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Leicester Special Collections

Leicester Museum and the Community

Modern Leicester is proud of its multi-cultural make up and diversity. It is a city with a non-white majority and this has been steadily growing within living memory thanks to immigration of people from countries like Somali, India and Pakistan.

Leicestershire Hunting Pictures, 1951

Within the 1951 Festival of Britain, Leicester museums portrayed the city and the county with an exhibition on fox hunting. They proudly proclaim in the foreword that ‘Foxhunting has been for two hundred years a characteristic of English social life, it has been particularly associated with Leicestershire’. Within the art work centre on this theme, many ‘were executed in Leicestershire, that they depict Leicestershire people or the Leicestershire scene and that they were available in Leicestershire houses’ and that it has been Leicestershire’s ‘chief contribution to the artistic development of the country’. However, does this really reflect the passions and interests of the majority of the population?[1] Is this heritage born from the elite and displayed by the elite? Would people have felt proud of how Leicestershire was represented?

LINK newsletters: no. 312, October- November 1983

During the 1980s, we begin to see more exhibitions being put on within local museums that reflect some of the diversity that is beginning to develop within Leicester. The first example is an exhibition on Divali in 1983. Wanting to be ‘An exhibition and educational event’ this display could have acted as both a show of Hindu culture, connecting Hindus in the city to the museum. But it could also have been an opportunity to foster a better understanding for existing Leicester residents of this culture and ultimately the people coming to and settling in Leicester. This understanding can help to foster greater harmony and relationships between ethnic groups. The museum would have been playing a role in achieving this by putting on the exhibition, contacting and displaying objects from local temples and putting on craft workshops for children. 

LINK newsletters: no. 313, December 1983 - January 1984

Following on from this, we see Leicester museums developing their collections based on the ethnic and religious make up of Leicester with a gift from the LMA of some shadow puppets used for the Divali exhibition.

This idea of developing a collection to better reflect the community continues today. Philip French discusses how the collections at Newarke Houses tried to expand upon their ethnic minority collections but that expanding upon these collections is easy.

Philip French Oral History Interview - Communities, 2017

LINK newsletters: no. 315, April - May 1984

Exhibitions surrounding Asian culture continued throughout the 1980s. In 1984, an exhibition called VASNA: Inside and Indian Village was displayed. This exhibition focused on a ‘typical village in Gujaratin western India’. People from Gujarat are very numerous in Leicester with Gujarati being an extremely common language spoken by a lot of the population.

Another exhibition show in 1988 was Arts of Gujarat. This exhibition’s aim was to show the traditions of art within this region of India. By the time of this exhibition, around 50,000 Indians were living in Leicester and, like the examples above, this exhibition could have been very influential in making the Indian population feel more included within Leicester society but to also educate the existing population and show them the enriched culture that these migrants came from. As the press information sheet says ‘’Arts of Gujarat’ will therefore be of great interest to Indian communities and people wishing to understand more about the cultural heritage of the Indian communities they live alongside’. Can you think of any exhibitions today that have this same aim? However, is there a problem or ethical issue with the collection being formed by an English woman who spent 10 weeks in India? How accurately would it reflect Gujarati culture?

Linda Harding’s explanation of her job highlights some of the ways in which Leicester Museums now try and engage with members of the community. She talks about how they try to put on exhibitions to cover and represent the different heritages. Today, there is more focus on engaging these communities within the museum more than educating the existing population and harbouring social cohesion. 

Linda Harding Oral History Interview - Exhibitions, 2017

[1] Paul Hendon, ‘The Festival of Britain and the voice of the people’, Critical Quarterly 41:4, (1999), p. 16.