Decolonisation & Narratives of Empire

Hello! A quick note first – I haven’t posted since last October and have missed the discipline of creating a weekly article and getting your feedback. So much is happening in the sector right now, and I would love to have more time to reflect on it all. However, needs must, and I’m afraid my blog will have to be ‘as and when’ for the time being. Rather than the metronome of a regular Monday post, I’m going to post articles when I can. I hope they are of use and interest. As always, do please get in touch with your thoughts and any recommendations for further reading/viewing. Many thanks.


During my Churchill trip to the US in 2016, one of the key things that struck me about US museum practice – placing it in stark contrast with the UK equivalent – was the surfacing of complex, multiple narratives, and the uncovering of so-called ‘hidden’ histories (‘neglected and disregarded’ would be more accurate). I learnt so much about slavery and segregation, the living conditions and poverty of immigrants, WW2 internment camps and broken land treaties. It was a deeply moving experience, particularly to make connections between contemporary social ills and their historical and contextual roots. It also made me realise how many stories UK museums weren’t telling. But this is finally starting to change. It’s been thrilling to discover UK projects that challenge ‘whitewashed’ narratives of empire, and – by almost unavoidable extension – they are simultaneously calling out the complicit and tangled history of museum practice itself.

In March, I visited the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery and stumbled across Story Lab, “designed to test different stories and ways of creating museum displays. The exhibitions… will be co-produced, meaning we’ll work with groups from outside the museum who will decide on subject matter, style, and tone of voice… Story Lab exhibitions will use unusual approaches to their subject matter, telling non-traditional stories in unfamiliar ways”. If that doesn’t get a museum educator’s pulse racing, I don’t know what will. Their inaugural display, The Past Is Now: Birmingham and the British Empire (closes 24 June), tackles colonisation head-on. The promised shift in tone is certainly delivered; the introductory text panel makes explicit the co-curators’ intentions: “We acknowledge that there is no neutral voice and so this complex story cannot be told neutrally. This gallery has been co-curated by six individuals with connections to Birmingham who are passionate about challenging the usual narrative told about the British Empire.”

The Past is Now is in a single, relatively large gallery, divided into zones that explore British colonial rule in Africa, the Caribbean, the Pacific, and India. Contemporary artwork is displayed alongside historical objects, and Birmingham’s industrial past is neatly folded into the larger narrative. For example, a gun is displayed to illustrate not only the importance of firearms manufacture to the development of the city, but how its commercial success was linked to the Triangle Trade, as these items were often exchanged for enslaved women. The 83 selected objects tells stories of oppression, subjugation, resistance, protest, liberation and reclamation. I particularly liked the free-standing whiteboard and blank postcards, inviting audiences to share their thoughts and add their voices to the mix.

Masters Tools BMAG
Wall text in The Past Is Now exhibition, BMAG

The display has generated a huge amount of positive social media coverage, some blowback from conservative audiences (of course), and many great blog posts, including articles by the co-curators themselves. Sumaya Kassim’s post on Media Diversified, titled ‘The Museum Will Not Be Decolonised’, is so refreshingly direct and honest about how difficult this work can be: “we all deeply felt the weight of responsibility to represent and narrativize the perspectives of our communities. At the same time, we were all wary of being tokenised (plans to have our photos in the exhibition were scrapped for instance). We wanted to be sure we were not being exploited; that underlying anxiety was difficult to shake off. There was always a power struggle at work, and it often felt like there was a scramble for the museum in terms of how the stories would be told, how much we could say, how open we could be”.

For all of our self-appointed leftie, liberal status, museums can sometimes be very slow to acknowledge that we are no longer in the 19th century – institutional racism and unconscious bias have too often been met with ‘fingers-in-the-ears-and-sing-tra-la-la’, an attitude that will hasten our irrelevance and demise if not addressed. So full credit to the co-curators – Kassim, Abeera Kamran, Aliyah Hasinah, Mariam Khan, Sara Myers, and Shaheen Kasmani – and the BMAG team, for leaning in to the awkwardness and discomfort, and working hard to improve the sector.

Along similar lines, the Fitzwilliam Museum in Cambridge recently opened its own dominant-narrative-busting exhibition addressing empire and colonisation. Flux: Parian Unpacked (closes 1 July) is curated by artist Matt Smith, a V&A residency alumnus. Smith was invited to interpret the Fitzwilliam’s acquisition of the Glynn collection, 363 pieces of parian ware (a type of porcelain with the appearance of marble. It became popular in the 19th century for making small slip-cast busts of public figures, including the likes of Queen Victoria, Field Marshal Horatio Herbert Kitchener, and Major General Sir Henry Havelock). A selection of busts is exhibited in front of newly-commissioned wallpapers that reveal, on closer inspection, the grim realities of colonisation, such as the British Army’s technique of execution in India – strapping men to the business end of canons and then firing.

The Flux: Parian Unpacked catalogue includes a fantastic essay by Sadiah Qureshi, Senior Lecturer in Modern History at the University of Birmingham. Titled ‘The Violence of Imperial Nostalgia’, Qureshi succinctly states the difference between inclusion and decolonisation:  ‘on it’s own, inclusion will do nothing to change the overall narratives that museums present to the public. Rather, such inclusion enables a few figures or works of art to be woven into existing stories and claims of diversifying are made. This is precisely how inclusion can function as tokenism and protect against lasting, meaningful change. In contrast, decolonisation involves radically rethinking the overall narratives museums use to display their collections. Instead of merely including works by marginalised artists and communities, decolonised displays would co-curate galleries with a broader range of people to incorporate and showcase genuinely different perspectives.’ (pp29-30)

On a smaller scale, the V&A’s current display, Maqdala 1868 (closes 30 June 2019) presents Ethiopian treasures looted by the British Army during a raid to rescue several hostages held by the Emperor Tewodros II. In a gross display of imperial might, British Lieutenant General Sir Robert Napier led 13,000 troops, 26,000 camp followers and 40,000 animals to Maqdala; Tewodros chose suicide over defeat, and the British Army left with the hostages, a haul including gold, jewellery, coptic crosses and ancient manuscripts and – inexplicably – Tewodros’ seven-year-old son, Prince Alemayehu, who was made the ward of Captain Tristam Charles Sawyer Speedy. One of the grimmest objects on display is Julia Margaret Cameron’s portrait of Speedy, kitted out with spear and shield, and Alemayehu sitting on his lap, with an expression of utter misery.

For Maqdala 1868, an advisory group from the Ethiopian and Rastafarian communities worked with the curator and learning team on the selection of objects, and some of their verbatim reflections have been integrated into the interpretation. The display has generated quite a bit of press coverage, not least because the museum’s Director suggested the long-term loan of the objects back to Ethiopia. The subject of repatriation has to be one of the most contested aspects of museum culture, and a very direct and thorny legacy of empire. The dozens of comments under the Director’s blogpost on the display illustrate a broad range of viewpoints, many calling for the objects’ return, but other voices (including those of Ethiopians) wanting the objects in London. The only certainty is that one object can’t be in two places at once.

The process of decolonising UK museums is in its infancy. It will be interesting to see how the acts of British forebears – who turned a quarter of the world map ‘pink’ with Empire and created enormous, stately museums to educate the (Western) masses – are tackled as we go deeper into the 21st century. We are living in very different times, with different moral codes, yet the consequences of Empire still hang around our necks like the proverbial albatross. Trying to square the actions of then with the needs of now might feel insurmountable, but as these examples illustrate, decolonisation must be addressed if UK museums are to be relevant and fit-for-purpose for contemporary audiences.

IMAGE: ‘Dejatch Alamayou & Basha Felika / King Theodore’s Son and Captain Speedy’, Julia Margaret Cameron, 1868, (c) Victoria and Albert Museum, London.


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