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Interview with Dawn Hill, Chair of the Black Cultural Archives

April 27, 2016

In 1616, Edward Alleyn took action to help improve the lives of his contemporaries, and founded the Dulwich we know today. At this year’s festival, we’ll be meeting similarly dynamic individuals from our community, and finding out more about what inspired them to act.

Dawn Hill is Chair of the Black Cultural Archives which exists to record, preserve and celebrate the history of people of African descent in Britain.

When the doors of the Black Cultural Archives (BCA) were opened to the world in 2014 this was the culmination of many years of hard work and campaigning. How did it feel to achieve your goal?

It was quite surreal. We had done it. A culmination of very hard work from trustees and staff. We have to make this a success!

It would seem obvious that there should be an archive devoted to the hundreds of years of black history in Britain but until Len Garrison began the journey to create one back in 1981, this wasn’t the case. How did the supporters of the BCA first approach this absence in our cultural understanding of our country?

Len Garrison together with a group of educationalists, community activists and parents started producing education materials for schools in an attempt to introduce black history in the classroom. BCA as a community organisation was inspired by Queen Mother Moore an American Pan- African civil rights leader who encouraged Len in his vision to build a museum that preserved and celebrated Black history in the UK. 1981 was a pivotal time in British history, with racial tensions at boiling point and generations of Black British people marginalised within society. We recall the 1981 uprisings across the country.

Could you explain something of how the aims and purpose of the BCA in celebrating the history of black culture in the UK will benefit us at a local and national level?

Britain is a very diverse country. Black people and the generations born here need to know their history. They will be inspired by this knowledge and have a sense of their heritage. It is also important that the indigenous people in the UK and European migrants to the UK also know that Black people are part of British history. Our work recognises the importance of untold stories and providing a platform to encourage enquiry and dialogue. We welcome everybody to join us and unfold these fascinating narratives together through access to our archive collection, dedicated schools programme and an exciting programme of exhibitions and events that explore British history from a unique perspective.

BCA’s has clear aims 1. To preserve a growing collection of original archives as a permanent record of the richness of the black experience in Britain and accessible to all. 2. To promote the teaching, learning and understanding of black people’s contribution, which will enable people to learn and connect with hidden histories creating an experience to uplift and inspire.
3. BCA provides a platform from which to share the diversity of cultures originating from Africa and the Caribbean past and present.

Are there any plans to extend the presence of the BCA beyond its current location in Brixton, perhaps in other parts of the UK?

BCA is a national Institution and sees itself in a leadership role signposting and connecting existing collections and institutions. Learning is at the heart of our organisation and staff conduct public outreach, and produce digital learning resources. We deliver schools programmes for primary and secondary schools and further and higher education. We have links with individual private collectors, community organisations, museums and archives and universities in Britain, the Caribbean and Africa and newly developing links with the new Smithsonian National Museum of African American History and Culture. We work closely with colleagues across the heritage and corporate sectors to develop work that remains relevant and contributes to our vision of building a lasting legacy in Britain.

This year’s Dulwich Festival pays significant attention to Edward Alleyn, and considers how he took the initiative to improve the quality of life of his peers. In terms of your work with the BCA, was there a watershed moment in your life when you became resolved to make a difference and improve the lives of your peers?

My introduction to Len garrison and the BCA was as a result of being asked to assist him with putting on a classical concert to show case young composers and musicians of Caribbean heritage. Coming from a musical family and knowing something about putting on concerts, I was interested and agreed to help. Some of the early archives in the BCA are of these concerts at the South Bank and the Commonwealth Institute.

It’s not uncommon in our society to hear of people wanting to make a difference and ‘give something back’ to their communities. As someone who has been doing this over many years and with great success, what advice would you offer anyone wishing to make a similar positive contribution to their society?

My advice is simple – where you see there is a need and you feel great compassion or are have an interest and think you could change or improve things – just offer to help, you will also learn a lot. I am so proud to have helped Len Garrison and to now see his vision come to life at the BCA heritage centre.
To find out more about the BCA, visit the website here: http://bcaheritage.org.uk/

For more details and to buy tickets to see Dawn Hill speaking at our event ‘Contemporary Radicals – following in the footsteps of Edward Alleyn’, visit: http://dulwichfestival.co.uk/product/contemporary-radicals-following-in-the-footsteps-of-edward-alleyn/

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