This article was written from transcripts of conversations we and others had during our recent attempts to make a museum—starting from where we are—as International Women’s Week and the Women’s Strike came to a close
We write “from the pockets.” Geographical pockets—a housing estate in Deptford, South London, a food bank, a library, and community centre, what was a junk-filled corner cleaned to make room for ourselves and our communities; holding pockets—frayed and threadbare, pockets from which we draw from the modesty of our resources to fill the social gaps, from which we buy the food and drink that bring people together and help us to survive; pockets in time, in which we squeeze an extra hour to visit another friend in the hospital, take care of another child, hold another family member, launch another meeting; invisible pockets, full to the brim with stories, with organising and survival strategies, with to-do lists, notes of love, spare change, and passionate and deeply unrecognised labour. We also write from pockets of exhaustion, from a year of unacknowledged carrying, visiting, feeding, and healing. After a week of reflecting and consciousness-raising with women’s international groups, we finally write from pockets of joy, difference, passion, and love, the forces that motivated our ancestors to struggle and us to address the troubled and possible histories of where we are today.
Museum-Making and/as Organising
The Black Lives Matter protests of last summer brought into stark relief the need for very honest conversations about the distance between the rhetoric of change in museums and the actual work of making it. As curator Yesomi Umolu suggests, “If we have now arrived at acknowledging the genealogy of violence and injustice in our institutions, public spaces, and personal lives, then the hard work of the days and months to come is to unlearn the practices and behaviours that have emerged from this condition, and seek to build anew along antiracist and decolonized lines.”
Museums, she says, “must practice empathy and close the gap between themselves and their communities; they must provide space for conversations on the issues that matter to the lives of their audiences, neighbours, and employees.” Equally, she suggests, they “must be sites of advocacy, not just for the artistic and art-historical traditions that they hold so dear, but for basic rights to life, safety, shelter, well-being, and economic and intellectual sustenance.”
While she is arguably describing the work of existing museums that must “commit to practices of knowing and care that critically interrogate the fraught history of museums and their contemporary form,” she also talks about “uprooting weak foundations and rebuilding upon new, healthy ones.”
Our modest museum-building project, the Deptford People’s Heritage Museum, started just before these protests. It was not founded on the troubled history of a collection but rather is a collection based in both the troubled and inspiring histories of where we live in Deptford. Initiated by Joyce Jacca and Ken Thomas, the museum begins on the terrain of a conflicted present, in which a multi-national real estate deal has been struck to ‘develop’ the Deptford Docks without meaningful consultation with our community, and another development flagrantly adorns construction hoarding for new unaffordable housing with the name of “Sir Francis Drake.” Our museum started here, as an act of contestation, resistance, and community organising.
But the story of our museum is in fact much longer. Where we are located in the Pepys Resource Centre, on the Pepys Estate, is a stone's throw from the Deptford Docks, from which notable ships and perpetrators travelled to abduct millions of people into the transatlantic slave trade, extract resources through the exploits of the East India Company, and at which people plotted struggles for freedom. We are one of a group of organisers including Voice for Deptford, Deptford Neighbourhood Association, the Lenox project, and others working to ensure that this troubled history is not papered over by shiny new buildings, cafes, and shops inaccessible and unaccountable to local people.
Our story is also located in the long struggle for the reclamation of Black-led spaces, spaces and histories that, in our neighbourhood, are part of a legacy dispossession, chronic de-funding, non-recognition, a continuation, to our minds, of the more overt racist fire bombings of the 1970s and ‘80s and the violent movement of people and community wealth that enabled the unequal accumulation of property and resources underpinning contemporary Britain. As scholar and Black Lives Matter activist Lisa Robinson said in our recent community gathering, spaces led by communities of colour—and often held up by the practices of African and Caribbean women—are systematically shut down, taken over, and otherwise undermined by the very local Councils who claim to serve them. Occupying and governing our own spaces is an important act of resistance in the face of the dispossession of the past and the present.
Our Museum is made by people who live in the surrounding area who trace histories and ancestral links to and from Deptford, tell the stories of local struggles for freedom, and plot these histories in relation to contemporary issues facing their community and others around the world. The building in which we are based—the Pepys Resource Centre—has been open to the community for many years. It was, in the 1960s, part of a thriving social housing estate with communal spaces, courtyards, and parks, backing onto the river Thames. In more recent years, as with the story of many community facilities on housing estates, ideological acts of de-funding instituted by Thatcher’s privatisation and the ongoing stigmatisation of social housing left it in partial use as a storage space and a community library open to the community only ten hours per week. In 2017, a group of women organisers from African, Caribbean, South American, and European backgrounds called We Women, including museum co-founder Joyce Jacca, wanting to reclaim a space for community, removed five vans worth of non-used materials, donating them to the local Deptford market. We Women spent days cleaning up the space and opening it up as a place for community organising and development.
We use the term “community development” here to describe approaches to a long history of grassroots organising practices (which we will have more to say about in a moment) rooted in women’s lives, in antiracism activism, in the anti-oppression pedagogy of Paulo Freire and in pan-Africanist decolonisation, not that of “developing” community for the purposes of “betterment” defined from above by the state, developers, medical or social service authorities.
One of the first meetings in the newly founded Pepys Resource Centre took place on International Women’s Day. As , a member of the We Women group, described in one of our community gatherings, “On the day we opened, we saw the ghosts having a party.” The ancestors of the struggles of the Docks, and the women who have laboured “in the wake” of the transatlantic slave trade, the ships, the migration of women, and colonial violence as we experience its haunts today were present. We Women knew already that we needed a place for the ghosts, to honour these ancestors and our conversations with them—the form we have taken for this, perhaps strangely, is a museum.
Three years later, at the onset of the pandemic, in those early days when it seemed our concerns and ways of doing things might shift the world for the better, many of us knew that there was a shortage of food for people in the community. Joyce was making meals and serving them in the Centre, paying for drinks and supplies—again, from her pockets. She asked the Council if there were any resources. They directed her to a community-led food bank, which was looking for space and immediately moved into the Pepys Centre. As people started to gather food on Saturdays, Joyce and Ken, another local community development worker, began to put out objects related to histories of women’s work—including objects passed down from Joyce’s family in Kenya, as well as remnants of the history of enslavement, including a package of Tate and Lyle sugar, placed to draw attention to the history of the nearby Docks—a history that few people who live locally are aware of, even though its legacies are fairly plain to see. Parents and their children started to ask, “What are these objects?”
These Saturday sessions at the food bank began the conversations upon which the museum was built. We asked, how do we connect our own histories to the troubling past of the river that runs outside, to the ghosts of the ships and the docks that are a short walk away? How does being “in the wake” of these histories shape our response to the contemporary violence we continue to face as working-class African and Caribbean women? After a short time, families using the food bank began to bring their own family objects in to engage in this conversation—tooth sticks—toothbrushes used in different parts of Africa, drums, fabrics, pieces of life are now nested amongst tables and computer stations, women’s meetings, and exercise classes that compose the daily life of the Pepys Centre.
A local young person, Josh, began to work with Ken to assemble Chip on Your Shoulder, an exhibition about the naval dockyard and its intersecting histories of exploitative labour practices (the term “chip on your shoulder” being the name given to workers who literally took wood chips from the dockyard in lieu of payment), and the struggles for freedom plotted in relation to the translatlantic slave trade by communities of colour.
Our emerging process is based on what we describe as the “village ethos,” a way of gathering local people to set collections in motion, become the curators, the exhibitors, and storytellers, and a way of forming collections that function to contest the regular and systematic erasure of our lives. While these terms mimic those used by other museums, the village ethos draws far more from the technologies we have developed as women of colour (using the most inclusive, self-nominating definition and one that both includes but acknowledges the differences in oppression between women from Africa, Caribbean, South Asia, and South America as well as those from trans and other backgrounds). It comes from our background as organisers and the technologies of communal life and struggle passed down in the stories and experiences of village life that we as diasporic women remember in and through our own community work. From this perspective, a collection is not only a series of objects, but a way to learn collectively and to support our local campaigns and struggles.
These are significantly different from mainstream museums’ ideas of outreach or “engagement” in which the Centre, i.e., what is to be engaged with, is almost always defined by the class whose wealth was amassed on the backs of communities of colour—and even more so those of African and Caribbean women. They are also different from the idea of community organisation or development that does not attend to the way that our objects are interwoven into the practices that shape our everyday modes of survival, historically relegated to the private sphere or to no sphere at all. Making a museum from women’s community organising alongside a food bank and self-generated programmes draws from another vocabulary of history-making and objecthood, a different kind instituting and curating, one that is at once set in the very present of the organisation of our lives, but deeply extends into the before of the afterlives of our work.
This definition of what exists in public or in private, what is acknowledged as labour and not, continues to impose blind spots that relegate our kind of work—both in the world of mainstream museology and in the worlds of community development—to “the pockets,” with devastating consequences for our communities.
This question also underpins many of the problems of the museum’s ability to move beyond speeches and placations and towards meaningful change discussed by Umolu. Most cultural institutions in Western liberal democracies define themselves around an idea of the public sphere steeped in the white, bourgeois privilege of Jurgen Habermas’s articulation. Museums and galleries are seen as open to the public, as staging contemporary culture for the public, as taking care of objects in perpetuity for the public to come, as platforming opportunity for conversation and debate—even about their own troubling acquisition histories, their links to stolen objects, etc.—to inform the public so that it may formulate opinions based on historical foundations. The museum is the point of entry for “general” publics (usually white and middle-class), or a point of “access” for specified publics including disenfranchised communities who are seen to benefit from this access. The publicness of this public relies on its visibility, its desire, and/or ability to engage, watch, consume, to be counted in attendance, to congregate and aggregate around presentations of culture often understood to be both neutral and universal. As Nancy Fraser pointed out in her now historical feminist critique of Jurgen Habermas’s characterisation of the public sphere, the idea that certain sites, like the museum or the gallery today, are designated for public culture, for the visible work of making publics and public opinion, does not account for the myriad histories of subaltern organising by women and others who had no visibility, recognition nor interest in such spaces. In the case of the museum, this is not necessarily because they/we have been banned, nor because they/we have not had access, and not only because our life conditions do not afford the time or the interest in being in them, but because they are organised around the very relations of power that make visible the culture of the most privileged, without any recognition of the ways in which this privilege shapes the everyday lives of subaltern communities. Heston A Baker Jr reminds us in his argument for the Black public sphere, that the very notion of public that underpins the bourgeois public sphere relies on a propertied definition of “man” that was built on theft from the global majority Black communities and communities of colour who are by definition excluded from it. As Baker further points out, places and processes of publicity built upon the violent expropriation of life and culture cannot provide the neutral frame for negotiation, discussion, or contact without attending to what they have actively participated in and profited from destroying.
Both Fraser and Baker argue for a re-working of the public/private distinction in the conceptualisation of public life, public participation, and the public sphere, to account for the kitchens, basements, quilts, songs, churches, porches, and fields in which the struggles that define the culture of the global majority take place. Their call is not for a collapse of the public / private as we have come to know in neoliberal demands of work, but a recognition that much of the labour of constituting the public sphere has and must, reside in reproductive work.
In museums and galleries, while one can see many objects and experiences of the so-called private sphere on display, there has been little to no recognition of the struggles of this sphere nor those of social reproduction more generally in the way that museum infrastructures are organised. This lack of recognition goes beyond histories of cultural theft and expropriation and underscores the museum’s relation to contemporary communities. Conditions that shape the lives of communities including museum workers, visitors, and neighbours have been routinely ignored in museums and galleries, as have their own labour practices, making them active contributors to the material dispossession of women (who perform the majority of cultural labour on low pay) and communities of colour (often working in the out-sourced and precarious roles like cleaning and catering). Equally, as perpetrators of universalising definitions of culture they have systematically expropriated resources from communities to fund their ever-expanding global gaze. We see this, for example, in the ways in which arts council funding in England in the last thirty years has concentrated itself within larger institutions with a remit for “engagement” at the direct expense of adequate funding for community based cultural projects—perhaps less discernible as such for their integration into practices of everyday life and survival—that serve differentiated cultural needs, including the need to contest the exclusionary policies of the State. This disregard for what has been relegated to the private in favour of a public canvas for directorial, artistic, and patriarchal genius has also produced materially detrimental effects on neighbourhoods by supplying ideas and aesthetic justification (“good culture”) for the destructive processes of speculative capital that regularly result in community displacement and in the privileging of the culture of multinational investment over accountable, collective, and common approaches to community support.
In contemporary society, we can additionally argue—as do Paulo Virno and Isabell Lorey—that while the performance of certain notions of the public continues in the present, the lived distinctions between private and public has in many ways collapsed. This collapse is not, as Fraser and Baker had hoped, a moment in which public culture has widened to encompass localized subaltern sites of production and resistance but rather made so many aspects of life fodder for an ever-churning communicative capital that turns all aspects of private life into work and all corporeal needs into the terrain of speculative finance, the result of which we experience in generalised social affects of panic and precarity. Here, the earlier exclusions of the public sphere are exacerbated rather than ameliorated, and the ways and speed through museums convert vital questions of life into packaged and short-term themes and statements, in accelerated complicity with the forces of capital that routinely unground struggles from everyday conditions and stakes. This was made painfully clear in the endless directorial statements made—and called out for their hypocrisy, short-termism, and disconnection from institutional conditions—in the events following the death of George Floyd las summer.
As Yaiza María Hernández Velázquez points out in her readings of the Santiago Declaration at the International Council of Museums in the 1970s, this does not have to be the history of the museum nor its conception of the public. She proposes the genealogy of the Community Museum—far more prevalent in the Global South and rooted not in notions of the bourgeois public sphere so much as in frameworks of cultural accountability based in local issues—as an alternative to a notion of the public conceived by anointed “leaders” (funded by contemporary financiers) with the power to produce and reproduce dominant and universal aesthetic judgement. Rather than feigning political neutrality, Community Museums, she argues, constitute a radical proposition towards locally embedded praxes that do not separate questions of the aesthetic, of collection or exhibition from questions of the production and reproduction of life but rather constitute a radical museology in the relation between the two.
Our museum situates itself within this genealogy but also within histories of community organising and development, which, though broadly speaking exist to support disenfranchised communities, mirror museological dynamics in their conception of what constitute public and private spheres, problems that underpin logics and approaches that currently justify the continuous pattern of under-resourcing and rendering invisible the efforts of women of colour. In a survey of US community organisers in the 1990s, researchers Susan Stall and Randy Stoecker suggested that dominant and masculinised notions of the public sphere underpin many of the most celebrated practices of community organising—those professed by Saul Alinksy and other grassroots and labour organisers who, in their important struggles at the neighbourhood level, nonetheless can replicate the paradigms of oppression experienced by the communities they are fighting for. Like the public sphere of the museum, these practices valorise speech, visibility, and the performance of appointed “organic leaders” in the realm of public debate, a field constituted by competition between the “haves” and the “have nots.” In their review of the much less visible practices of women of colour and low-income organisers (predominantly by LatinX, African American and Indigenous women), who do not ascribe to models per se, Stall and Stoecker suggest that organising techniques adopt practices of what they call an “expanded private sphere,” moving beyond or in place of the genealogical or contractual relations of motherhood to create communities of care composed by non-biological “other mothers,” “who collectivise, share and mutually valorise responsibilities of social reproduction, in turn making their networks and forms of resistance more sustainable.” While there is a risk of gender-based and racialised essentialisation in their analysis, Stall and Stoecker are clear that the practices used are not attributed to the gendering of those who perform them per se but to a difference between those praxes of organising that take social reproduction (the labours and practices that produce and reproduce life) as their base from those more focused on the visible performances of leadership and negotiation within existing power relations. Where community organisers based in notions of the (bourgeois) public sphere often worked away from and at the cost of relations of care and domestic duties in their lives, they observed, and understood the neighbourhood as the space in which power might be gained through competitive negotiations amongst each other and with those shaping local power relations, organisers basing their work on social reproduction stage community resistance through acts of “municipal housekeeping,” serving to reclaim aspects of life from vectors of control—whether these be at the level of the police, corporations, developers or local councils or debt-makers—through direct engagement with the community’s needs for survival. For example, Chicana women, in the neighbourhood of Pico Aliso in Los Angeles, recently described their own practices of “municipal housekeeping” in delivering food to local drug dealers who, in turn, demonstrated respect for the area, as an alternative to narratives of “necessary policing” that Councils, real estate developers, and neighbourhood beautiful groups perpetuate in relation to street crime as a form of resistance to gentrification processes. This is not to say that ‘municipal housekeepers’ do not produce analysis or antagonism, as in Stall and Stoecker's assessment, like the Breakfast Clubs of the Black Panther movement, the threat they pose is, in the long term, arguably more antagonistic and disruptive to the social order.
Stall and Stoecker point out that, while Alinsky and other “public sphere” focused models of community organising work to cultivate leaders (much like in museums and galleries) as spokespeople in the movement towards achievable goals or “wins,” this tendency often results in such leaders’ co-optation into compromised political positions. Organising practices based in social production emerging from women of colour organising practices are oriented around “centre women” or “bridge leaders,” who use “existing networks to develop social groups that generate community consciousness” and to create an ongoing context for engaging with social movements and issues as they arise. In our current struggles against speculative developers, neoliberal and unaccountable Councils, extractive cultural practices, and predatory policing, we do not necessarily have the luxury of choosing one of these organising models over the other. It is, however, important, however, to mark their differences, particularly as we in this neighbourhood who have organised through the techniques of municipal housekeeping are routinely drawn upon for ideas and expertise while at the same time rendered invisible, overlooked, de-funded, and pushed out. In Deptford, it is routinely the case that efforts we make to engage in representative dialogue or input are almost always co-opted, our creativity and ideas feeding into Council bids like that of the London Borough of Culture, with little accountability or material resources ever significantly manifesting themselves in our realities.
What is it to make a museum out of acts of municipal housekeeping, out of the webs of resistance we bridge as women organisers rooted in very basics means of survival—food, movement, health, social support, communal struggle, and the ongoing conversation care for and encounter with ghosts? The making of a museum by us is part of the fight for recognition of these practices in the face of a multinational development, a Council who does hear us and community development paradigms that are more attuned to the presentational bureaucracies of local funding and hierarchy than they are to accountable relations to our community as a common struggle. The building of the museum is about galvanising community power, to advocate and re-constitute our lives based in a more equal distribution. The museum then is also a demand for the resources to which we are entitled as “bridges” in and between our communities.
We Carry A Lot
It is important to suggest that—while organising from the pockets poses important questions to the current organisation of culture—it is not a utopian enterprise. It does not afford us the means for adequate recognition or survival. Nonetheless, in the practices and technologies of care we make there lies a blueprint for a more loving, passionate, and sustainable life, albeit one that is barely survivable at present. Our bodies and energies bridge so many gaps. We put everything on the line in the effort to support people. We carry a lot. We are driven by the passion and love we have with our community. No one is recognising this. We spend our own money, of which we have little, we escort our people to the doctor, we risk our lives taking them to the hospital, we make and buy drinks and food to make the groups active, we take care of children on the street, not only our own. We carry a lot. As we do this, as we regularly ask for help and support with no result. We watch as those with degrees who have not done this work of community organising and have little relation to the community get the grants, are celebrated, and made increasingly visible. All the while, we are the ones keeping people alive and putting ourselves and needs aside. We make the heart. We carry a lot.
This is why our conversation with the legacy of the Docks—the ghosts—is so important to our understanding of the present. As Gargi Bhattacharyya suggests in her writings on racial capitalism, “There are new and unpredictable modes of dispossession to be understood alongside the centuries old carnage that moistens the earth beneath our feet.”
In her opening to the book, Rethinking Racial Capitalism, she described racial capitalism as follows:
Imagine a house with many storeys—an attic and a cellar, several annexes, that have no direct connections, main rooms filled with comfort and a maze of un-mappable corridors leading to all sorts of barely remembered wings, snugs and the occasional route outside to an isolated out-house. But mostly their movements are shaped by the place in which they find themselves and who they see and who they can be, delimited by the strange geography of the house.
We live in this house, the one of our local geography, in which we find ourselves regularly limited for options, where we have to fight for every aspect of survival and where our work is not recognised. One aspect of racial capitalism is the processes that grants “differential treatment to workers and almost workers and non-workers and the social relations that flow from these differentiations.”
As Bhattacharyya says, “to understand racial capitalism” we must re-visit our understanding of the value of work and the conception of some activity as non-work. The idea of social reproduction, of municipal housekeeping allows us to understand the “radicalised differentiation of populations as enabling forms of supplementarity beyond households.”
To assert a museum that is based amongst our acts of municipal housekeeping is then a demand for the recognition of our labour, a desire for this to be placed at the more visible centre of what is valued in our culture, to have our efforts recognised within the mechanisms of value in our society. To do this would be to undermine or at the very least highlight the logics of racial capitalism that Bhattacharyya describes, a resourced and recognised version of what we do from our pockets.
Our museum exists in the afterlives of the people and struggles that have come before us and, we hope, it pre-figures those of the people who are to come. This past International Women’s Week, a year after we began to make our village museum, we have listened to women from Deptford and around the world who have brought and discussed the objects around which they have survived and supported others through the pandemic.Our ears are full of their acts and our own as we find our way to articulate these stories—our modes of survival and organising—in ways that include display, education, collective decision-making, and other meaningful social actions. In the local assemblies and gatherings that are to come, our question will be this question—how can the technologies, processes, and stories of our survival prove to contest the logics that are re-shaping our neighbourhood, literally just outside the door, logics that render us invisible, unviable, and unreasonable? How do we start a museum from this place, where we are, from pockets that are resistent, threadbare, and without end?
Husseina Hamza is founder and chair of Red Ribbon Living Well, supporting women affected and living with HIV. She is a Community Advocate and Peer Mentor. She is a volunteer at the Deptford People’s Heritage Museum.
Joyce Jacca is a community-development worker, former ward Councilor, founder of Future of Women International (FOWI), member of We Women, and co-founder of the Deptford People’s Heritage Museum.
Tracey Jarrett /Sister Jahsunray is a Pan-Africanist community development worker, CEO of Shine Your Light, Galaxy Radio show host, and podcaster. She creates and delivers bespoke training on various subjects, including race, gender, mental health, and older people matters. She is a volunteer at the Deptford People’s Heritage Museum.
Janna Graham is a curator, researcher, and organiser focussed on processes of institutional analysis and change and struggles for social justice. She is Programme Leader of the BA Curating at Goldsmiths, University of London, a member of sound collective Ultra-red, and a volunteer at the Deptford People’s Heritage Museum.
 This article was written through a series of conversation amongst ourselves in February and March 2021. The idea of the “pockets” emerged from these conversations and our experiences as community-based curators and organisers.
 Yesomi Umolu, “Opinion: On the Limits of Care and Knowledge: 15 Points Museums Must Understand to Dismantle Structural Injustice,” Artnet, June 25, 2020, https://news.artnet.com/opinion/limits-of-care-and-knowledge-yesomi-umolu-op-ed-1889739?fbclid=IwAR17u9IHj5tOnbJHloDBQAoNVSJymE080zzg-HTIKDlHdCC-vtbAgaGQiaE#.XvXcpFDohWY.facebook.
 In the Wake is the title of Christina Sharpe’s 2016 book in which she describes the work of trailing behind the ships, keeping watch with the dead, and how black lives are swept up by the afterlives of slavery. Christina Sharpe, In the Wake: On Blackness and Being (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2016).
 Yaiza María Hernández Velázquez, “Imagining Curatorial Practice After 1972,” in Curating After the Global: Roadmaps for the Present (Cambridge, MA: The MIT Press, 2019) .
 Susan Stall and Randy Stoecker, “Community Organizing or Organizing Community? Gender and the Crafts of Empowerment,” Gender and Society 12, no. 6 (1998): 729-56. Thank you to Valeria Graziano for this important reference.
 Boyle Heights Alliance Against Artwashing and Displacement, “The Women of Pico Aliso: 20 Years of Housing Activism, accessed 1 April 2021, http://alianzacontraartwashing.org/en/coalition-statements/the-women-of-pico-aliso-20-years-of-housing-activism/.
 Women in Transition took place during International Women’s Week in 2021. Events were facilitated by us and the second-year students of the BA Curating programme, Shiori Adachi, Kate Gillies, and Eve-Dawn Speight, using an object-based list-making methodology developed by Dr Jorella Andrews, with whom we are grateful to have worked. https://deptfordpeoplesheritagemuseum.cargo.site/Women-in-Transition