STEP Into the Smithsonian: Participant Mohammed Rahman Reflects on the Programme

15 August 2020

Foundation for Future London intern Mohammed Rahman reflects on the three weeks he spent on the STEP Into the Smithsonian programme from May to June 2019. The programme was an exchange between London and Washington DC, aimed at developing his expertise and employability in the creative, cultural and heritage sectors.

From May 2019 to June 2019, I was a participant on the life-changing STEP Into the Smithsonian programme delivered in partnership with Create Jobs at A New Direction, The Smithsonian Institute, Foundation for Future London, London Legacy Development Corporation and the Olympic boroughs of Hackney, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest.

I was one of four young east Londoners from the Olympic boroughs who were flown out to Washington D.C. for three weeks to participate in a programme of talks, tours and meetings to gain an insight into the Smithsonian Institute ahead of its planned collaboration with V&A East. This included special access to everything from the entomology collection at the National Museum of Natural History to a seat at the 2019 fellows’ lecture series by the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

A year on, reflecting on my experience as a Digital Content and Community Engagement STEP trainee at Foundation for FutureLondon and having completed the first half of my STEP placement at UCL Culture, I realise how the project has helped me find my voice and emphasised how beneficial international experiences are for a young east Londoners like myself.

Within the first month of my placement at Foundation for Future London, I attended a roundtable ,which included young east Londoners and Fusion Prize winners. The Fusion Prize is an award for individuals and organisations across disciplines to collaborate and produce projects that develop the skills of young people through cultural opportunities.

Among several issues discussed at the roundtable, one that struck me in particular was how corporate boardroom culture can alienate young voices. During the discussion, I was pleased to see the young east Londoners voice their opinions with confidence, addressing the elephant in the room in a sincere and constructive way.

This made me reflect back to the STEP Into the Smithsonian programme and how I was initially taken aback by the special access I received as somebody who has rarely felt represented by museums as a young working-class British-Bangladeshi. During the programme, we managed to get interviews with people at all levels, including directors, collection managers, conservators, volunteers and even gardeners. The scope of conversation was so vast and enriching and gave me an insight into museums and career options I hadn’t considered before.

Over the course of the programme I grew empowered to ask openly about the ethics of acquisitions, community engagement/lack thereof and representation among museum staff. Fortunately for the most part, these questions were received with progressive sincerity and bore much food for thought. Listening to the young people at the Fusion Prize roundtable helped me reflect on how STEP Into the Smithsonian has boosted my confidence to be my authentic self in cultural sector spaces.

During the induction to STEP Into the Smithsonian, I visited cultural institutions in London including Tate Britain, YOUTH CLUB and the Brixton Black Cultural Archives before departing to Washington D.C.. This was a great primer as it gave me a frame of reference on the arts and culture scene in London. As a second-generation migrant who has grown up in London with the internet and an anthropology degree, cross-cultural analysis and dismantling the things I take for granted is second nature to me.

While higher education is fraught with its own hurdles, this globalised perspective and skillset is nothing rare among east Londoners. At the same time, as institutions make the move to decolonise and speak to working-class diasporas and a more globalised clientele in general, an international perspective is becoming increasingly essential.

An interesting feature of the programme’s focus on museums was how you can tell a lot about national audiences from museums, as institutions which make specialist information accessible to the general public. It was insightful to discuss how discourse is handled differently between the UK and US on shared topics such as patriotism, the transatlantic slave trade and musical histories. I was made to critically reflect on what angles are taken in the UK context and was also exposed to issues I was relatively unfamiliar with such as the sensitivities involved in representing Indigenous American histories to the US public.

Bringing my international and museums-related experience back home to London made me feel much better equipped when I began my STEP traineeship at UCL Culture with their exhibitions and engagement teams. The insights offered to me throughout the programme allowed me to engage meaningfully with UCL’s hugely varied and global collections. It also allowed me to appreciate what decolonisation meant and the steps taken towards achieving it, as UCL has in recent years moved towards raising awareness of colonial histories through exhibitions and the renaming of some of its buildings.

The East Bank finds itself on the doorstep of an emerging, cosmopolitan workforce of skilled young people with a wealth of lived experience and potential. With the systemic hurdles present in institutions, travel and education, more empowering and international initiatives like STEP Into the Smithsonian will unlock this potential and create a more collaborative, informed and fair sector.

I’m looking forward to seeing the next iteration of STEP Into the Smithsonian!

For more participant reflections on the project, please read the STEP Into the Smithsonian Zine:

STEP’s vision is for a creative industry open to everyone by creating a collaboration of creative organisations committed to improving young east Londoners’ access to careers in the creative sector and nurturing local talent for increased representation and a more inclusive and sustainable future. STEP provides participants with two six-month placements at organisations involved in the programme with every placement is paid at London Living Wage. The young people aged 18-30 who take part in the programme develop new skills, benefit from sustainable employment opportunities and receive mentoring and training throughout their time on the programme and once it finishes.

STEP is funded and developed by the London Legacy Development Corporation, supported by founding partners Bow Arts, Sadler’s Wells and London College of Fashion, and delivered by Create Jobs at A New Direction in partnership with Creative Access.

Foundation for Future London

Foundation for Future London is an independent charity created to connect communities, the new East Bank and its globally renowned arts, innovation and cultural partners to ensure East Bank is London’s must-visit destination and becomes a resilient, thriving, world-class neighbourhood of local and global significance.

We’re fundraising to expand grant-making opportunities for East Bank communities and partners and facilitating creative placemaking, to support local places, learning, training and employment through arts, education, culture and innovation. Our vision is for a vibrant and inclusive creative East Bank, creating authentic engagement with local people of East London in the boroughs of Hackney, Newham, Tower Hamlets and Waltham Forest.

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