By ISC President Kiran Singh Sirah
As someone born and raised in England, it’s been interesting to see the Royal Family make so many U.S. headlines here recently. First, there was Harry and Meghan’s dramatic defection. And of course this month, there was the news that Prince Philip died.
Philip was my favorite member of the Royal Family. This may seem odd if you’re familiar with his background (or mine!). Philip was one of the more controversial Royals, known for racist comments and other shortcomings. But I enjoyed his eccentricities, and even had the chance to meet him once. His death led me to reflect a bit on the experience, which was such a funny story.
To rewind a bit: I have always had a rocky relationship with the English monarchy. (A lot of English people, and particularly people of color do.) At the tender age of nine, I tried to organize my first national demonstration when I found out that Queen Victoria had taken the diamond of the last King of Punjab as a trophy of war. I wasn’t a very effective political organizer, though, and my playground activism sadly did not catch on. The diamond remains part of the British Crown Jewels, and is on display at the Tower of London.
History buffs will know that Queen Victoria had a deep and problematic connection to museum culture that has been greatly influential in Britain. I learned more about this as an adult in my early career, when I worked at Kelvingrove Museum in Glasgow, Scotland. The museum was founded during the World’s Fair in 1888, as part of Victoria and her husband Albert’s efforts to celebrate and educate the masses about great cultural achievements.
Today Kelvingrove features many displaced objects and artworks from across the British Empire. It’s a huge facility—about the size of an American football stadium—and it is an eclectic collection of fine art, natural history, and more. As the “Second City of the Empire,” Glasgow boasts an incredible assortment of historical artifacts from around the world, including contested items that were acquired through violent military action. That’s a complicated history to contend with when you’re trying to be a museum that’s “for the people” and inclusive of everyone, as Kelvingrove aims to be.
As part of my work, I was assigned to a management team that had been asked to radically rethink the way in which the museum presented these objects and told their stories. Hundreds of curators were on the project. My job was to make sure that our exhibits were accessible, inclusive, and inviting to everyone. We wanted to welcome new audiences to the museum, address historic injustice, and work more closely with the surrounding community.
I always liked to discuss ideas and collect input from different kinds of people. By far, the most enjoyable group to work with was my Junior Board, a group of young kids who were ages 9 to 12. (Longtime readers of this blog might remember that I’ve also used the Junior Board idea here at the International Storytelling Center!) The kids provided invaluable perspective as they attended design concept meetings. And the work they did helped them feel more involved in the museum, which strengthened our institution’s relationship with the community.
At the time, Kelvingrove was going through a major multimillion-pound renovation. For three years, I worked with the Junior Board to make sure their input was incorporated into the redesign. They wore construction hats and vests to see the inside of the museum as new spaces were being dug out. It was important for them to be able to visualize what we were building. They met with exhibit designers, curators who were working on displays, and even the restaurant and café managers to discuss menus. They were keen to reflect the diversity of a multicultural Scotland—to convey that the country was much more than tartan and shortbread and the Loch Ness Monster. Working with these kids was such a joy, and they became something like stars to the hundreds of city museum staff who were working on this project.
The culmination of the Junior Board’s work was the reopening of the museum, which was to be attended by Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip. (Elizabeth’s great-great grandmother, Queen Victoria, had helped launch the museum in 1888.) It was a big deal, and the kids were thrilled. On a personal level, I was more conflicted. But I tried to push away that feeling to make room for the kids’ excitement.
There are a lot of protocols surrounding the etiquette of receiving the Royal Family, and these were a source of stress to me in the days leading up to the event. One concern was that I’d have to bow to the Queen. In the Sikh tradition, we’re not really supposed to bow to other human beings (apart from respected elders). And on top of that, many Sikhs had been massacred in the name of the British empire—an atrocity for which we have never been offered an apology.
I talked over the situation with my dad, who helped me see it another way. He said, “Yes, you were brought up to be a Sikh. But I also raised you to be a gentleman, and a gentleman’s role is to always respect women. On this day, you have a job to do, so bow to the Queen if you must.”
As it turned out, I didn’t need to worry about bowing at all. That was an outdated part of the protocol, and it wasn’t expected. On the day of the event, the Queen toured part of the museum and Prince Philip greeted the staff, including me and my Junior Board. We were all waiting anxiously in a line when the moment finally came. His Highness reached out to shake my hand, and said in his posh and distinctive voice, “So. Who are you?” I gave my name and told him I worked at the museum. “And who are these children?” he asked. “They are the Junior Board, sir.” I was stuttering even though I had practiced what to say.
Prince Philip smiled and shook the kids’ hands. I followed the prince as he worked his way down the line. He asked each of them what they wanted to be when they grew up. “Teacher.” “doctor.” “Pilot.” After each response, Prince Philip offered a wee thumbs up. At the end of the line, he gestured towards me. “Good luck! And if it doesn’t work out, you can always get a job in a museum, like Mr. Singh here.”
Three years of work, and that was his comment? I was unimpressed, but I kept my spirits up for the kids. At the last minute, the kids were pushed out of the official luncheon (another disappointment), but I “borrowed” some menus from the Queen’s table for them to take home, which made up for it.
Since Prince Philip’s death, I’ve been thinking about how my stepmother, a devout Hindu, believes that whenever we meet someone in this life, there’s always a reason. In some cases, it may be that you have met in a past life. Perhaps in that life they did you a good turn, or vice versa, and the meeting is a chance to repay the kindness. This is all part of the concept of karma, or the idea that our lives are a cycle of birth, death, and rebirth. What you do in this life has a bearing on what happens in the next one.
In Buddhism, a religion I’ve been quite influenced by, there is a similar belief. Every sentient being and life form, including animals and plants, contains a force that is constantly transferred or renewed. Since the soul is everlasting, any separation between individuals is just an illusion; there is a force or energy that connects us all.
These are interesting ideas to apply to the concept of monarchy, which we usually think of in terms of strict hierarchy. In England, we’re raised to think of the Royals as separate and better and Other—that by birthright, they’re greater than the masses. Even as a child, I was resistant to that idea. I was so resistant to the idea, in fact, that I embraced its opposite: Maybe I was better than them.
That day at the museum, I looked Prince Philip in the eye and shook his hand. It occurs to me now that perhaps we weren’t so different after all. Perhaps, in some sense, we were the same.