#OurBirkbeck: Conversations with Alumni – Zey Kussan (BA History and Archaeology, 2016)

The following blog is a transcript of an episode of #OurBirkbeck: Conversations with Alumni Podcast. Listen to the full podcast here

Narrator: Hello, and welcome to the Our Birkbeck Podcast. Our Birkbeck is an exciting year long initiative to share and showcase the impact members of the Birkbeck Community are having around the World.

In this Podcast series you’ll hear from our Alumni, students, staff and friends. Whether they are making a difference in their community, bringing about change to their industry or shaping the lives of those around them. We celebrate their story.

To find out more about the Our Birkbeck Initiative, please visit Campaign.bbk.ac.uk


Narrator: In this episode of the #OurBirkbeck Podcast, Zey Kussan, curator at the Museum of London, speaks to Helen Shaw of the Development and Alumni team.


HS: I’m joined today by Zey Kussan and she works at the Museum of London in their collections. Thank you so much for joining us today Zey. We’ll get straight in there – tell us a little bit about yourself and the work you do at the museum? 

ZK:  Yes, so I work at the Museum of London. I’ve been here for a while now, so I’ve been lucky enough to dip in and out of a lot of projects. I’ve had quite a varied time here which is really exciting, and when we said we were going to have this discussion it was good for me to reflect back over what I’ve done as well.  

So, when I started here, I started here in exhibitions, so I was lucky enough to work on four of their major exhibitions from 2015 to 2018; people may know or they may have heard of the Crime Museum Uncovered exhibition, Fire Fire, Crossrail Archaeology as well and Roman Dead, and then I worked on some temporary displays which I project managed after that. Then obviously the new museum move to Smithfield began, so I started working on the move and an audit for that and then in between doing that I started on the new Curating London project doing some curatorial work for contemporary collecting, and that project is still continuing.  

Now I’m back on the Smithfield move so there’s been quite a lot that I’ve got involved in career-wise here at the Museum of London, so that is where we are at the moment! 

HS: Amazing and the Smithfield move is a huge one, I completely appreciate most of it is under-wraps, but can you tell us anything about what is the most exciting part about moving the museum over there? 

ZK: Yeah absolutely – it’s still happening, it’s still going ahead which is great. For us here it’s literally just around the corner, obviously that makes no difference in terms of preparation!  It is really exciting, there’s not a lot obviously that I can say about it, but we are moving right now.  

So, we’ve been working on it for a while now for a couple of years and obviously curatorial are working on the galleries and what they’re going to look like, and then we’ve got the team that’s auditing and looking at this massive project at the moment where we’re looking at all the objects at London Wall to go for the move.  

The Museum of London is across three sites; we’ve got Docklands, London Wall and the archaeological archive and there’s over seven million objects in total. Obviously, we’re not going to look at all those, it is the ones at London Wall we are looking at, so it’s really exciting for people working on the project. It’s very rare that you get to see all of that in one go in any sort of project, so it’s exciting. 

HS: Brilliant that’s amazing – that’s a huge amount of work. It sounds incredible and of course bringing everything from the three sites as well and looking at that holistically must be amazing, a great opportunity. 

 ZK: It’s going to be exciting yeah, definitely one to watch and keep an eye out for. Stuff will be drip fed in time, yeah definitely, it’s really exciting.  

HS: It’s so brilliant that it’s being kept so under-wraps because it’s going to be, when it opens, so exciting and it’s going to be amazing for people to come and see it and discover it all again pretty much. It sounds so fantastic. 

 ZK: There are a lot of pictures online as well so if you want to see it there’s a lot of concept pictures of Smithfield. There is a lot that is out there at the moment so it’s well worth having a look and getting an idea of what it’s going to look like and where it is you know. 

HS: Brilliant, and as part of your work at the Museum of London, you’re also the co-chair of the Beacon Collective which is a staff network for racial equality. What does this involve and why is that important for you? 

ZK: Yeah, so a lot of museums will have their own staff networks. At the Museum of London we’ve got our Beacon Collective and then we’ve also got Proud History Champions; which is our LGBTQ network; we’ve got the Women in Leadership network and we’ve also got a disability network and so we’re very active in that respect.  

With the Beacon Collective, I share that with two other ladies that I work with here and it’s been really important during lockdown actually, and with everything that is happening. So, support for our colleagues and most importantly a support network for our black colleagues, because of everything happened last summer- I say everything happened last summer, it’s ongoing, it’s always there, it’s always an issue, so it’s been an exhausting year, but we’re really set up to support our colleagues in in that respect.  

That was our main objective when it got set up.  I wasn’t part of it when it originally got set up, so I came in halfway and yeah it is literally a support network, and then to raise awareness across museums because we are the least represented members of the museum workforce. So it’s just providing that support basis and currently our main objectively is working around racism awareness in museums and anti-blackness, so we’ve done a lot of that work in the last 14 months  

HS: Amazing and you talked there about representation, and I know that another piece that you’re really actively involved in as well as the racial equality piece at Museum of London, is a wider group Museum as Muck, which is a network which is actively pushing to improve socioeconomic diversity of staff within the museum sector as well, so it feels very much in the same ilk.  

Can you tell us a little bit more about that as well and how these things necessarily pull across into all the different facets, from the representation of staff, into the exhibits and the collections? How does that all come together? 

 ZK: Yeah, that’s a really big question!   

Yeah I think what you’ve just said though, that’s the aim, that’s the objective:  how this comes into the museum sector and how we affect change. So yeah, Museum As Muck is for working-class people in the in the museum sector. When we say working-class people, I think a lot of people presume it’s the white working class and I know we’ve had a lot of discussions around this, but it’s everyone that identifies as working class, so that’s really important. So we’re getting larger in terms of our members as well. We’ve just put out a new website as well which will obviously track all of our members and see where we are across the sector.  

So initially it’s a support network, but all networks are, aren’t they? So they’re set up because there’s a need there, people need support and it’s usually the minority groups in museums and that’s the whole premise of these networks and why they exist and it’s usually because there’s a problem, so if there wasn’t a problem, then these networks wouldn’t exist  

So the heritage sector, the arts and a lot of very middle-class jobs if you like, are careers that are very unwelcoming or inaccessible for working class people, so it’s about working towards an awareness around that and what we can do and what we can help to change that. And obviously it’s our own experiences as well and that’s where it’s come from – we’ve experienced it, it’s happened to us and we don’t want that to continue happening.  

We want it easier for people that come after us and also we want more people in the sector. We want more working-class people in sector, but it’s got to be comfortable for them you know? and it’s not just about bringing in – because there’s a massive push for diversity and inclusion, and what we shouldn’t be doing is just pushing a whole bunch of people into structures that are not set up to support them because actually that’s causing more damage. So, it’s about working on the internal structure, making it a safe place for people to work.  

So yes there’s a lot of work there that we’re doing, we want to break down the barriers so you know there’s this need to have education degrees to work in museums and that’s not accessible for everyone, so it’s like what can we do around that? Do we have like on the job training? Do we need to have the degrees, or do we just make them cheaper more accessible?  How can we do this? And then there’s this need to volunteer. Working-class people, we can’t always volunteer, it’s really hard and we don’t have that free time, so there’s a lot around that.  

And then the salaries are very low, so even if a working-class person did enter the field, the salaries are impossible to live on, especially in the cities, especially in London. So there’s a lot of barriers there, so we’re sort of working around that and we’re trying to now work with organizations to make them aware of this, and then to make the jobs more accessible. 

 HS: Amazing and I mean you yourself came into the sector kind of later in your career am I right?  What were some of the challenges that you faced kind of coming into that? And obviously you know that kind of fitted in, in part I assume, in terms of giving that extra bit of the education that you talked about there, but tell me about that journey and how that was coming in a bit later in your career? 

ZK: Yeah, so Birkbeck was a massive part of that journey really and before I looked into working in the sector I hadn’t heard of Birkbeck, I didn’t know it existed, so I’d never, I went to college originally but I never went beyond college and in all honesty I didn’t come from a family of people that went to university, so that’s a whole new world in itself, but I’ve always been interested in history and archaeology growing up and I quite enjoyed the history GCSE at school and I had really good history teachers and they were always talking about you’d make a really good historian and things like that. Obviously then I had no idea what a historian was, I just knew I was interested in this subject, so there’s a lot of things that are not open to you, that you really wouldn’t think about, because it does depend on your background and what’s open to you and what’s accessible to you.  

So even working in museums now when people like “oh I’ve done an A-level in Archaeology or Classics” I’m like “wow where did you go school?” I didn’t realize that until, or that was, I didn’t realize that was available until Uni. So when I did finally decide you know I want to do this, I want to work, basically I want to be an archaeologist and it wasn’t until my thirties that I was like you know what, I’m going to do this, I want to do this and then I looked into it and  that’s how I found Birkbeck and I was like okay. There was no way I could study full time during the day, it was impossible especially with paying your bills and you know just general life,  so when that popped up, I came along for an open day and the professor that I met that day explained it all to me and that I could do it part-time.  It was two evenings a week, so I could still work during the day and work in the  evening and the weekend, so I wasn’t losing money, it just meant I had to be really strict with my time and studying and stuff, so that’s how it happened. 

HS: yeah. 

ZK: I did do the BA in History and Archaeology part-time, yeah so that that’s…I feel like I’ve just gone on and on but that’s why it started, and it was amazing. If Birkbeck didn’t exist, I mean I’m sure there’s probably other ways of doing it, but if they didn’t exist, I wouldn’t have done it and I wouldn’t be here. They were a massive part of that journey and the professors were amazing they were so supportive and really understanding of your situation. 

HS: Amazing to hear and I think you know, it’s amazing to see how you’re kind of taking as you said earlier, your own experience and kind of making accessible to making sure that the sector is accessible to other people. I mean, what do you think will be the fundamental change? If we could make the arts and cultural sector, the heritage sector genuinely one that was open to a diverse group of people, what do you think would be some of the biggest changes that we’d see? 

 ZK: That’s a big question! 

 I think it’s quite, yeah, I mean it’s a relevant question with what’s going on in the world right now I think and everything that’s gone on, and yeah I think in in this sector and in many sectors, but just specifically focusing on this sector, equity is really important.  

I know we’re in the press a lot and there’s been a lot that’s happening with the statues being brought down and retained and explained and all of that. Now if from the beginning, if we were all equal and the sector was open to everyone, then we wouldn’t always be looking at history through this middle-class lens. Obviously going back it’s always been through a white male middle class lens, so a lot of our collections are still documented and they’re still in our collections from that view, so there needs to be a whole heap of work done on revisiting collections, so I’ve been looking at that quite a lot as well.  

We all need to do that so it just, it would give an overall rounded story of history and not just a one-sided story, especially not just from a top-down approach. So that’s what it would change you know, and it would make it more inclusive you know and we wouldn’t have the, I’m trying to stay away from saying that the “culture war” that people are talking about, because it really isn’t, but I know there’s been a lot of articles and stuff around that, so they’re saying we’re in this culture war, and if we had equity to begin with that wouldn’t be happening right now. 

HS: Yeah I mean that’s a brilliant answer, and I think it is fascinating that this whole idea of re-examining history through a different lens, and what it will mean for the learnings we take for the future and you know I was talking to a Birkbeck academic out in the in the History department just the other day who is all about public history and he was very much saying a similar piece of like, now is the moment where we are we’re re-examining history through these new lenses with fresh eyes and new perspectives and it’s enriching so much of what we can take forward to the future. It’s really, yeah, it’s such a valuable piece of work. 

ZK:  Yeah it’s been gate kept for so long and it needs to be and it’s not even it’s  

Terminology is really important as well isn’t it, like the language that we use, because a lot of people are saying it’s rewriting history. Now, I understand what people are saying when they say that, but and I think that’s where the confusion is and why we get this big sort of backlash if you like. It’s not, we’re not rewriting, we’re not changing history, it was always there, it’s just not been taught in that way before. 

HS: Yeah. Going back to the archaeology piece, it’s almost that element as you said like it was always there, like almost when you know with archaeology and discovering it, it was always there it’s just that it’s only just being discovered almost, so it’s kind of like, it’s yeah, it’s a really interesting way to look at it.   

I mean from your perspective, what is probably one of your having studied part-time while working and getting into the sector and really you know moving up and creating an incredible career within it, what would be your biggest piece of advice for other people looking to get into the sector from non-traditional backgrounds? 

ZK: Okay yeah:  get a mentor. I’d definitely say get a mentor early you know, make some calls, send some emails, speak to your professors if you’re at university, or if you’re just starting out, just email people you admire you know, people whose papers that you might have liked. Don’t be afraid to contact people and don’t be afraid to ask! But yeah,  get a mentor early and if it’s someone that will sort of stick with you that’s great, if not, then change them every couple of years. It’s really important and I wish I’d done that earlier on, I do now and I’ve been really lucky actually to have two really great mentors. They actually are from working class backgrounds which is great and they were  through, or part of Space Invaders. So space invaders are another network in in the museum sector,  women in leadership. So yeah like we really go out there and look I found that really helpful.  

Also, find your squad: it’s really important to have people around you, so networks are important. Join a network that that you can sort of relate with and then find your squad because if you have good support around you, you can thrive and that’s really important because sometimes, if you are part of the minority in a workplace you can feel really isolated, so it’s really important to have a support network. So that’s the sort of two main things I’d say.  

Yeah, you need your support but also people that are not from the same background: I’d say if you come from a privileged background, educate yourself on what’s going on right now, because you’re more likely to succeed and you’re more likely to get through and progress quicker than people from non-traditional backgrounds, so if you’re aware of what’s going on and you get into a position of power earlier or quicker than others,  use it to do good and understand what’s going on and try and break down those barriers. So I think that’s important too.  

HS:  Absolutely valid point. Yeah absolutely, I think that’s such an important point because as you say, so many people can be in a powerful position to help others and I think as well the kind of practical advice around how to get a mentor, even from that you know when people say you’re like “oh god where do I even start?” 

ZK: “Where do I start?” yeah. 

HS: I think that that piece around knowing, not being shy to ask and you know, lean in the people who you admire and look up to and it feels from everything you said like there is a real willingness within so many people in this sector, from all backgrounds, who are willing to now start to create change. it feels like a really exciting time for the sector.  

ZK: Yeah it does, it does feel different. I mean, there’s a long road ahead but it does feel different. Things have changed, discussions are different, you know, there’s definitely an air of change at the moment that started from last year, but yeah. I think a lot of people are afraid of networking, like the worst someone’s going to do is either say no or ignore you, you know. Use LinkedIn, use twitter, there’s a massive museum community on twitter. Don’t be afraid to get in touch with people, and people love helping other people and they love talking about themselves. 

HS: Yeah. 

ZK: Just send them a – you know, just “slide into the DMs” but not in that way! 

HS:  I get it, no that’s brilliant. It’s really solid advice. Amazing, thank you so much for taking the time to chat through that. I feel like it’s been, as I say it feels like you have put so much of your yourself, of your own journey into the work that you do now. You can just feel how passionate you are about it and it feels, you know as you said,  it’s a long road ahead but it feels like there’s some real palpable change starting, so that’s fantastic and brilliant to have you as part of that, so thank you so much. 

ZK: No worries, no worries then, thank you. Thanks for inviting me, I’m going to do a slight, plug is that all right? 

HS: of course, yeah. 

ZK: So anyone that is obviously starting out, do follow Museum As Muck and Museum Detox. I am a member of Museum Detox as well you know, they’re the two of the big networks and it’s well worth finding them online and going through their websites and stuff, and join those networks early, like I said, I mean once you’ve got your support network around you, you will thrive.  

HS: Brilliant, as I think as many places as we can signpost people to, I think the important thing to emphasize is that they are networks and they are grassroot networks with genuine purpose and they’re genuinely there to support and I think that’s amazing, absolutely brilliant. Thanks so much. 

ZK: Thank you. 


Narrator: That’s the end of this episode. We hope you’ve enjoyed hearing from Zey and Helen. If you’re interested in finding more about #OurBirkbeck, please visit Campaign.bbk.ac.uk to read more about the impact our community are having around the world.

Thanks for listening, and until next time.


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