Over the last week the discussion about the proposals by Cardiff Council for a Military Medicine Museum on Britannia Park in Cardiff Bay have led to a great deal of debate, particularly within the wider international context of the Black Lives Matter movement. The debate has culminated in calls for a Museum for Tiger Bay. The discourse has been typified by campaigners, politicians and commentators providing their two-penny worth, but conspicuous in their absence have been contributions from Butetown itself. Keith Murrell, Creative Director of Butetown Arts & Culture Association – organisers of the Butetown Carnival – provided a brief, but pointed response on Twitter:
for as long as I can remember, others have
celebrated our history
planned our futures
and disregarded our presence
We decided to catch up with him to discuss the situation, and we got a typically erudite and challenging response – and one that conveys some of the complexity and richness of the situation at hand.
Undod: Hi Keith, good to be in touch again. Before we get on to talking about the recent discussions, would you mind saying a little bit about your background? Hearing you speak previously, you came out with some great lines like:
we didn’t need to go and see the world, the world came to Tiger Bay
we were doing multiculturalism years before any academic had analysed it or put a label on it
Is it right to think that they capture a lot of what your life experience has been about?
KM: Of course, there’s always some poetic licence when I’m talking, and of course ‘we did go and see the world’ as merchant sailors, in the armed forces, GI Brides and more. My phrase is more of reaction to a lifetime of anthropological put-downs.
But to explain what I mean from a personal perspective…
I didn’t go to college (well, to tell the truth I have dropped out of a couple of courses in my time), I never had a passport or driver’s license and except for a couple of very brief periods I’ve always lived in Cardiff: mostly Butetown and latterly Grangetown.
But even before the advent of internet technology I was already well-versed in global politics, culture and current affairs (albeit just a bit slower than nowadays). I have friends from all over the world that I met in Butetown and met quite a few that are not friends.
As you know, I sometimes have issues with some terminology and multicultural is one of them. I could probably do a whole paper on my views about culture but suffice to say that all of the espoused values (or at least potential for them) had already been arrived at organically in Butetown.
Undod: And what about looking ‘in’ as well as ‘out’ as it were? It’s fair to say that some of your own experiences show that this doesn’t have to be in contrast to or somehow divided from other Welsh experiences that might be regarded as more typical. Your work with the carnival during the 2019 Eisteddfod in Cardiff springs to mind as something really memorable, but equally isn’t it right to say that this wasn’t the first time you’d got involved with what we might call ‘Welsh-language’ culture?
KM: We celebrated St David’s Day in Primary School like everyone else – I was Owain Glyndwr one year and as I recall, we won that battle; I did compulsory Welsh language for a couple of years but didn’t like the teacher enough to continue.
I remember media reports of Welsh Nationalists around Charles’ investiture and thinking that since we didn’t speak Welsh either, they were ‘against us’ as well – not to mention besmirching our street party… but they were in a place called North Wales so I wasn’t that affected.
By my late teens my own political and social views had obviously developed and I agreed with the ‘second homes campaign’ and then Welsh language TV: I thought those activists were leading the way and then I wrote a couple of (English language) songs referencing these things at the time.
And around this time I met Geraint Jarman – at a Butetown musician friend’s house. Geraint had been using more Reggae influences in his work and I know a lot about Reggae … it’s not surprising that our conversations about music actually centred around political and social issues as much as the music.
Occasionally, and usually spontaneously, Geraint invited me to sing on his studio tracks (Diwrnod i’r Brenin was first) although not a Welsh speaker I had few simple lines to learn and I was ok at pronunciation … except on one particular occasion, when I’d learned the line from another singer with a bit of a lisp and so spent 20 minutes in the booth singing “Lliglo ar y Lliglen” …
I did a few live gigs across Wales including “Taith y Carcharorion”: I was able to see and get a feel of the landscape and history, and meet Welsh-speaking people outside of the academic / professional bubble of Cardiff. I got to really appreciate the value of Welsh language music to young people in the audiences … and even the value of Reggae music to a farmer in Pembroke. My most profound moment of connection was at a chip shop in Bala, where the lady serving immediately and warmly switched to English to answer my order.
Since that, I’ve worked on a couple of community arts type projects in North Wales with only positive experiences with the place and the people. I know it’s certainly not as idyllic as my experiences but I feel personally as at ease in North Wales as I do in North Cardiff.
Undod: So Butetown and the Bay has had a lot of attention during the last week because of the discussions around the proposals for a Military Medicine Museum on the space that’s known as Britannia Park, next to the Norwegian Church and around the corner from the Senedd. What were your immediate thoughts?
KM: Yes, I did see the issue coming up again … to be honest, my immediate reaction when I saw the Twitter thread [from Huw Thomas] was that it was another conversation by outsiders about what we should have without bothering to ask… and we’re not exactly hard to reach. I saw the WalesOnline piece and felt it was another dose of what you might call benevolent disempowerment.
You’ll know from our face to face discussions what my tone and intent it when I say things like this and it’s not to be vindictive, but I perhaps summed it up a bit less abrasively in my twitter post about others celebrating our history, planning our futures and disregarding our presence.
The role of the media in this way is evidenced in any archive footage from the 1960s to the present day, where local contributions are limited to a few talking heads and montage meat: the more recent use of Black presenters may allude to some kind of progress but the fact that Black outsiders are quite specifically sought speaks louder to me. The fact that they always have to regurgitate the same old tropes and memes infuriates and satisfies me at the same time.
I know this current episode is being driven a genuine interest in the history and goodwill towards the community; that the campaign is trying to use the media and not the other way around. But the WalesOnline article in particular showed a very familiar and uncomfortable pattern in terms of limited representation.
One particular issue which came up here and elsewhere is discussion of the closure of Butetown History and Arts Centre (BHAC) as a loss and the withdrawing of funding as some great injustice to the community. This may come as a surprise to those outside the community, but not so much to those within it when I say that in my opinion, the exact opposite is true: the official support given to BHAC was at the expense of the local community, the organisation was not accountable to the community (albeit some token locals on the board) and it was eventually run down due to bad management. Arts Council Wales could no longer afford to keep throwing good money after bad and despite the emotive value of whatever may have been lost, there was minimal local support or reaction to the closing.
Again, I accept that the lack of homework on this issue is more likely due to enthusiasm than a deliberate attempt to manipulate a story – but getting a variety of opinions in Butetown is not that hard and finding informed contacts is not difficult.
As for the idea of a museum, I’m actually not against it per se, but as I’ve said before our history has a history of being exploited and misrepresented … and the discussion I’ve read so far seems to be going in the same direction (however well-meaning).
I would be personally more interested in a wider discussion (and actions) around what heritage is important and why – who owns the history and who benefits? And then the how: whether a museum is actually the best investment of whatever public funding might be available?
How relevant will museums even be in the future? Is this just an alternative or counterpart to the military museum? Again, I’m not against the idea and understand the sincerity behind it all … I’m not parochial or closed minded, but I would want to support a different approach to any new project.
Undod: That’s obviously a provocative answer that suggests that – perhaps inevitably – things are more complicated than simply plonking a ‘Tiger Bay’ museum on the site in place of what is proposed, and that we should be thinking about this question in terms of a whole set of wider questions.
KM: Yes, it’s not even as simple as saying this is an issue of the community and ‘outsiders’. Having people migrate into the community is obviously characteristic of its history, and having the capacity to properly welcome and include newcomers shows the strength of community – and despite the reputation, we are not totally averse to working with ‘outsiders’ either… but the track record so far is not great.
In terms of how we archive and celebrate the area, I should declare that I’ve got some vested interests in that I’ve also been developing ideas around premises as part Butetown Arts & Culture Association (BACA), looking at a 5 year business plan that could be funded by the Arts Council. From our archive site you can see that I’m totally invested in our community heritage and truth be told, I have actually played a significant role in creating that heritage over the past 40 years or more – I don’t doubt that I would eventually be featured in any future museum
This is not just me chest-beating but a comment on appropriation – I’m irked that our past is celebrated by people so indifferent to our present (and that’s historical too). In the absence of support (and in some cases actual suppression), in the shadow of BHAC and others, we’ve actually continuously preserved, researched, shared and promoted Butetown History on an oral basis. And of course internet technologies have made this a whole new ball game… we set up Bay Life Archive page because it was free.
With regards to this particular development: I would readily say that I’m against the military medical museum for all number of reasons but this is the Docks and Cardiff Bay and I’ve been in (futile) opposition many times before. I’ve spoken previously, in relation to Carnival, about the disconnect between the Bay and the community – about reclaiming the space as a part of our heritage so that we can be a part of the future.
Undod: There’s a lot that’s said about that relationship between community and the Bay, and it’s patently obvious to anyone who has spent any time here that there are good reasons why some refer to ‘the Berlin Wall’ that runs alongside the railtrack and divides Loudon Square from the new builds of Atlantic Wharf – and of course, very symbolically – the Senedd itself. Do you think that division can be overcome or a reconciliation made, given especially the way in which the Cardiff Bay Development Corporation in its creation damaged those communities?
KM: Times change. For example, I was against the building of an opera house while I and others in the community couldn’t even be acknowledged as artists. I literally didn’t go anywhere near the Welsh Millennium Centre for the first 10 years or so. But I am much more comfortable there nowadays. A couple of years back I went past the building with my granddaughter and she said “look, that’s where we do Carnival” That made me realise that WMC was actually a landmark in her community – not something built over something else … at this time, the Centre has been around as long as the Casablanca in its heyday or any other of our stories.
It would actually be a dream come true to have a real presence and voice in that area (my first job leaving school was just across the lock). Again, I have reservations about a museum as a box full of dead things and lies … and I’m not totally sure about the physical distance from ‘the heart’ of the community … but that also poses any number of questions. We’d certainly be happy to work with others to try to come up something viable and valuable but again, we’d be quite selective of potential partners for good reason.
I’d also underline that I’m talking about the past and present – each of these might be a different prospect for the future if the situation allows people to work together better.
Undod: So tell us some more about your thoughts on what you think might be some valuable developments for people in Butetown – given that so many other people have offered up theirs already!
KM: Firstly just to clarify my feelings about the proposals. Certainly all my reservations and cynicism about the Tiger Bay museum can be amplified a 1000 times for a military museum: my aversion to almost anything military; the ‘outsider’ imposition and colonising of ‘our space’; the diversion of public funding … I understand that it’s not financially viable, hence the talk about including other elements. Indeed I wouldn’t be surprised if they also think of including some kind of local heritage element within the plans to boot.
In terms of a positive alternative, I mentioned BACA earlier – it’s a board we put together primarily for Carnival but wanting to do other things (e.g. the archive). As you know there is a lot of local knowledge and professional expertise in the group. We’ve been getting decent support from Arts Council Wales and I was in the process of applying for a large grant (1 year) to develop a business plan and then apply for ‘Portfolio’ ( 5 year) funding, Covid has halted this process for the moment but we are still in a relatively good position to pick up and – or pivot – the plans when possible. Certainly premises was one of the (more ambitious) aims of the draft business plan so far but I’m not trying to get an exclusive claim for best use and might be that particular site doesn’t suit our plans. There are a lot of spaces in Butetown that could be developed, and there’s no reason to limit the ambition to this one site if the powers that be are actually serious about listening.
In actual fact, with respect to Britannia park (and we really need a name change there!) it could be developed as some kind of open air amphitheatre … it would be great for Carnival / Eisteddfod and even more events, especially when we think about how Covid impacts on theatre. It could also be used for demos and should really include a speaker’s corner. I’m no developer but I think much of it could be achieved by landscaping rather than building and would mostly remain open space for general leisure use.
My last point – and this would be a more general one, is that in all this we need to think about the underlying issues facing the communities of Butetown. We need to think about the needs and opportunities for young people – and to my mind that includes bringing a different narrative to the fore – and even more crucial is the move to bring Black history to the curriculum, which is gaining some currency. Mind you, I’ve signed the petition myself whilst still being very wary that the content will literally be coloured to suit the ambitions of individuals and organisations. I don’t think that replacing one set of myths with another is going to bring the desired results.
Undod: Proposals that seem hard to fault, fair play. It’s been great speaking to you Keith. It would be good to finish by hearing your thoughts on the wider events that are happening at the moment. So just a small(!) question to end: what do you make of the BLM movement and the protests in Cardiff – is this a real opportunity for Wales (and the World)?
KM: I’m a bit bi-polar about BLM and especially in Cardiff, Wales.
I wholeheartedly agree with the official movement and the original sentiment – I understand and agree with the brand although I could say it’s a misnomer because it’s actually more about Black deaths and a specific sub-set at that. I don’t know what’s in their broader intentions but I do support BLM on their main focus of stopping the police killings.
I’ve no wish to hijack or divert from BLM but as I’m in a position to look at things from a distance I think I’m better engaged discussing broader issues and even some closer to home.
In global terms I must say I’m a bit perplexed about the ‘why now’ – and to what extent our connection to US culture makes this a landmark moment … but that doesn’t detract from the moment and overall I’m really heartened by the public response.
The numbers and overall atmosphere in Bute Park was inspiring – but I felt the speakers and speeches tended for the most part towards grand-standing and fear-mongering – and showed the complete absence of valid leadership, or even discourse on so-called race issues in Cardiff and Wales (and maybe that’s another essay for another day…).
For all of the anger and the seriousness of the issues the overwhelming takeaway should have been the support and solidarity and not just digging up old grievances to suit a trend. Yes, there’s work to be done tackling injustices here but I really abhor the insinuation that Black lives might be routinely in danger from casual violence by police. Provoking under the guise of awareness.
Beyond the rally, I’ve also witnessed certain individuals and groups begin to position themselves to capitalise on the situation lining up to bang on doors like some kind of political piñata.
There is a well-established ruling class in the Equalities Industry in Cardiff/Wales/UK (I used to call them ‘prefnics’ – and as an aside most of the lead actors come from outside Wales and / or as far from Butetown as possible). Many of those who are now in the position of ‘condemning’ systemic racism are actually participants and beneficiaries and having failed to make any lasting change they now have chance to regain currency from BLM.
As analogy: I applaud the move to remove Picton from Cardiff City Hall but I know that there have been countless VIP BAME banquets in that place where people were no doubt happy to be in such company.
We saw some of this coming from the Stephen Lawrence case and several other issues since. Wales (Labour) particularly enjoys being exercised by English (Tory) racism and will usually dole out a few £££ for their BAME associates to organise a jamboree. I realise most of this the cynical side of me – but I think I’m entitled to that given that everybody is venting something.
More optimistically, and for the future: I do think significant positive changes will come of BLM – the fact that we’re discussing it as a basis for change shows me that it’s happening… I really think that this (or should I say that) generation of young people will see through the changes needed – perhaps not entirely but they will get to do their bit…
Just over 20 years ago I was involved in supporting the National Black Youth Forum, which culminated in the publishing a Charter which was then presented by the young people at the House of Commons and the Senedd offices.
Yesterday I was contacted by a couple of the (not so) young people and workers (now elders). One of the forum now works on diversity at the House of Commons and is very confident that the Charter would still have some currency in the Government response to the BLM situation. This is all still very ad hoc at the moment and of course the intention would be to re-engage with the current generation of young people to give relevance and ownership – and the lowering of voting age for Wales could the ideal window to promote it.
I think that this will also impact other campaigns and issues too … And I think groups like XR have shown some leadership in setting the public mood, even if not on this specific issue
… and speaking just for myself, I feel that this brings more relevance – even validation- to what I’ve been saying and doing since whenever, and I feel like carrying on with it.
1, We asked designer Malltwen Gwladys for some examples of how the space could be developed in keeping with Keith’s ideas and here are a couple of examples:
Superkilen urban park by BIG (Bjarke Ingels) – Copenhagen
Danish architecture firm BIG has scattered miscellaneous street furniture from 60 different nations across a brightly coloured carpet of grass and rubber at this park in Copenhagen
2, Dulwich Pavilion
This is an architectural competition which takes place every two years in the grounds of the Dulwich Picture Gallery to build an outdoor pavilion for the summer months, in order to run a programme of performances and music etc. This pavilion planning competition is an important part of a planners’ calendar (attracting attention and global talent). Could Britannia Park have this kind of pavilion that would attract local design talent?
3, And finally this is the Serpentine Gallery Pavilion (Herzog & de Meuron a Ai Weiwei- 2012)