanding its roots. As a result, they stole and removed objects from people. These objects now sit beautifully in tidy cases – shining like the brightest apples in a vast orchard.

Now, why do some view the rot on these roots and others don’t?

Well, it’s very easy to look over the disease of a plant when the fruits are so exquisite. Noticing the rotten roots itself is a difficult, even painful, task – especially if you are a person of colour unable to reach the fruits that were once yours. As a working class Bangladeshi, I have been forced to see these roots: they have been much more within my line of vision than the collections themselves. 

Lastly, what’s the point of this metaphor? Individuals should know, whether you go to museums or not, whether you care or not, that there is work being done. Hard work being done to pull out these infested, rotten roots.

To take out the rot of a tree so beautiful is not a simple task but a complicated procedure. First, we must get into the dirt and soil and remove them to reveal that which is hidden; showing those who look up at the fruits of the tree what is hiding down below. To recognise the aspects of the history that allowed for the museum institution to grow so vastly. 

The more we expose the roots, the more people will help us pull them out. 

Once these roots are out in the open, with people carefully tearing them out we can start making room for healthy roots. As a result, the beauty of the tree will multiply as it becomes more and more healthy from the roots upwards. 

If the space for healthy roots are not made then we might suffer a certain deterioration of the modern museum structure. Why? Because those who are seeing the rot are moving further and further away from the fruits – they become tainted. Already we can see – through the rise of campaigns such as #MuseumsAreNotNeutral – that people are beginning to question the point and standing of museums. The tree is slowly moving away from a beautiful structure some look up and admire – and moving towards a problematic institution.

What makes the process of ‘pulling out’ bad roots so difficult is the fact that so many people do not realise them. And in most case, you cannot blame them; when the noise and beauty is at the top it is much easier to look up than to look down. So, we need more noise in the soil, in the roots, in the dirt that consumes some of us. Down here, in the foundation of the museum tree, the difficult process needs power that it currently does not have. 

Nevertheless, we must be aware that this process is underway. For example, there are projects like 100 Histories in 100 Worlds in 1 Object that show the roots of the stories behind objects. But this is one of many small projects. It is time for everyone else to look down once in a while, to try to get involved with the messy work being done down here. It may not be shiny and fruitful yet – but over time the growth of the tree will never end. 

Recently, there has been a rise of discussion and debates around what it means to ‘decolonise the museum’. This metaphor encapsulates how I have always viewed the museum: as a beautiful structure grown from cruel actions and cruel thought processes. I avoided the word ‘decolonisation’ for the most of this article as the current debates and discussions have clouded people’s understandings of what the museum is about. The fruits of the museum – although extraordinary and admirable – are not half as important as the roots, the people from which these objects and stories came from. 

Overall, I hope that this metaphor is a reminder that the decolonisation process will be slow, and that every root pulled out and every individual effort is always worth it. Through the metaphor of the tree and its roots, we can see how decolonising the museum is not an easy and clean task; it is a long, complicated and difficult procedure – it means getting stuck in dirt and soil every once in a while and understanding that this process does not end. But it needs to focus on those roots, on the messiness of the soil and the immense pain that hides beneath this great, beautiful tree.

Further reading:

UK Culture Secretary: “Impossible” to Give Parthenon Marbles Back

Click to access Tuck%20and%20Yang%202012%20Decolonization%20is%20not%20a%20metaphor.pdf

Being of Mixed Indian Heritage and Reframing the Identity Crisis

As someone with mixed Indian heritage, and growing up in a country outside of the ones my parents were born in, I would say that my family forms the definition of my community. In the Cambridge dictionary, this is described as people living in a particular area, or people who are considered as a unit because of their common interests, social group or nationality.  When I reflect on my own “identity crisis” I cannot  help thinking about my dad, who shares many identities and belongs to many communities, as a Parsi (Persian Zoroastrian), an Indian, a South African and as of recently, a British citizen.

Hannah’s parents in Cullera, Spain

Britain’s past weighs on our present, and learning about it means a better insight into race and migration. Unpicking my dad’s identities has helped me navigate my own and better understand the complex history behind Britain’s relationship with South Asia. 

In 1967 my father was born into a Parsi family in Durban, South Africa, with colonialism shaping their lives. My grandparents, after initially emigrating from Mumbai to Mozambique, moved to the coastal city of Durban in South Africa. Because South Africa was under apartheid, a system of institutionalised racial segregation, my grandparents were fortunate in that they could send my father to boarding school in Britain to achieve a better quality of education. At the age of 8, my father was living 8000 miles from home, only visiting his parents during the Christmas holidays, an aspect which has contributed to him feeling removed from his Indian culture and heritage. It was when he was accepted by the University of Nottingham under the British Council Scholarship for South African students that he met my mum, who came to Nottingham on an Erasmus exchange programme from Spain. 

Until recently, my experience of being mixed has been overridden by a sense of not feeling comfortable claiming all aspects that I am. One example was when I was applying for this position, as Community Producer intern for the South Asia Gallery at Manchester Museum. Despite being of Indian heritage, I have also been fairly culturally removed from my father’s Parsi community and its culture. I was therefore concerned with my positionality, and whether I was taking up space that would be better suited to someone more in touch with their South Asian heritage. This sense of imposter syndrome is something that I have been subconsciously carrying with me throughout this internship, and it is baggage that I want and need to let go of. 

Following last week’s podcast with Manchester Museum, which explored the many ways we feel like we belong (or not) as members of the diaspora in Britain, I have been thinking deeply about my responses to some of the questions. In one part of the podcast, Sadia asked me what ethnicity I felt I had a stronger affinity with. The question threw me off completely as it is an aspect of my identity that I feel I am constantly struggling with. Thinking about this question in more detail, I can formulate a clearer and more definitive answer: whilst I currently have a closer cultural connection with my Spanish side, in most cases, I am instantly perceived as Indian due to my appearance.  I will never be able to shoehorn myself into only one aspect of my identity – and I am still learning to feel comfortable with that, especially in a society that is constantly leading me to believe I must be having a crisis if I do not belong in one place. In turn, being asked this question has pushed me to face up to these difficult questions that I so often avoid, and do the necessary internal work.

Hannah (left) with her sister, Leah, circa 2008

Whilst my sister Leah and I have always had open conversations with our parents about our sense of belonging, it was our grandmas that played the largest role in understanding our heritage. I think when it comes to feeling like you belong, the elderly really do hit different.  I was fortunate enough to spend holidays in India, South Africa and Spain and learn more about my ancestry through spending time with them. On my mum’s side, my ‘iaia’ (Valencian for grandma) experienced living under Franco’s regime in Spain. When we would walk down the streets in Cullera (my mum’s home town) we would trace the routes she would walk with her friends and she would recount the failed attempts of men that would frequently lean out their windows and try and serenade them with guitars (can it get more Spanish?). My grandma on my dad’s side was an activist campaigning in South Africa’s fight against apartheid and one of the first Indian doctors in South Africa to be in a managerial position in a hospital – her strength was something I most admire. They have both instilled me with values and memories I will keep forever. My heart goes out to grandparents and the elderly everywhere, I think they can have such a big role in teaching us what we will never learn at school. 

I wanted to write a piece on the complexities involved in being a person of mixed heritage, but I didn’t want this piece to only emphasise the internal struggles of never quite fitting in anywhere. There are also great strengths that come with being #BothNotHalf which I do want to highlight. As I can only speak of my own experience, I’ve asked my good friend Chaitanya to join me in conversation to hear more about what her mixed Indian heritage means for her, and our different experiences with identity and belonging.

Hannah Rustomjee (21), identifies as Spanish and South African-Indian, Studies Human Geography at the University of Manchester and is a Community Producer Intern at the Manchester Museum.

Chaitanya circa 2002

Scrolling through the Instagram page ‘Mixed Race Faces’ and seeing all of the beautiful people, made up of a myriad of different ethnicities, skin tones, cultures and religions it becomes so clear that there is no one way to be mixed-race. But, where do I fit in? This is a question that I have been consciously (and subconsciously) battling with for some time now. How do people perceive me and how do I perceive myself? In fact, how do these two questions intertwine in a way that influences my identity? Perhaps, there has become an invisible and silent stereotype or standard that we (mixed-raced) people feel like we must live up to in order to be worthy of the title? For example, are we light enough, dark enough, “exotic” enough, caucasian enough? Not only appearances, but also what role do languages play into this; can we speak the language(s) that are intimately connected to our family history? More importantly, at what point are we actually mixed enough to be that certain “percentage”? I believe that these silent stereotypes infiltrate and interfere with our freedom to identify ourselves, and the way that we feel like we belong and fit in somewhere in society. I believe this to be fundamental to the “identity crises” that many mixed-raced people are facing today – or at least, it is for me.

I am both, not “half”, English and Indian – my mum is White-British and my dad is British-Asian. I am always amused that people immediately envision my dad being born and raised in India, with a thick accent. The question is, if my dad wasn’t British Asian, would this make me feel more secure in my mixed-race identity? However, my dad grew up in a house in Ealing, North-London, which was fully packed with Gujarati mums, dads, uncles, aunties, cousins and his little brother. My grandparents are Gujarati but lived in Uganda where they were forced to flee to England by Idi Amin in the 1970s. Following long conversations that I have recently had with my Baa (Grandma) and Bapa (Grandad), I have been told that there is a cultural difference between Gujaratis from East-Africa and those from India. Even this detail has made me reflect on how culturally different people can be even if in some ways they are also culturally the same. Furthermore, this illuminates that there are endless possibilities of mixes and intricacies which define a person’s unique identity – there are many different ways to be mixed race.

(From left to right) Chaitanya’s baa, uncle, dad and bapa

My parents are not together and have been separated since I was three. I think this is something that has exacerbated my feeling of otherness as I feel like I never really “fit”. My parents met at college studying acupuncture, and after falling in love my Mum became pregnant with me. They had known each other for three months. From my understanding, my Indian family were uncomfortable with the thought of my dad having a baby with an English woman, this was not understood as the norm and seen as quite controversial within the community that my dad and his family belonged to. Perhaps as migrants, they were trying to navigate a place for themselves within a foreign country. I understand this as the tension between trying to maintain their culture and values whilst simultaneously moulding to another new one. Even when they didn’t ‘mould’, society found a way to make them more palatable. One example is how my grandmother is called Jenny instead of her actual name, Chandrika, at her workplace, despite having the same colleagues for almost 20 years. 

After separating, my Mum has married an Englishman and my Dad has married a British-Gujarati woman. Although this was unintentional, it is interesting to consider when exploring ideas of where people feel they best belong and how race can play a role in this. I have one English sister and one Indian sister which is something that I believe, once again, sometimes accentuates my feeling of not belonging – I am light in comparison to my Indian family and darker than my English family. Because of my skin tone, when I meet new people I am immediately labelled as white and I am never perceived as being half-Indian. This has been frustrating at times and has led me to feel insecure and doubt how worthy I am of being called mixed-race. It makes me question whether I am Indian “enough”. For me, being mixed is  rooted in this very notion and has dominated the way that I have perceived myself for years. It was only once I met Hannah that I began to feel empowered and like I belong as a mixed-race face.

Chaitanya and her parents at a relatives wedding / Chaitanya, her grandparents, and her mum

This is only a glimpse of mine and my family’s story, but I hope that this is a reminder that you do not have to fall into one of the stereotypes to be mixed-race. Whether you are 10 or 90 percent of something, you should have the freedom to define who you are in terms of where you feel that you best belong. I want you to know that you are enough, you are adequate, you are special and unique, and you and your story fit in right next to mine and Hannah’s.

We would love to hear your story and speak to you. Please reach out. Let’s open up a conversation and make a place for us to feel like we belong.

Chaitanya’s message to Hannah shortly after writing this

Chaitanya Makwana, (21). Currently living in Brighton and soon to be an International Development graduate at The University of Sussex. Both English and Indian. More importantly, Hannah’s Erasmus wife.

A conversation on our mixed Indian heritage

Screenshot from the conversation which can be viewed here: 

In this conversation, we ask ourselves why we divide ourselves up into fractions of different ethnicities, how we are perceived, and the role that this has played in how we identify. Whilst I talk about how frustrating I find it when people prioritise plotting my family tree the first time I meet them, Chaitanya contrastingly speaks of her experience as not being recognised as Indian ‘enough’ and how this has affected her sense of belonging. Chaitanya highlights how her concerns regarding belonging, positionality and privilege also extend to her career, such as questioning whether she has the right to tick the ‘BAME box’ when applying for jobs. Amongst these topics, we also attempt to unpack the motives behind terms such as “coconut”, and finally, we reflect on safe spaces for people of mixed heritage and how having difficult conversations can help to move us towards reframing our “identity crises”. 

As a disclaimer, we both want to emphasise that we are not speaking on behalf of the experiences of all mixed people. Secondly, we both recognise that there is so much more to identity other than how you are instantly perceived, however, for the purpose of this conversation we are focusing on race. Finally, we also acknowledge the privilege that we have in being able to navigate different spaces and also (depending on context) being perceived as ‘racially ambiguous’ in a society that continues to prejudice those it has racialised.

For the people reading this that identify with being of mixed heritage and are struggling with their own sense of belonging:

“Both Not Half is a rewording and a rewiring of our minds. None of us are half anything. All of us are both something.”Jassa Ahluwalia

Comic drawing by Lilina Butler

Please feel free to reach out to us: Chaitanya Makwana and Hannah Rustomjee studies Human Geography at the University of Manchester.

Finally, my sister, Leah, is a film director and is currently researching for a short-film in development with BFI South West. We’d be really grateful if you could fill out this survey if you have a sibling and identify as mixed-race. Thank you!

References Mentioned in Conversation

Katucha Bento – 

Mixed Race Faces – 

The Halfie Project Podcast – 

Stuart Hall (1999). Un‐settling ‘the heritage’, re‐imagining the post‐nationWhose heritage?, Third Text, 13:49, 3-13, DOI: 10.1080/09528829908576818

Sarah Smith’s 2021 Census Thoughts:

Recommended Resources

Twitter thread on BAME term: 

Twitter thread on world poetry day about diaspora and language, poem is ‘Homeward’ by Bassey Ikpi –

Strange Origins Podcast –  ‘Identity crisis in mixed race people’

Refinery29 Article – ‘Let’s Stop this Offensive Term from Making a Comeback ‘ 

Young People’s Film Recommendations: Helen Abdul

Thank you to Shafia Fiaz and Hawwa Alam for producing the graphics and to Samihah Mudabbir for collating all the recommendations.

Khabhi Khushi Kabhie Gham:

My favourite part of this film was the “confession scene” in the final part of the movie. When Yash, the father, declared his love to his son, Rahul, and asked forgiveness from both his sons. They ended the scene peacefully, while Yash was welcoming and accepting Anjali. I remember that even my father cried during that scene. 

“Raichand”-  The name and the respect have been given to us by our ancestors. To honour and respect them is our foremost duty. And I will never tolerate an ordinary girl becoming a hurdle… in performing that duty. You didn’t even think once… about the background of the girl, her status… her breeding.”

This movie touches upon the concept that in some cultures one’s caste or surname is more prestigious than others. It is this notion that divided people in being rich and poor. The father (Yash) also used the verb “breeding”, hence portraying those who have an “inferior surname” to be animal-like. It represents a superiority complex as well as the discrimination against people who have certain surnames.

Young People Film recommendations: Ciara Garcha

Thank you to Shafia Fiaz and Hawwa Alam for producing the graphics and to Samihah Mudabbir for collating all the recommendations.

Bend it Like Beckham:

One of the first times I saw a British Punjabi Sikh family like my own represented in film!

Viceroy’s House:

Whilst I think it’s a little kind in its presentation of the Mountbattens, it really shows the devastation and brutality of Partition, as well as giving an insight into the political/diplomatic/intellectual context of the tragedy.

Young People’s Film Recommendations: Rowan Hasan

Thank you to Shafia Fiaz and Hawwa Alam for producing the graphics and to Samihah Mudabbir for collating all the recommendations.

When They See Us:

My favourite scene was the ending where we see one of the boys who was wrongfully convicted, now offers others a free legal service to help with overcoming injustices in the legal system that he personally was a victim to.

This series is based on a real event where 5 young boys were wrongfully convicted and follows how they were unjustly treated in the criminal justice system. It exposed in detail how unfairly these boys were treated due to their race and how the effects of racist and institutional racism are long lasting affecting not only the time they were imprisoned but the whole of their lives. It brings attention to racism as a current issue that is ever present in the 21st century. This is important during a time where many people continue to claim racism is in the past and that there have been many improvements. The series shows how this is not enough and we still need to fight. 

The Hate U Give:

This film shows the life of a young black girl living two worlds of a predominantly white community and her black neighbourhood. That the  character struggles to fight for justice while fearing for the outcome of her own life encompasses the viewers and creates a sense of anger and righteous rage within. We follow her through her desire to maintain dual identities, dealing with her toxic friends, and her passion to fight for what’s right. Through showing the horrific outcomes of the corrupt system and the injustice towards black people, I believe this film is a must-see for all. We see a character who is strengthened by her blackness and tells us that “if you don’t see race then you don’t see me”.

Young People’s Film Recommendations: Tess Owen

Thank you to Shafia Fiaz and Hawwa Alam for producing the graphics and to Samihah Mudabbir for collating all the recommendations.

The Innocence Files 

This was set up by the Innocence Project to highlight the injustices in the Criminal Justice system. Kennedy Brewer was a black man convicted of killing his girlfriend’s toddler by using teeth mark evidence to conclude it was ‘indeed and without doubt’ him. He served 15 years on death row and missed out on so many crucial stages of his life such as seeing his family grow up, and his mother grow old. 

In the Innocence Project he was found innocent and he was released – DNA test proved he didn’t do it. I went on to the Innocence Project website to see if I could find more information and they had a list of recommended books, e.g. The Sun Does Shine by Anthony Ray Hilton. He grew up poor and black in rural Alabama and served 30 years on death row as he was wrongly convicted and didn’t have money to defend himself to get the best lawyers possible. So many men who have been wrongly convicted are still on death row and others never made it off.

Young People’s Film Recommendations : Shakira Barber

Thank you to Shafia Fiaz and Hawwa Alam for producing the graphics and to Samihah Mudabbir for collating all the recommendations.

Hidden Figures:

My favourite scene was when the protagonist gave a speech about how she must run so far for the bathroom. I think this movie is eye opening to the struggles black women went through in white male dominated fields and is inspiring to young black girls who want to pursue a career in a similar field. 


my favourite scene was when Ron Stallworth revealed that he was a black man to the man he had been talking to for weeks. I think this movie is an important watch as it shows a black man as a detective and the work he did for the police force. This can be quite controversial as some believe black people should not work in a racist institution but shows how different people have different opinions on this. 

Queen and Slim:

My favourite scene was when they went to dance when they were on the run, and the woman at the bar told them that they are safe there. I think this movie is a must watch because it has many hidden messages which shows the reality of black lives today. For example, the scene where they drive past prisoners in the field reflects how prisons are a system of modern slavery.

A Consideration of the Commonwealth

The Commonwealth was formed at a conference held in London in 1926. Just under a decade after the conclusion of the First World War, which had seen troops from across the Empire stand side by side with British forces, the heads of state of a selection of British Dominions convened in London. The order of business would be modernising arrangements amongst British territories and Dominions and from the discussions conducted in the October and November of 1926, the Commonwealth would emerge. 

Today the Commonwealth describes itself as a “voluntary association of 54 independent and equal countries”. The heads of member states meet every two years at the Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting; hands are shaken and smiles are pasted on, as leaders pose for cameras. On the surface, the Commonwealth presents itself as a modern, cooperative and, crucially, equal association. But, European colonialism is embedded in the organisation’s very existence and no matter how hard it tries to distance itself from that dark past, it cannot divorce itself from the exploitation and suffering that created it.

“The magnificent display of the wealth and treasure of Greater Britain brought together in the Galleries at South Kensington”.

A pamphlet describing the 1886 Colonial and Indian Exhibition excitedly proclaimed the majesty of the artifacts on display from across the Commonwealth. The Exhibition had been planned from 1884 onwards, under the direction of the Prince of Wales, who sought to create a space to showcase treasures from across the Empire, including from its ‘crowning jewel’, India. When it opened on 4 May 1886, a third of the exhibition was dedicated to India, translating to 103,000 square feet at a cost of £22,000. Amongst the displays was the Jaipur Gate, marking the entry to the Rajputana section of the exhibition, a donation by the Maharaja of Rajputana to showcase his loyalty to the mother country. 34 “native artisans” were also procured to act as living artifacts, to be examined and marveled at by bemused visitors. These men were brought over from Agra Jail and throughout the 164 days that the exhibition ran, they demonstrated a range of “native” skills and crafts, from pottery to weaving. By the time the exhibition in Kensington, west London, had closed, it had attracted 5.5 million visitors, who each came to wonder at the spectacles from across the Empire assembled in the heart of the mother country. 

An illustration of the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, 1886 (Image Credit: Author Unknown, Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons)

Of a panorama of London assembled over the turnstiles to the entry to the exhibition, the author of the 1886 pamphlet wrote: “London is the capital of the largest and at the same time the most loyal empire on the globe”. Keeping London so, preoccupied the minds of British and colonial leaders in the later 19thcentury. By the early 1870s, it was clear that white settler colonies, like Australia, Canada and New Zealand, were growing in independence and wealth. There was talk that soon they would surpass Britain in both wealth and population, reversing the balance and dynamic between the mother country and her once dependent colonies. Remodelling relations within the Empire seemed a key way to preserve and protect the framework of British dominance. 

Empire was hardly far from the minds of the British people either. The consolidation of a strong United States of America, the militarisation of Germany and the unification of Italy all presented immediate threats to Britain’s global dominance. The Empire represented a place of refuge, where the colonial mind could escape for recuperation and reassurance as to Britain’s power and supremacy. The 1886 Colonial and Indian Exhibition was a physical manifestation of this pro-Britain and pro-Empire ‘safe’ space. It stood at the heart of the nation’s capital boasting of the country and Empire’s scope and splendour. In the face of a changing Europe and a changing world, attention was thrust back onto the Empire due to, what the pamphlet author described as “the most intimate bonds” which were holding firm “against the growing power of the nations of Europe”. As John Kendle Edwards explains, “instead of being thought of as expensive and dangerous, the colonies were suddenly considered valuable”. Empire was to be Britain’s way to transition into a new phase of geopolitics and global relations.  

With the Colonial and India Exhibition dazzling Brits and acting as a piece of physical, and in some cases, a living piece of imperial propaganda, attention turned to reforming and strengthening the imposed bonds of Empire. The Imperial Federation League had been founded in 1884, the very year that Lord Rosebury had described the British Empire as “a Commonwealth of Nations”. This was the first time a term connoting a unified and advantageous alliance had been applied to the deeply despotic and brutal British Empire. Cleary it stuck. Building on such ideas, the Imperial Federation League lobbied for closer cooperation between parts of the British Empire, culminating in demands for an imperial union built on federal principles (akin to the relationship between states in the USA, for example). These demands and ideas of unity were limited though, by the lens the League and its members viewed the Empire through. A federal constitution would likely have given representation to only white settler colonies, relegating Asian and other Crown colonies either to representation through their British head of state, or to no representation at all. Even as British people ogled at looted treasures and people forced from India at the Colonial and Indian Exhibition, it would have no genuine representation in attempts to formulate a closer alliance amongst the colonies.

Only a few months after the India and Colonial Exhibition closed, invitations to the first Imperial Conference were sent to colonial governments in the November of 1886. These invites weren’t received by Indian political leaders, nor by the leaders of the largest Māori tribes of New Zealand, the Ngapuhi or the Ngati Porou, nor by leaders within the Zulu and Xhosa communities, two of South Africa’s most prominent ethno-linguistic groups amongst its majority Black population. These invites found their way to the white colonial governments planted in the colonies by Britain. Natal and Cape Colony, located in modern-day South Africa, were, for example, represented by two white members of the legislature; Canada by the white-British-Canadian Lieutenant Governor of Ontario, and New South Wales (Australia) by the former Irish-Australian Premier of the state. What is more, Crown colonies were not officially invited to participate, but merely to send symbolic white delegates. The nations and communities that had provided artifacts to dazzle the sedate population of Victorian Britain in 1886 were deemed not significant enough to warrant direct representation and participation.

As select colonial leaders assembled in London, just as they would do at the birth of the Commonwealth in 1926, close and intimate cooperation amongst white settler colonies and, in a secondary sense, the white leaders of Crown colony governments, was at the top of the agenda. The 20-day long conference mainly concerned itself with defence issues, which occupied discussion on at least 10 of the days. Debate around reform to the political and governing framework of Empire was limited and the delegates failed to find common ground. Among the proposals discussed were a federal arrangement or parliament, and giving settler colonies representation and seats in the House of Commons. Ultimately all of these suggestions failed to achieve majority support and the 1887 conference achieved very little, aside from resolving issues around defence in Australian waters. But, as Kendle Edwards goes on to explain, the conference “provided a unique experiment in imperial cooperation”. 

The 1926 Imperial Conference Dinner, (Image Attribution: The Times, Library and Archives of Canada, via Wikimedia Commons)

The 1887 conference that had been called in a haze of jingoistic self-indulgence and militaristic panic was the direct predecessor of the 1926 meeting where the Commonwealth would be formed. Those raising concerns around the militarisation of Europe and the prospect of conflict sweeping the continent, in the late 19th century had been proved correct after the outbreak of the First World War in 1914. This war is believed to have cost 40 million lives over four years and saw soldiers from across the British Empire drawn to Europe to fight. Approximately 1.3 million Indian soldiers served in World War I, joined by around 16,000 soldiers from the Caribbean and 60,000 South Africans amongst others. The First World War thus saw the mobilisation of settler and Crown colonies in the war effort, giving their resources and people to a European war. By the time of the sixth Imperial Conference in 1926, the dynamics of Empire had altered.

Where the very first Imperial Conference in 1887 had searched for a mechanism for closer cooperation and union, delegates and participants at the 1926 conference represented nations where a starker sense of desire for autonomy and independence was brewing after the challenges of World War I. The unequal patchwork of self-governing and non-self-governing colonies was also to be addressed. India, still a Crown colony (and the only Crown colony represented, admitted to Imperial Conferences as recently as 1917), was given representation at the Conference, in the form of two members from the British government’s ‘India Office’, the Secretary of State and the Under-Secretary of State for India. Additionally, the Maharaja of Burdwan acted as an Indian delegate to the Conference and spoke to stress the continuing loyalty of India to the mother country. No attention was given to the ongoing rumblings of nationalism back in India and the colonial cruelties and inequalities still perpetrated by the British government there. The leaders of the white settler colonies met charged with a desire for greater change and power, whilst similar yearnings in India were overlooked.

An Inter-Imperial Relations Committee was appointed by the Conference to investigate the questions arising over the relative status imbalances amongst British Dominions. The Committee claimed that the issue involved “consideration of the fundamental principles affecting the relations of various parts of the British Empire”, given it was “widely scattered” with different components having “very different characteristics (and) very different histories”. Crucially, the report described the Dominions as, “autonomous Communities within the British Empire, equal in status, in no way subordinate to one another”. They were “freely associated as members of the British Commonwealth”.

This declaration, in the second section of the Committee report is what the modern Commonwealth traces its existence back to. The so-called Balfour Declaration, after Committee Chairman Arthur Balfour, articulated the “equal” status of British Dominions that the modern Commonwealth so celebrates. The Formula was enshrined in law by the 1931 Statute of Westminster, which carefully defined the meaning of the term Dominion whom the Act affected as including: “the Dominion of Canada, the Commonwealth of Australia, the Dominion of New Zealand…(the Union of South Africa), the Irish Free State and Newfoundland”. The proud freedom and equality of the Commonwealth applied only to white self-governing entities within the Empire; the British Crown colonies that stretched across Asia, the Caribbean, the Americas and Africa were excluded. Thus, the “British Commonwealth” was built on the enforced the silence of subjects of Colour.

Indeed, despite the “equal” and “autonomous” nature of the “British Commonwealth”, it was built on a delicate hierarchy of power, with Britain positioned carefully at the top. Whilst the British Empire may have modernised to afford white settler colonies an equal status within the institution, Britain retained its symbolic supremacy, further throwing the nature of the “equality” of the 1926 Declaration into contention. The nature of the “British Commonwealth” would not be reformed until 1949, against a backdrop of gradual decolonisation sweeping much of the world. In 1947, independent India and Pakistan had both been absorbed into the Commonwealth, along with Sri Lanka in 1948. The admittance of free former Crown colonies ruptured the existing framework of the Commonwealth, presenting a challenge to the 1926 Balfour Declaration that only enshrined the freedom and equality of their white-settler counterparts. 

A wartime poster dated to 1942-45, depicting troops from across the British Empire/British Commonwealth, (Image attribution: National Archives of College Park, via Wikimedia Commons)

The 1949 Commonwealth Prime Ministers’ Conference resolved to address the lingering colonialism and British supremacy embedded in the Commonwealth. This Conference was an evolved version of the early Imperial Conferences that had begun in 1887, its changed name representing an attempt at modernity and post-colonial respectability. Long-standing self-governing Dominions like Australia, New Zealand and South Africa met with the heads of newly independent India, Pakistan and Sri Lanka (then called Ceylon) to effect significant change within the organisation. The republican constitution adopted by independent India was at tension with its desire to join the Commonwealth, which entailed adopting the British monarch as the head of state. Discussions revolved around how to facilitate India’s republicanism within the Commonwealth and eventually led to changes heralded as marking the birth of the modern CommonwealthThe London Declaration was the outcome of such discussions, signed by all members present, in April 1949. It proclaimed: “the United Kingdom, Canada, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa, India, Pakistan and Ceylon (Sri Lanka) hereby declare that they remain united as free and equal members of the Commonwealth of Nations”. The “British” that had prefixed the “Commonwealth” was dropped, moving the organisation, symbolically at least, beyond the British supremacy and British-centred approach that had characterised centuries of colonialism. Members would cooperate “in the pursuit of peace, liberty and progress”. In theory, then, the 1949 Conference was the moment when the Commonwealth became a post-colonial and equal organisation, transitioning into the modern age. 

These claims are however, widely objectionable. The perception that after 1949 the Commonwealth was modern, progressive and equal can be refuted by a glance at the nature of member states and relations amongst them. The Union of South Africa had been represented in colonial politics and at Imperial Conferences since 1887, marking it out as one of the ‘founding’ members of the Commonwealth. Its membership of the organisation lasted until 1961- past the ‘modernisation’ of 1949 when it was represented by Prime Minister D.F. Malan of the National Party. This was the regime responsible for implementing the devastating apartheid policies that would enshrine racial inequality, segregation and white supremacy in South Africa for much of the 20thcentury. Whilst Malan and other leaders signed the London Declaration and committed themselves to “progress” and “peace”, the foundations of apartheid were firmly laid during the late 1940s. The next few decades, saw legislation to restrict the political, social, economic and cultural power of Black, Asian and ‘Coloured’ communities in South Africa, cultivating a powerful system of staunch racial segregation. South Africa’s apartheid regime was frequently challenged by other members of the Commonwealth, especially India (given the large population of Indian-descent in South Africa, a legacy of British rule) and after the admittance of newly independent African nations like Ghana and Nigeria. Repeated attempts to battle this aggressive and inhumane system from within the Commonwealth were unsuccessful.

Through some of the most significant moments in the creation of the apartheid regime, South Africa remained a member of the Commonwealth. It joined the organisation under an administration committed to white supremacy and continued throughout its Commonwealth career to introduce new barbaric legislation. How the Commonwealth could be equal and progressive whilst incorporating apartheid South Africa is unclear. The Commonwealth claims that South Africa eventually left the organisation in 1961 “after pressure from member states against its apartheid policies”. Yet for well over a decade, apartheid South Africa was afforded membership of the Commonwealth and hailed as an international partner. It was not until 1986 that the Commonwealth agreed sanctions against South Africa over apartheid.

The Commonwealth today is made up of 54 states, spanning five continents, ranging from some of the wealthiest nations in the world, to a number of developing countries. It claims, “All members have an equal say regardless of size and wealth”, suggesting distance from its imperial ancestor, the British Empire. Yet even in the 21st century this seems highly questionable. The head of the Commonwealth is to be chosen by leaders of member states and is not hereditary, as the monarch of the British Empire once was. Yet, the current Head is Elizabeth II and her successor, chosen in 2018, is Prince Charles– also the heir to the British throne. As journalist and writer, Afua Hirsch joked; Charles’ election was “a surprising outcome for such a wide-open recruitment process”. Charles seems, rather, to have been the only candidate considered and had, for some time, been considered his mother’s heir to the role. In theory, the Head of the Commonwealth is still a non-hereditary role, chosen in a fair process by leaders of member states, but in this case, theory does not seem to have translated into reality. Though only a symbolic role, associating the Commonwealth so deeply with the British monarchy has given the organisation lasting trappings of colonialism. 

Map showing territories of the Commonwealth of Nations, (Image Attribution: Rob984, via Wikimedia Commons)

The sheer power imbalance at the heart of the organisation is another sign that it has not moved as far beyond European colonialism as it would like to think. In Hirsch’s highly scathing article on the Commonwealth, in which she argued it was “the contemporary manifestation of the British Empire”, she went on to highlight the economic imbalance at the heart of the association. British companies control more than $1 trillion of Africa’s resources, whilst Britain has similarly used jurisdiction issues arising from membership of the Commonwealth to block the claims of some Caribbean nations attempting to sue for slavery reparations. Economic organisation of the Commonwealth still revolves around Britain and its disproportionate power. The fact that so many member states entered the modern global economy after years of colonial exploitation lies at the heart of this imbalance, many nations continuing to be stymied by historic injustices. Hirsch also points out that 32 members are ‘small’ countries with populations of less than 1.5 million, creating an unspoken dependence on larger, richer (and usually majority-white) members of the Commonwealth. “Can they really go it alone?” she argues

The Commonwealth highlights its two most recent members, Rwanda and Mozambique as having “no historical ties to the British Empire”. Yet what Rwanda and Mozambique do have in common is centuries of colonisation and exploitation by various European powers: Rwanda by Belgium and Germany and Mozambique by Portugal. The reality is that whilst not all members may derive their membership from historical “ties” and brutal rule by the British Empire, almost all did comprise part of a European colonial project, whether that be British, French, Belgium or Portuguese. This power imbalance- historic, economic, political- lies at the heart of the modern Commonwealth. 

Director of the Institute for Commonwealth Studies at the University of London, Philip Murphy, describes the Commonwealth as the product of “imperial amnesia”. Considering the Commonwealth from its inception through to the modern day offers little to refute this interpretation. Though the Commonwealth may present itself as equal and progressive and may strive for a fairer and more inclusive world, it was built on centuries of exploitation and hierarchies of power that have lasted to the modern day. For the Commonwealth to become anything other than a colonial hangover it must commit to seriously moving beyond exploitative power structures and the haze of imperial nostalgia.


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D. Olusoga, Black and British, A Forgotten History, (London: Macmillan, 2016)

D. Olusoga, The World’s War, Forgotten Soldiers of Empire, (London: Head of Zeus, 2014)

‘The Colonial and Indian Exhibition 1886’: Supplement to the Art journal’, National Art Library, Adam Matthew Digital (London: 1886)

S. Bourne, ‘How Black Soldiers Helped Britain in First World War’, Black History Month, (11 October 2020)

G. Hardy, ‘The Caribbean honours its overlooked WW1 soldiers’, BBC News, (7 November 2018)

‘From the Archive: Sanctions agreed against apartheid-era South Africa’, The Commonwealth, (25 January 2017)

Statute of Westminster, 1931’, Section 1, 

Statute of Westminster, 1931’, 

Imperial Conference’The Open University

World War One: Six Extraordinary Indian Stories’BBC News, (11 November 2018)

Colonial and Indian Exhibition’, The Open University

Our History’, The Commonwealth

How the 1949 London Declaration paved the way for a stronger Commonwealth’, The Commonwealth

London Declaration’The Commonwealth, (London: 22-27 April, 1949)

Prince Charles to be next Commonwealth head’, BBC News, (20 April, 2018)

Image Credits:

Feature Image: Author Unknown, Used under the Creative Commons License

Ciara Garcha is a History student at the University of Oxford, from Manchester. She is on the Oxford University History Faculty’s Race Equality Action Group student steering committee and is passionate about making history more representative and inclusive of all stories and narratives. Her interests include the colonial experiences of India and Ireland, US political history, gender history and the long history of immigration to the UK.