Art & Events Interview Caro Meets

Paul Reid: Black Cultural Archives

By | Published on Thursday 17 July 2014

This month the Black Cultural Archives will open a fantastic new £7m heritage centre in Brixton to house its extensive collection of artefacts and, to celebrate, next week sees a launch event take place hosted by Henry Bonsu, and featuring a host of singers, dancers and spoken word artists, as well as some  academic speakers.


Paul Reid has been the director of the Black Cultural Archives since 2006. I spoke to him about the Archives, and what we can expect from the new centre, its role in education, and the part it can play in bringing about better representation for Black culture.

CM: How long has it taken for the Black Cultural Archives to be brought together, and who has been instrumental in this?
PR: The Black Cultural Archives was founded over 30 years ago in 1981. Co-founder Len Garrison and a collective of educationalists were motivated to create a space to collect, preserve and celebrate the history and culture of African and Caribbean people in Britain. From its inception there has been continued support and encouragement from the community, our patrons and Friends.

Over the last 32 years, a vast majority of our archive collection has been amassed by individual donations and organisations. The time and energy contributed by volunteers has been invaluable. It has been incredible watching how quickly people share their ideas and experiences about the importance and necessity of the Black Cultural Archives.

On Thursday 24 July we open a beautiful heritage centre in the heart of Brixton. The project to transform a Grade II listed building has been funded by the Heritage Lottery Fund, London Borough of Lambeth, Mayor of London and the Biffa Award.

CM: What can we expect from the new centre? Presumably there will be a permanent collection of artefacts and information, but will there also be special exhibitions or other events?
PR: The long-anticipated heritage centre is the first of its kind and holds the leading independent archive collection dedicated to the history and culture of people of African and Caribbean descent. The collection holds material that span over three centuries, with a focus on twentieth century. Materials include rare books, artefacts, photographs, antique newspapers, oral histories, ephemera and periodicals that reveal fascinating stories about everyday people achieving remarkable things. We also have a small object collection.

There will be an archive and reading room run by our archivists who are on hand for research guidance. Dedicated learning and meeting spaces are available for community and individual use. Our exhibition space will have changing exhibitions and a programme of related events, talks and workshops. In addition to café and shop where visitors can relax for a coffee or engage with our digital interactive pods to browse some of key collections.

CM: What will the first exhibition be? What does it focus on, and how long will it be on for?
PR: Our opening exhibition ‘Re-imagine: Black Women in Britain’ delves into the remarkable history of Black women in this country and gives us a glimpse of some of the women, the traces of their lives lying in vaults of national archives, libraries and museums across the United Kingdom and brought together for the first time.

Visitors are invited to ‘re-imagine’ their stories to create a tapestry of stories that paint a picture of the many and eclectic roles of Black women over time. ‘Re-imagine: Black Women in Britain’ will be on until 30 November, and admission is free.

CM: What do you consider to be the highlights of the collection?
PR: Highlights from our collection include a coin depicting the African born Roman emperor, Septimius Severus who ruled from 193 to 211 AD. In 208 AD Severus travelled to Britain with the intention of conquering Caledonia and strengthening Hadrian’s Wall. We also have a striking selection of photographs of a Black Edwardian family, including the young Amy Barbour-James, born of Guyanese parents in London in 1906, to iconic photographs from the 1960s and 1970s.

We also have a remarkable collection of oral history testimonies, including life story interviews with individuals from ‘the Windrush generation’ and the Black Women’s Movement. Our oral histories collection not only preserves the memory of past generations, but also spotlights unsung heroes who have contributed to British society.

CM: Will there be events in addition to the exhibitions? Does the BCA work with schools, for example, or run other education programmes?
PR: Our programme comprises a range of events for all ages such as exhibition talks, special events with invited guest speakers and Café Club Lates such as Benin Nights and Lyrical Sista celebrating music, film and spoken word. Families are welcomed, and we have dedicated takeover days where they can freely explore the heritage centre. There will be lectures and study days for focused exploration on key themes and topics within the exhibition.

Our schools programme will offer students the opportunity to engage with archive materials, widening access to past narratives that resonate with present day. Our Learning team works closely with primary and secondary schools, bringing the archive alive through enactment assemblies where professional actors characterise historical figures such as Oluadah Equiano and Mary Seacole. Students can spend the day at the heritage centre for hands-on workshops and explore the current exhibition.

CM: Black cultural history seems to me to be extremely ill-represented, in popular culture and media, for example, as well as in education. Do you think an organisation like BCA can actively work to redress this?
PR: Definitely. It is not good enough to just create a holding space to preserve the archive collection and consider this job well done. So, as much as the Black Cultural Archives are handling documents, involved in research and delivering a public programme, we are also working with the fundamentals of historical accounts that speak to personal identity, community and society. Through sharing these historical accounts and connecting visitors with the archive, we can become a space where everyone can engage in dialogue to bring about positive change.

CM: The grand opening of the centre is next week. What’s on the programme for the big day? Is there anything you are especially looking forward to?
PR: We have an exciting programme full of cultural entertainment for all the family. Musical performances from harmonic jazz saxophonist Lascelle James and powerful spoken word by Akala (Hip Hop Shakespeare), Floetic Lara, and El Crisis alongside a tribute piece from the renowned dub-poet Linton Kwesi-Johnson. Legendary Jonzi D, Creative Director of Breakin’ Convention will perform and introduce to two talented dancers, Rowdy (dance consultant on 2012 Olympic Ceremony) and Mecknikool.

Also, leading academics and historians, Dr Hakim Adi and Dr. Doudou Diene will give speeches on the important of the Black Cultural Archives. Everyone is welcome, from 3pm.

The Black Cultural Archives Heritage Centre, Windrush Square, has its launch event on 24 Jul from 3pm, and will thereafter be open from Tuesday-Sunday from 10.00am until 6.00pm.