The Lost Stories Collective

The Lost Stories Collective challenges the way we consume culture by situating communities-of-place at the heart of storytelling. Through a community-led and community-curated experiential journey consisting of place-based interventions, we empower neighbours to take ownership of their local histories, start a conversation, and keep it going.

Tanushka Karad
Deepu James
Supported by The Gunnersbury Park Museum and Free the Museum
Co-production, co-curation and co-ownership of shared local histories to build more cohesive communities
What does it mean for our heritage and culture when we don’t see museums as open spaces - but rather as tourist attractions for solitary learning? The world, as I see it, is facing challenges such as development and migration, which contribute to shifting place identities, consequently covering up heritage and history. 

In this project, we took on a ‘thinking-by-doing’ approach to enable communities-of-place to be at the forefront of narrating their histories. Focusing on oral histories of residents, The Lost Stories Collective supports residents in collecting, curating and displaying the generational stories that make up their home, through physical and digital touch-points. Through this project, we sought to create impact in three ways: 1. Moving away from authoritative one-way knowledge flows (like we see in the case of museums) to a participatory, conversational approach. 2. Focusing on bringing out diverse viewpoints, as opposed to repeating narratives. 3. Using local history to build pride, empathy and community cohesion. We completed the project with the support of The Gunnersbury Park Museum and Free the Museum to test our proposition with the Southall community. You can watch our introductory video below.
The way we consume culture

We interacted with people within the cultural sector such as museum practitioners, experts, consultancies, and professional storytellers to unpack the challenges of the sector. We were able to understand how we consume culture and the way it is designed for us. It increasingly became evident that museums, which are the primary storehouses of heritage & culture, were not seen as open spaces. They were seen as tourist attractions for solitary learning. But are museums addressing this challenge? Museums tend to ignore their local communities, focusing more on delivering an experience tailored for visitors. By using linear, internalised, output-oriented process like logic models, the voice of local communities often lie on the periphery. In response to this one-way flow of knowledge, we envisioned an approach where communities could participate in sharing knowledge. Our goal thus became to provide a space for conversation and active learning.

Moving to a community-first approach

While working with the Gunnersbury Park Museum, we identified the Southall community as a group of diverse people with an under-represented history. We decided to work with them as a space to research and test our propositions. We took on an experimental approach through guerrilla research mechanisms and probes to get to the bottom of:1. Relationships with local history and local museums2. Level of awareness3. Perceptions of their home
Historically, the community had been treated as mere subjects while addressing their local history. They wanted to be equal participants to avoid the common misrepresentation and repetition of narratives. Our experiments also enabled us to challenge our hypothesis of a uniform sense of pride in the district. We saw that there existed a divide between generational and new residents owing to pride, empathy, and place attachment being in a state of flux. We hence decided to give the community ownership over local histories and use it to rebuild cohesion.

The Service: Co-produce, co-curate and co-own

We envisioned The Lost Stories Collective as a place-based experiential journey that can be openly adopted in their neighbourhood by any community facing similar challenges of shifting place identity. We support residents to collect, curate and display oral histories of their communities as quarterly exhibitions featuring both physical and digital interactions. We involve residents in both frontstage and backstage functions across three realms:1. Co-production: We designed and prototyped various story collection tools to get people thinking about their personal histories and narrate them in their own voice. The platform also offers AR experiences using crowd-sourced images to show residents how their home has evolved. 2. Co-curation: A core aspect of embedding a community voice is involving them in curating the exhibitions every quarter.3. Co-ownership: The Living Library ensures that ours is not a one-sided perspective. By providing a platform to kickstart discussions around local history, we address the diverse voices in the community.

Ensuring sustainability

The uniqueness of our vision for The Lost Stories Collective is in its focus on continuous engagement. It provides a space to start conversations around local history to provide a holistic view. Unlike other oral history projects, it puts emphasis on ‘dissemination’ rather than ‘archiving’ history. It provides open access to be implemented in any community that wishes to adopt the project. It offers training and materials to local organisations and individuals who wish to adopt the project in collection, curation, display, and archiving histories. This promotes independence in the way each Chapter of The Lost Stories Collective functions. Finally, to make the service viable, it works in three month cycles, to support residents in curating quarterly exhibitions that eventually function independently, almost becoming community-powered museums.

Bringing our stories to life

We piloted the project with the Southall community to test various features of the service. We prototyped our story collection methods through online workshops as well as pop-ups in the neighbourhood. Through in-depth interactions with residents, we were able to test our story collection tools such as sensory boards, life maps, reflection dice and prompt cards. We formed a co-curation team consisting of residents and members from a local organisation called Let’s Go Southall to curate the 22 collected stories into a trail of 6 stories. At a 2 day exhibition in Southall, we tested the pole signages, AR experiences and had one of the narrators at a social hub, as part of the Living Library. You can watch a video of our pilot with Southall and see what they had to say below.

special thanks

A big hug to Kriti Agarwal, my project partner, for making this project a true embodiment of a cross-disciplinary design project. I would like to extend my thanks to David, my tutor at the RCA, Jennal & Ellie from the Gunnersbury Park Museum, Tricia from Free the Museum for supporting and mentoring us throughout the process. This project would’ve been incomplete without Jas from Let’s Go Southall, Natalie from the Ealing Council and all the wonderful ‘Southallians' who shared their stories with us, and helped bring The Lost Stories Collective to life.

students involved on the project

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