Troubling Standards research project


Project details


Project team:

Dr JC Niala, Head of Research, Teaching and Collections

Dr Sumner Braund, John Fell Research Fellow

Dr Felicity McWilliams, Curator of Science and Industry, Birmingham Museums Trust


Supported by Participatory Research Fund, GLAM


Project duration: July 2023


This one-day community participatory research workshop, co-hosted with Birmingham Museums, explored questions like:


  • What happens when people are forced to change — or abandon — such fundamental traditions and practices?
  • What does it mean to change – or not change – the way you measure?



The purpose of this project was to develop methodologies for studying collections in collaboration with community researchers.


The History of Science of Museum (HSM) and Birmingham Museums Trust (BMT) hold collections which have significant connections to the history of measurement in South Asia. However, these connections have not been interrogated or adequately investigated in the museums’ spaces.

Troubling Standards: The Social History of Measuring in South Asia — the community participatory research workshop held on 13 July 2023 — aimed to begin this interrogation in collaboration with community researchers.

Measurement permeates our everyday lives: we measure when we:


Cooking cups for measurement


Shopping dummy with tape measure


Travel signposts with distances measured


Callipers used for measurement at work



  • What happens when this core practice is forced to change?
  • What does it mean to adopt — or reject — new measuring practices?

These questions formed our starting point. 


The workshop brought together eleven community researchers interested in engaging the social and colonial histories in the History of Science Museum and Birmingham Museum Trust’s collections. In collaboration with these community researchers, we interrogated:

  • the museums’ collections from South Asia
  • those collections which were used in South Asia as part of the British colonial enterprise.

The presence of both of these collections in UK museums presents a challenge and opportunity to trouble standard assumptions about colonial history and its visible legacies in the modern day. The community researchers interrogated the collections of measurement and, through collaborative discussion, crafted a guide on how to question collections.


We value the histories that communities hold as an important source of knowledge.

Together with our partners at Birmingham Museums, we sought out community members who were interested in sharing their perspectives on the questions, histories and stories these objects raise. We then invited them to a 1-day workshop to engage with our collections used for measuring.


Participation fee and expenses

We paid community collaborators attending the workshop a £120 fee to cover participation.

We'll also compensate them for travel to and within Oxford, and provided lunch and refreshments.


After the workshop

After the workshop, we circulated:

  • drawings made by the live illustrator
  • extracts from our discussions in a pamphlet, in both print and digital form.

We also sent the pamphlet to anyone interested, including those who are not able to join on the day.


This pamphlet contains extracts from the rich conversations that took place during the workshop and ended up forming a guide to approaching collections for museums and their communities. 



Feedback from the Workshop participants



Thank you so much for allowing me to join. I learned so much, and it was wonderful to meet everyone and be a part of those discussions.



Many thanks for inviting me to the Troubling Standards workshop! It was a great honour to be among such learned and passionate researchers and professionals from the field. I hope to continue our association and look forward to further collaboration on this, and other such projects at the HSM Oxford!



I would like to say a big thank you for organising the Troubling Standards workshop and please pass on my thanks to JC Niala and Felicity McWilliams too!

I know these workshops take a lot of time and effort to organise. Some of the discussions that we had got me thinking about my own museum practices. Yesterday I had a meeting with my colleagues to discuss the new educational activity on the museum's collections and their connection to Windrush, particularly the stories of people's experiences. I was really proud to share some of the points we discussed around language and absence.

It would be great to see more of these workshops and conversations taking place (fingers crossed!)