Marginalised Histories: experiences of people of colour within Magdalen’s past

03 February 2023

At the end of 2022, Magdalen’s Library and Archives staff dismantled an exhibition in the Old Library – ‘Marginalised Histories: experiences of people of colour within Magdalen’s past’ – that was the culmination of more than two years of research, organisation, and collaboration between Magdalen’s students, staff, fellows, and alumni.

Work towards ‘Marginalised Histories: experiences of people of colour within Magdalen’s past’ began in summer 2020. In response to Black Lives Matter, Magdalen’s undergraduate and graduate students submitted a paper to College’s Governing Body on ‘Tackling Racial Inequality in Magdalen’. Two of the paper’s proposals were to ‘create and promote an exhibition on the untaught history of Britain and wider race-related issues’ and to acknowledge ‘the role of colonialism in the College’s history’. Inspired by student collective action, we applied to Magdalen’s ‘Academic Grants’ to fund paid student internships in 2020-22 that would allow Magdalen students to begin to uncover and share more of their college’s history.

Early in 2021, we advertised the internship opportunity to all Magdalen undergraduates and graduates, resulting in seventeen excellent applications. Four research interns were employed to work in the college archives for two or three weeks in the summer and Christmas vacations. Additionally, an artist’s internship was introduced to place the students’ archival findings in conversation with contemporary work. The five outstanding interns – Heidi Cooke, George Goodhart, Sarah Large, Paul Majek, and Ananya Malhotra – brought complementary skills and interests to the project that together shaped the focus of the exhibition. The interns’ crucial insights into College today were further enriched by the perspectives of students who served as racial and ethnic minorities representatives within the undergraduate or graduate communities (JCR or MCR).

Exhibition poster

The exhibition places histories that have previously been marginalised at the centre of the narrative. It explores diverse sources from Magdalen’s archives, including college files, photographs, and publications, as well as oral and written testimonies generously shared by alumni and current students. These sources allow the exhibition to focus on fascinating and often pioneering individuals, the contexts in which they lived, and the traces that their time at Magdalen have left in the archive. We know that there have been students, staff, and fellows of colour at Magdalen for at least 175 years, and yet they have rarely been featured in historical accounts of the college and its achievements.

Between May and October 2022 a total of 1,680 people visited the exhibition in the Old Library. A further 1,316 people have viewed the online exhibition in its first 6 months, a resource that remains available for future generations to explore. Some of the findings of the research were also shared with school students visiting College as part of Magdalen’s outreach programme.

Outreach visit to the exhibition, June 2022
Special opening of ‘Marginalised Histories’ exhibition in Magdalen’s Old Library, October 2022

The exhibition has left other long-lasting legacies. One impact of the internships can be seen in Magdalen’s President’s Lodgings. Hormuzd Rassam, a pioneering archaeologist born in Mosul (present-day Iraq) in 1826, donated a stunning Assyrian Relief to Magdalen in 1849. His generosity remained unacknowledged until research by one of the interns enabled a plaque to be added in the President’s Lodgings. Additionally, oral and written testimonies shared by alumni and current students with the interns have allowed new perspectives to be preserved in Magdalen’s archives for future generations. As a result of gaps within the College archive, many people’s experiences and perspectives are sadly not captured within the exhibition. We hope that the exhibition prompts more members of the Magdalen community – past and present – to help the College to continue to develop our archive.

Research interns and Racial and Ethnic Minorities Representatives at the special opening of the ‘Marginalised Histories’ exhibition

We believe that one of the most important legacies of the project is human. Our student interns articulate this impact when reflecting on their experiences of participating in the project:

“My internship experience researching race, colonialism and empire in Magdalen College’s archives was enormously rewarding, both personally and professionally. As an aspiring historian, I was able to practice crucial archival skills and engage in projects of historical recovery with an extraordinary collection of archival material. Focusing on the history of anticolonial and antiracist student activism in particular showed me the importance of documenting student activism and the experiences of students from marginalised backgrounds, especially given the lack of institutional memory on student experience. That this internship was itself formed in response to the demand of current students following the 2020 protests against racism and anti-Blackness in the wake of George Floyd’s death shows the crucial connection between activism and change, past and present.”

Ananya Malhotra

“Looking at Magdalen library and the archives, meant that entangled histories connecting back to the empire, colonialism and racism was exposed, and the stories of the Global majority which have been historically silenced, was given space to be seen. I’m honoured to have been given the opportunity to be an artist intern, it allowed to me have access to such material, to create artworks which was in response to the archives and the histories explored through this internship and was installed and exhibited in the Old Library.”

Paul Majek

“As a student intern for the ‘Marginalised Histories’ project, I had the incredible opportunity to help develop a research project from its inception through to delivery in the form of a public exhibition in Magdalen’s Old Library. I found every stage of the experience thought-provoking and rewarding. With the support of the library team and College Archivist, I gained first-hand experience of archival research, tracing the stories of individuals through institutional records. Researching the experiences of former students of colour offered new perspectives on the history of both the college and university, while gaps in the archive powerfully pointed to the way in which certain stories are obscured within institutional memory.”

George Goodhart

Paul Majek, artist intern, with his work ‘Rebirth’, ‘Rest’ and ‘In the blue, we rest’ (2021)

The exhibition is only a small step as part of Magdalen’s long-term commitment to advancing equality in all areas of College life, to celebrating the diversity of our community, and to sharing our fascinating heritage. We are particularly grateful for the support of Magdalen’s alumni and the Academic Grants fund that made this project possible. The importance of these paid students internships is expressed best by one of our student interns:

“People from my background often choose not to pursue degrees and careers in the arts and heritage due to it being a financially limited endeavour. The fact that Magdalen was able to pay me for the work I completed made the internship much more accessible. It felt like an absolute privilege to be able to work as an archivist and to have a role in the curation of the exhibition, let alone to be paid for my time.”

Special opening of ‘Marginalised Histories’ exhibition in Magdalen’s Old Library, October 2022

We hope that future exhibitions and student internships in Magdalen’s library and archives will explore other aspects of Magdalen’s past that have been marginalised in our histories, including the experiences of working-class students, of staff, and of religious minorities. The online exhibition has been viewed across the globe; we hope that the project continues to prompt conversations about the actions we can all take to make a welcoming and inclusive community at Magdalen, in Oxford, and beyond.

Elisabeth Bolorinos Allard, Leanne Grainger, Lucy Gwynn, and Siân Pooley