RMN’21: Representing Gypsy, Roma and Travelling Communities in Rural Museums

In the autumn of 2021, the Rural Museums Network went online once more with a new Seminar Series – tailoring contemporary thinking and practice to those who work with rural life collections, providing practical suggestions and support.

Monthly tea break seminars were held, with the opportunity to hear expert panels discuss how rural collections and rural sites could better include a wider range of voices in the stories they tell by looking at Gypsy, Roma and Travelling communities; decolonisation; and LBTQ+ lives.

For the opening session, the Rural Museums Network brought together a panel of experts who were passionate about the representation of Gypsy, Roma and Travelling communities in our rural histories. Jeremy Harte, John Henry Phillips, and Georgina Stevens discussed how and why GRT histories have a place in our museums, as well as who we should be working with to make these stories accessible to all.

This session was hosted by Guy Baxter, Associate Director (Archive Services) at the Museum of English Rural Life.

Jeremy Harte is curator of Bourne Hall Museum at Epsom and Ewell, where he has been researching and presenting Gypsy history for twenty years. He is co-organiser of Roma Gypsy Traveller History Month in Surrey, sits on the committee of the Romany and Traveller Family History Society, and has worked with community leaders to create the Surrey Gypsy Archive. He worked on the international Roma Routes project collating Romany material culture in museums. His history Travellers Through Time is the fruit of a project to present an honest portrait of Gypsy history from the inside. He can be found on Epsom Downs each June, enthusiastically buying whatever everyone else is buying. @FolkLoreSociety

John Henry Phillips is an award-winning archaeologist, author and filmmaker of Romani descent. He is the co-director of Romani Community Archaeology, a new non-profit looking to elevate Romani communities through archaeology. By excavating, engaging and educating, the project aims to uncover sites and artefacts highlighting the material culture of Romani Gypsies in order to combat modern misconceptions and showcase Romani as a unique ethnic minority with a deep and rich history. By working with Romani communities, the project aims to elevate Romani voices, improve mental and physical well-being and open the heritage sector up to those who may otherwise not have access. @johnphillips185

Georgina Stevens is from a Romani background and previously worked in education. She is Vardo Project Curatorial Officer for Hartlebury Castle Museum in Worcestershire, home to the most complete collection of Vardos in the UK. Georgina has been appointed as part of a 3-year project funded by the John Ellerman Foundation that aims to illuminate the context of the museum’s extremely unique collection, by engaging directly with the travelling community, sharing information about its culture and identity. It aims to empower the collection to challenge negative stereotypes and preserve a neglected history in the public domain before it is lost. @WorcesterMuseum

Kathy Townsley McGuigan grew up in the 1960s in a traditional Scottish Traveller family based in Argyll and all-around Scotland. She spent most of her working life in traditional farming or equivalent roles. Out of work, her family hung on to the traditional ways longer than many others. She was always aware and proud of her community’s traditions, and became an articulate advocate for these, and for Traveller rights, within her own community and to the outside world. She has worked at Auchindrain Historic Township since 2014, where her knowledge saw her become a subject-specialist on the intangible and tangible elements of Traveller culture, taking part in research, recording, collecting and interpretation.

Guy Baxter is Associate Director (Archive Services) at the Museum of English Rural Life. He has worked at the Museum since 2008 and is a strong advocate for museums, libraries, archives and researchers working closely together for a common purpose. Having contributed to the inclusion of Gypsy Roma and Traveller stories in the Museum’s new galleries in 2016, Guy supported the strand of The MERL’s Building Connections project looking more broadly at interpretation about migration. This led to the Museum’s successful first engagement with GRT History Month in 2021, as the springboard for longer-term engagement – online, in schools and in the Museum. @archivesgb

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