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Sean Curran (Senior Inclusive Heritage Advisor, Historic England: formerly Community Learning Manager, Sutton House & Breaker’s Yard)

Local heritage and LGBTQ+ histories

transcript s.3 ep.3

SPEAKERS

Sean Curran, Alina Boyko, James Harrod

James Harrod

Hi everyone. Just a quick message to let you know that this episode was recorded before the COVID pandemic. As we are all learning and growing, some views may have shifted in the meantime, and this episode doesn't necessarily reflect current events. We hope you enjoy the show.

00:00

Alina Boyko

Hello, this is For Arts` Sake, a podcast that gives voice to museum people. Here we discover their untold stories, for arts sake and for your sake.

00:17

James Harrod

Here we discover their untold stories, for arts sake and for your sake.

00:21

Alina Boyko

Our guest today is Sean Curran, Community Learning manager at Sutton House, the National Trust's flagship community outreach property, a heritage educator, a community curator, and a self-styled troublemaker.

00:29

James Harrod

Sean has been the driving force behind some really fascinating work uncovering hidden local histories. He is also a champion of LGBTQ plus rights. We are really lucky to speak with him today. So Sean, a very warm welcome.

00:42

Sean Curran

Thank you. Thanks for having me.

00:54

Alina Boyko

Thank you for joining us. Sean, I attended one of your tours at Sutton House back in winter 2020. This tour was certainly different. It was passionate, funny, animated, knowledgeable. So tell us where does that come from?

00:57

Sean Curran

Well, I think it comes from the fact that I like what I do, which maybe sounds a bit silly. But also it comes from having attended a lot of tours that aren't that. I think the main thing about delivering any kind of tour or any kind of outreach is connecting with your audience, but also kind of connecting with what it is about that thing that excites you yourself. I feel like it's very possible to learn how to deliver a tour of anywhere, but you have to kind of have some personal connection to it, otherwise, it's just a performance. I think people can read performances. But I also think, as an educator, anyone can be an expert, but I don't think anyone can be a teacher. And I think sometimes being a good teacher is more important than being an expert. I'm definitely not an expert at anything, but I feel like I'm an engaging teacher, and I think sometimes that's more important.

01:11

James Harrod

So if you are, you know, you don't think you are an expert in anything, who is Sean Curran? Who are you? Who is the person behind the tours and the great sort of engaging teaching?

02:05

Sean Curran

That's kind of an unusual question that I don't know where to begin, who is Sean? Well, I think I'm someone who, I feel like I'm a storyteller maybe, and I'm really interested in people more than I am in places, which perhaps sounds unusual for someone that works for the National Trust, because the National Trust is known for places, but places aren't interesting, unless there are people in them or have been in them. So yeah, I'm interested in people and their stories, and especially people who, perhaps, are kind of ordinary people and their stories. And by ordinary, I mean, kind of all the wonderful intersections that make up the world, and especially kind of marginalised people as well.

02:15

Alina Boyko

Going back to this question about the tour that I asked at the very beginning, because we were fortunate to have a tour with you, but can other people book it or experience it?

02:59

Sean Curran

Not from me. The tours are given by other staff members normally. We were originally planning an exhibition that was supposed to launch just after lockdown, and there was going to be some kind of like curated tours that I was going to lead. But obviously the exhibition isn't even up. So who knows if that'll ever happen.

03:08

Alina Boyko

Back to National Trust and Sutton House, as mentioned during the introduction, you currently work as a community learning manager at the Sutton House & Breaker's Yard in London. Could you tell the listeners what it is and what it is about?

03:27

Sean Curran

Yes. So Sutton House is the oldest domestic building in Hackney and East London, I think. It's in Homerton, and it was built in 1535, as a home. Unlike a lot of National Trust properties, it doesn't have kind of a really clear ancestral lineage that it's passed through. The original homeowner was only there 15 years. So it's passed through loads and loads of various hands, and it's been various things. It's been a school, it's been squatted, it's been a men's club. And because of that, it's got quite a fragmented history, that sometimes is quite a difficult story to tell. It also wasn't really a building that the National Trust wanted. It's kind of become known as a flagship property for the way in which we engage with the local communities, and also the education work we do more formally for primary schools, which was never really a huge focus for the National Trust originally, but it's becoming so and we're kind of held up as kind of the standard for what that can look like.

03:40

James Harrod

So as the Community Learning manager, what does your role actually entails? What does your team look like?

04:39

Sean Curran

So we're a team of two, currently, both furloughed, so there's me and then there's the Community Learning and volunteering officer. Their role is to run the Schools Programme, and to manage the volunteers that we have at Sutton House, and my role is to find ways to engage local community groups with a focus on more marginalised groups. I kind of consider my role to be more about finding ways to kind of challenge the main barrier that we have, and most national - well, all National Trust properties have witches as a pay barrier. So basically it is finding creative ways for people to visit and engage with and use the house without that pay barrier.

04:44

James Harrod

Why is it so important to broaden the appeal of Natural Trust property like Sutton House? Why is it important to get different groups of people through the doors?

05:27

Sean Curran

I think there are two answers to that. One is that the National Trust was set up to preserve spaces and places for the benefit of the nation. The nation looks very different now than what it looked like when it was founded. But also, we now have a greater understanding of barriers that are faced by marginalised communities. So I think it's our responsibility to make sure that we're living up to what we're supposed to be delivering, which is access for everyone. The other thing is, with Sutton House in particular, I think it's really important to think of engagement in the kind of micro local. So you know, it's great if we have tourists coming from afar, or kind of middle England coming to visit, but essentially, we're a Hackney property, and we should first and foremost be appealing to Hackney. Hackney is one of the most diverse boroughs in London, one of the most diverse places in the country, and we should be reflecting that in the kind of visitors that we have, but also in the kind of programming that we deliver as well.

05:34

Alina Boyko

Sean, if you were to highlight one special experience or programme through your career at Sutton House, what would it be? What really sticks out?

06:35

Sean Curran

There have been many, some wonderful, some very challenging, but the one that sticks out the most, especially because we're recording this in Pride Month, or at least the tail end of it, is when the National Trust launched the prejudice and pride programme in 2017. So this was a part of an initiative to create a national public programme, that would be part of many properties across the country, and would normally tie in with a big anniversary year. So in 2018, for example, we were looking at the suffragettes kind of more broadly across the trust, but in 2017, which was the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalization of sex between men in England and Wales, and the idea was that properties could opt in to be part of this, and deliver, it might be that they're delivering a programme or an exhibition, about their queer stories, or maybe commissioning a new piece of artwork or changing their interpretation, or in some way getting involved in that programme. Out of almost 400 properties across the country, there were about 15 I believe that got involved in that. We are the only property who did a yearlong programme for that. There was also a precedent at Sutton House, because before I was in this role, I volunteered at Sutton House and as a volunteer, I curated the first ever LGBT history month exhibition in any of the National Trust properties in 2014. So we kind of built up an audience, communities were quite keen to engage with us because they knew that it wasn't just the kind of one off that we were doing, and that it was a commitment that we had, to kind of sustained an authentic programming. We delivered a yearlong programme that had its peaks and troughs, it wasn't all successful, but on the whole, it was a really positive experience, on one level. On another, I found it really eye opening in terms of what my role could be in the future, because the support wasn't shared, the successes weren't necessarily internal successes. I look back on that year kind of as a source of trauma rather than a source of pride, because of the reactions that we were getting internally, from more senior members of staff who were really resistant to the programming that we were doing. I think in light of the Black Lives Matter movement, it's really made me think about what my role could be as a kind of a really valuable ally, because that was something that we were sorely missing as queer members of staff who were delivering that programme. It should have been us taking leadership for the programme, which we did, but it shouldn't have been us that were fighting all of the battles, that should have been coming from senior straight allies who were more supportive and more on board with the programme. And that's what we weren't getting. I think that's been really important, because I think the biggest thing the heritage sector is going to face, or is facing at the moment, aside from obviously how do we kind of recover following the COVID-19, but how do we show our commitment to being really genuinely and kind of aggressively anti-racist as institutions in terms of what we're delivering for visitors, but also in terms of what kind of places we are for people to work in. I think I now know what my role and the role of other white people in the institution should be, and that is to let the black and other people of colour, members of staff take leadership on what it is that we do, but for us to do kind of the heavy lifting and the work that's attached to more kind of, the taking on the emotional baggage of it, because it's kind of our problem, more than it is anybody else's. And I think that's what was sorely missing when we delivered the prejudice and pride programme. There were elements of it that I think were really great in terms of external successes, we had a commitment to only working with queer artists that year, we do a lot of work with artists. We also realised that the properties that were getting involved, although there was kind of embarrassingly few of them, they were mostly dealing with kind of white, aristocratic, mostly men, which makes sense, because those are the stories that are most apparent in our historic houses. But we thought it was our role to provide a platform for those that are even kind of doubly marginalised within LGBT communities. So we worked predominantly with trans people, and with people of colour as well. So it was a really kind of formative, important part of my professional life, and also has really shaped what Sutton House has become. But it was also a source of deep trauma for a lot of the staff that were involved. And I think, a really, really steep learning curve. It's a shame that the first time that the trusted national public programme, it was with a subject that turned out to be so contentious internally. I think we weren't ready for the programme that we were being asked to deliver, essentially.

06:43

Alina Boyko

So fast forward to 2020, this lack of support among senior members of staff, does this issue still persist in your opinion?

11:39

Sean Curran

It's difficult to tell, because one of the outcomes of the way that I felt during that year is that I've taken a real step back from any of the LGBT stuff that's happening in the trust now, partially because I don't necessarily think it's the most valuable approach. It's very much about like, oh, we're going to march at pride, blah, blah, blah, and I think I find it sometimes a little bit disingenuous. I think, superficially, it seems like we have support, but I think we would really be able to tell if that support was really there, if we were delivering some kind of really radical queer programming still, which we have. At Sutton House, we've done some events, we've done some work with artists and stuff, but nothing that's really kind of got on the radar of senior management I think, so it would be interesting to see whether or not there has been any growth in that area. But I'm not entirely sure.

11:47

James Harrod

In terms of things that perhaps have shifted, or perhaps have changed for the better, what are some of the things you've seen change in your time at Sutton House?

12:39

Sean Curran

I think part of the legacy of the programme for me is really, there are kind of two elements of the legacy of that that have been really, really positive. One is that, I think, if you show very authentic and more importantly, sustained engagement with a community, that community begins to approach you to work with them. So it's less about you going out and trying to build these relationships, it's about you having a reputation, so people are like, oh, we want to do an exhibition, or we want to use the space for an event. Sutton House is on the radar of the queer community now, which is something that I feel is a really important legacy. But also I think, when we think of legacy, I think often we think about, especially in terms of like funding bids and stuff, we think about, you know, oh, well, we'll create a website, we'll create a podcast series, we'll create a booklet or something, and that's all very important and valuable. But I think the legacy that often doesn't get thought about as much is the kind of the internal kind of cultural shifts that happen. The most visible one for me is that we've done a lot of, we've had quite high turnover of staff in the last few years, and I've sat on a lot of interview panels. I would say, well over half of the people who've been interviewed, when we've said what is it about Sutton House, why do you want to work here, they've said, they've come out to us, they said, it's because I'm from the LGBTQ community, I've seen the work that you've done, and it feels really authentic and meaningful, and that sort of thing. I think that's been a really unexpected and really lovely kind of legacy of that project, and I think it's also made me think about how… The best way to make meaningful change in terms of representation is to ensure that it's not just what you're delivering to the public that is reflecting those communities, but that your staff is also kind of richly diverse as well. At the moment, the National Trust, like the entire museum and heritage sector is overwhelmingly white. I think when we start to show a real commitment to like black led programming, where people are not just expected to work in kind of like a gig economy or paid for one off kind of showcases or whatever, then that trust with the community will build up and people will not only want to visit our places, but they'll also want to work at our places as well. And I think that I found that really inspiring to see that the programming had that impact.

12:45

James Harrod

Thank you. That's really nice positive changes there as well. It's good to see that it's not all been traumatic experiences for you.

15:02

Alina Boyko

But can you highlight some places which are doing really good work in bringing the LGBTQ history to the forefront?

15:10

Sean Curran

My favourite museum, full stop, is the People's History Museum in Manchester, and it's because it kind of does what it says on the tin, and is about the social history of the kind of big movements and moments and LGBTQ narratives are kind of woven into every story that they tell. I think that's what good quality LGBT programming looks like. It's not that it's an exhibition for LGBT history month, or for, you know, a season or a year, it factors into every single thing that you do. I think it's not kind of in addition to, or like a kind of bonus history, it's kind of demonstrated that it's an integral part of the history that's being told. I think that goes for every other kind of marginalised history as well. I don't think black history should be an addition or a kind of special thing. I think it should be seen as absolutely imperative detailing any history, because it is. So I think the places that do that are the places that are kind of leading the way.

15:19

James Harrod

So before you worked in the heritage sector, you worked in a school, I believe?

16:26

Sean Curran

Yes. Well, I was kind of in the heritage sector and working in a school at the same time. So I've worked in heritage more broadly, since 2007. I used to work in libraries. I did an MA at UCL, or BAUE e at the time, and then I started the PhD. Once my funding for my PhD ran out, I didn't have a job and I wasn't very employable. So I worked as a teaching assistant in a secondary school in Hackney, very, very close to Sutton House, actually. So I was teaching assistant for autistic children, mostly in AIT, and in Sixth Form. I was also a learning mentor there as well.

16:33

James Harrod

Cool. I was a former teacher myself, so it's interesting to ask this one. How does your sort of approach to learning have to shift from sort of more formal environments to a more informal environment within heritage?

17:08

Sean Curran

That's a very interesting question. It's difficult for me to think too much of them as kind of like for like, because I was working in secondary school, and the kids that we engage with at Sutton House are mostly primary. There's a difference in approach there already. But I also think, I was a bit of a rebellious teaching assistant, and I feel like I had quite an informal approach at the school anyway. And I think, especially when you are working with vulnerable children and young people, and they are in a mainstream school, trying to navigate the kind of, and it was an exceptionally strict school as well, trying to navigate the kind of trauma of being at school, I think they need someone that feels more like an ally to them. I think that's kind of why I had a much more informal relationship with the pupils, because I think it's really important to know there is kind of someone on their side, when sometimes it feels like there isn't. So I'm not sure I really had to make much of a shift. I was always very informal. I was always kind of kind and nurturing. I think those are the things that...

17:20

James Harrod

No place in the schools.

18:19

Sean Curran

Well, it often feels like there really isn't. And I feel like that is how I aim to be as an educator anyway.

18:22

James Harrod

So to address the elephant in the room, obviously, you've mentioned that you've been furloughed, and the other member of your department has been furloughed, and I'm sure this is the case with loads of heritage sites, lots of museums, lots of galleries and lots of businesses in general across the country. How has that affected Sutton House sort of more broadly? How is it going to affect you when you reopen? Have you had to reconsider programming and that kind of stuff going forward?

18:29

Sean Curran

Well, I didn't really have much time to do much reconsidering, in a kind of formal work setting. Basically, the education and outreach staff were the first to be furloughed, which I think is probably quite a similar story more broadly across the sector. I think I understand the logic behind it, but I think it's a mistake, because I think if ever you need people who have a really good grasp of what kind of innovative outreach can look like, it's at a time when you're considering a future where there might not be any physical visitors. I mean, in the short term, we've cancelled lots of things, we had school bookings, we had community groups using the spaces, we had an exhibition that was about to launch. Those things aren't happening, we're going to have to redress that if and when I'm unfurloughed. And obviously those conversations are going on with the unfurloughed members of staff. I mean, obviously, it's difficult because it might be that we lose colleagues and that sort of thing. I think it's difficult to remain positive about it in any way. But I think it will present some opportunities for us as educators and people who are in outreach to really use this as an opportunity to think about how we can engage beyond the four walls, which I think some places maybe are already very good at. I don't think we necessarily are. I don't really know what that will look like, but I think it's interesting to think that not only are we going to wait, you know, when everyone's returning to work, not only is that going to be on our mind, but also the questions that have been raised by the Black Lives Matter movement are going to be very much at the forefront of our thinking, and thinking about reflecting on the ways that we as institutions and individuals are using and misusing our privilege, and about how we can make what museums to think they're doing very well, which is being kind of inclusive and engaging, but how we can think about how, instead of just taking it from that approach, about how we can think about what anti-racism really looks like, in both what we deliver and in ourselves as an institution and as individuals. I think it's really interesting in the Black Lives Matter movement, the way that heritage has come into the conversation. Perhaps it is a bit of a distraction to what the movement is actually asking for, but in terms of the statues being pulled down, the people who find this absolutely abhorrent, are saying, but you know, you're destroying history, blah, blah, blah. I haven't heard anyone who works in the heritage sector, whose job is to preserve history, and to educate about history, I haven't heard any of them thinking that it's a bad thing to pull down these statues that are not capturing a moment in history, they're capturing the moment that the statue was erected. I think it's really valuable to reconsider what it is that we kind of put on literal plinths, and the ways that we remember history. And I don't think that these things are important or valuable artworks. I think a lot of the time, they are very ugly, they're very cheaply produced. But I also don't think that people learn anything from them. I think often something can tell a story much more powerfully if it isn't there, than if it is. The Berlin Wall is perhaps a key example of this. And I'm really pleased to see that even the National Trust is getting on board with this. They have recently removed a statue from the front of Dunham Massey, which was a very, very ugly and upsetting statue of a black man kind of crouched on his knees holding a sundial up, and it was directly in front of the front door. So it was the first thing that visitors saw. It had no artistic merit, it did nothing but traumatise, you know, people who might find those histories very sensitive, which should be all of us. And that's been removed. I think what this creates, again, is another opportunity, which is that we will now have empty plinths. There is opportunity to commission new artworks from black people perhaps or from, you know, communities that are affected by whatever it is that that statue represents. And also, it doesn't need to be something permanent either. I think the fourth plinth in Trafalgar Square is a perfect example of how you can use an empty plinth to tell variety of stories in different ways that's creating new artworks, that's appealing to new people, that can still be talking about those histories that original statue spoke about. But yeah, it's been interesting the way that heritage has been kind of impacted by the protests. And the protests were never about tearing down statues. They were about black people demanding not to be killed by the state. But this has been an interesting kind of element of it, that we should, we in the sector should be thinking really, really deeply about.

18:53

Alina Boyko

Interesting, because in this podcast, there is a question that we ask every guest. And the question is about what kind of museum or cultural space they'd create if they had unlimited funding or resources? So in this case, let me slightly rephrase the question. If you had unlimited funding, what kind of artwork would you commission?

23:17

Sean Curran

If I was in charge of the funding, and I was wanting to commission an artwork to address kind of the history of colonialism or slavery or in response to the Black Lives Matter movement, the first thing I do is acknowledge that I'm not the right person to be sided where the money goes. So I would hand over responsibility of that money to, I think about first of all, where is the artwork going to be? And then I think about the people that are kind of most local to that artwork, I would ask for black community leaders and black community members to make those decisions about where the money should go and what the artwork should be. My role in that would be amplifying their voices, listening and supporting them with what I know about, you know, working with artists and that sort of stuff. But ultimately, the decisions about what the artwork should be and who's producing it, how long it's there for, what stories it's telling, should not be up to me, because it's not my story to tell. So that's kind of a non answer answer.

23:38

James Harrod

If there is one thing you want people to go away from this interview thinking about, what is it?

24:36

Sean Curran

I want people - presuming I'm speaking to people in the sector?

24:39

James Harrod

People in the sector, people who just have a vague interest in heritage and culture, anybody.

24:45

Sean Curran

Ok. I have more faith in the people coming into the sector, the students and younger people coming into the sector than I do and the people who are kind of still holding the reins of the sector. I was absolutely appalled to hear who the National History Museum had appointed as their new director. I think that shows that there is still a problem existing in who we value the most in this sector. I think what I want people to take away from this is that this is a very turbulent time, obviously, for everyone, but in terms of the sector, I think you often hear in kind of like memes and online this thing about a cultural reset. And I'd like to think of this moment as a cultural reset. I think they are going to be some really difficult times in terms of where the money goes, and who was allowed, unable to return to their jobs. But I think once that has settled down, we should be thinking about how we can transform our institutions from kind of relics of an imagined past to being champions for anti-racism and creating an environment, not just that marginalised people want to come to, because we've put on a nice exhibition, but because they know that is their place to come to. I think that's what I would maybe challenge people to do.

24:49

James Harrod

Thank you so much. I think that you've got, you know, a lot of really good points there about the sort of currency and relevancy that is needed within heritage and culture at the moment. Just as kind of a closing thing, where can people find you? Where can people find your thoughts and your opinions? Where can people find your work?

26:04

Sean Curran

So the best place is Twitter. I don't have a website at the moment, but I will soon. But they can find me on Twitter at... Is this what you want?

26:21

James Harrod

Yeah. It's good you asked, because last week, our guest was like, no, you can find me in and then insert the town they live in. So that's not quite what we're going for.

26:32

26:39

Sean Curran

I was about to give my address. I was once doing a live radio show with one of my community groups at Sutton House, they were an elderly group, and one of them was asked where they live and they gave their address, and it was live on the... Thankfully, literally, nobody was listening. So people can find me on Twitter, and it's @mxseanc. And also I just, I don't know if this is an appropriate time to plug this, but I've just started like a fun thing in my furlough time where I'm doing, like a couple of drawings every day of kind of important figures from LGBTQ history, and they are on Instagram, and you can find those @meltingdoodles.

James Harrod

This is absolutely the place to plug that. That sounds fantastic.

27:22

27:25

Sean Curran

Great.

James Harrod

Shawn, thank you so much for joining us.

27:25

Alina Boyko

Thank you so much, Sean.

27:28

Sean Curran

Thank you for having me.

27:29

James Harrod

We hope you've enjoyed this week's episode of For Arts` Sake. If you'd like to learn more about who we are and what we do, find us online at forartssake.co.uk, on Twitter @sake_arts, or on Instagram @forartssake.uk.

27:33