Museum of Surrey’s 3 Year Punjabi Community Engagement

The Museum of Surrey has been nominated for a 2020 BCMA Outstanding Achievement Award, Excellence in Community Engagement Award for their Three Year Punjabi Community Engagement project.

At their first Punjabi Advisory Committee (PAC) meeting, one member passionately underscored the importance of the work ahead. He emphasized how a feature exhibit voiced by Punjabis would provide a vital opportunity to break down negative stereotypes of the community in Surrey. The work undertaken over the next three years was not just about “an exhibit”. It was about building bridges of understanding between Punjabis and non-Punjabis. The exhibit goal centred on sharing authentic voices using the museum as a platform to reach thousands of Surrey residents to create real change.

The feature exhibit was especially unique in its approach to community-led exhibits. Most traditional exhibition texts are written by museum staff, sometimes in consultation or collaboration with community partners. Museum of Surrey was concerned that the “voice” of the exhibit should clearly come from the Punjabi community. To resolve this, exhibit texts borrowed the format of a magazine editorial. Each interpretive text panel was assigned to a guest writer from Surrey’s Punjabi community who had expertise on that thematic topic. In total, 16 authors were named directly on their text panel, making it transparent that the voice was directly from the Punjabi community. Furthermore, each panel featured author biographies. This was work done by real human beings from the Punjabi community, not some lofty, nowhere to be seen white curator with a PhD in Punjab during the 20th century. To empower the authentic voice of Punjabi contributors, video interviews were conducted with a Punjabi speaking cameraman in the interviewee’s preferred language. Community information sessions were led by a Punjabi speaker with support from museum staff member to ensure language was not a barrier to participation. Exhibit texts were bilingual in English and Gurmukhi, with selected labels in Shahmukhi. Not only did this avoid marginalization and empower community voice, it allowed non-English speakers to fully enjoy the exhibition.

The PAC also agreed that no objects or stories put forward by the community would be rejected. Community members who loaned their objects decided the important value of the item, and the importance was described in their own words on the object label. The result was a direct empowerment of people to feel their voices had a platform, and their life stories had meaning. All objects were treated as the most valuable of museum artifacts, and as such, they were seen as such by museum visitors. The museum as facilitator model decolonizes museum practice; the curators and creators of the exhibit were a community marginalized in the general narrative of Canada. The stories were told in the community’s way, with their words and in their language. Instead of using the “tried and true” curatorial method of so-called objective storytelling, the exhibit had emotions and strong opinions. As such, visitors saw themselves reflected in the work carried out, invited their friends to participate, and engaged further with the museum.