Museums were both produced by and producers of the ideals that drove the growth of European empires. As such, many of the collections made during and since the colonial era are unique and powerful reflections of this history. Despite this potential, with few exceptions, object-focused critical histories of empire in museums have typically either been marginalised in favour of celebratory narratives, art historical perspectives or de-historicised ethnographic descriptions. However, this is changing. As museum decolonisation is increasingly being recognised as a necessary aspect of contemporary museum work, there is a movement toward more critically reflective representations of empire within ‘the master’s house’. Yet, just as the desire to confront histories of empire is becoming established, there has been a recent popular resurgence of colonial fantasy and nostalgia in Europe. In response, this introduction for this special edited issue, 'Exhibiting the Experience of Empire: Decolonising Objects, Images, Materials and Words’, outlines these decolonial issues and the need to represent the experience of empire, and its legacies, from multiple perspectives. The introduction reflects on two case studies from the British Museum’s recent work that attempted to do this: a major temporary exhibition, ‘South Africa: The Art of a Nation’, and the new colonial and post-colonial displays in the South Asia gallery. In so doing, the introduction draws out four key themes regarding exhibiting the experience of empire that resonate with the other contributions in this special issue, including: the need for 1) curatorial and audience discomfort; 2) inclusion of silenced voices and histories; 3) political curatorial positioning to decentre European paradigms and expose and challenge colonially created subjectivities; and 4) the transparent representation of colonial collecting and display histories. These and other themes are discussed through summaries of the contributions to the volume.
This article uses visitor research to explore public attitudes to the British Museum and perceptions of its relationship to the history of the British Empire. Firstly, it provides an analysis of direct messages received by the Museum over a twelve-month period via letters, emails and comments on social media platforms. Secondly, it draws on short interviews undertaken with visitors upon arrival at the Museum before entry. Thirdly, it draws on formative and summative evaluation for two recent British Museum special exhibitions that explicitly addressed imperial and colonial histories: ‘Indigenous Australia: Enduring Civilization’ (23 April–2 August 2015) and ‘South Africa: The Art of a Nation’ (27 October 2016–26 February 2017). Finally, it draws on focus groups (April 2018) held to explore perceptions of the Museum held by culturally active non-visitors. Collectively, this insight highlights the Museum’s vast potential to inform contemporary debates about empire by developing new approaches to displaying and interpreting its collection.
This article provides an overview of the content and aims of a temporary exhibition held at the British Museum in 2018 on the subject of the Haitian Revolution. As part of a discussion about ‘exhibiting the experience of empire’, it draws attention to the challenges as well as the opportunities opened up by such a project, and it reflects on the relationship between the exhibition and other forms of decolonial intervention occurring simultaneously in London beyond the Museum’s walls. The work of the Haitian-born artist, activist and anthropologist Gina Athena Ulysse, which formed part of the exhibition, is called upon in order to introduce the concept of ‘rasanblaj’ as a model for the kind of curatorial thinking that unfinished histories such as the Haitian Revolution demand.
This is a critical response to ‘Skin Castles’, a spoken-word performance based on a ‘rasanblaj’ (an assembly or regrouping, of ideas, people, things) of colonial racial classifications, postcolonial literatures, personal narrative and chants. To offer brief, nuanced analyses on the significance of incorporating the affective and the embodied as intervention in museums, I draw upon sociologist Robyn Autry’s concept of the ‘museumification of memory’ (‘Desegregating the Past’, Columbia University Press, 2015) to mark the entangled historical foundation of museums and unsettle the complex role they play – as public institutions and seats of empire – in the reproduction of collective memories. Using performative writing as articulated by Ronald J Pelias (‘Performance’, Routledge 2014) that stems from a feminist standpoint grounded in interdisciplinary and intersectional methodologies, my aim is to illuminate the various ways my approach to the performance allows us to both confront and reconfigure perspectives on coloniality in exhibitions as a prelude to ‘Remixed Ode to Rebel’s Spirit’, a commissioned response to the British Museum’s ‘Haiti and Toussaint Louverture’ exhibition; for we are in the midst of the day of reckoning, and must inevitably contemplate where we go from here.
Museopiracy is a way of working with/challenging the workings of museum collections as an outsider to the institution. It takes as its basis the project ‘Cook’s New Clothes’, which was a performative subversion of the commemoration of the British ‘discovery’ of the Pacific in an artistic-research programme based at London's National Maritime Museum as part of the Endeavour project and the new Pacific Gallery (2018). In three parts, this article is a critical analysis of the limitations of collaboration between museums and marginalised communities. The case study focuses on the historical context for the commemoration and theorisation of the method of museopiracy, and an artwork based on research towards restitution, strategies for exhibiting empire, and infrastructural activism. It is a turn to transparency, movement, performance and experimentation, historical redressing, mourning, healing laughter and embarrassment about Empire.
Through reflections on the exhibition, ‘The Past is Now: Birmingham and the British Empire’, this article explores what happened when Birmingham Museums Trust attempted to display stories of the British Empire by practically applying decolonial theory. The pursuit of false neutrality as a means of exercising authority in museum displays about the British Empire is explored here as a form of imperial celebration, which the decolonial work responded to. Reflecting upon the difficulties of this endeavour, the article discusses the context of this work both from the perspective of museum workers and the author’s personal perspective as a Woman of Colour. In so doing, it highlights how racial identities affect the ways decolonial practices are executed, in particular the impact of emotional labour and the value of lived experiences of People of Colour as counter-narratives. As such, it interrogates the concept of authority at the centre of this exhibition.
This article applies Mikhail Bakhtin’s concept of ‘chronotope’, understood as the ways in which writers narrate time and space and thus create worlds which enable subjectivities to emerge, to Tony Bennett’s ‘exhibitionary complex’. More precisely, I self-critically discuss two projects questioning the ocularcentric and objectifying chronotopes of museums: a film project on a colonial collection from the Niger Delta, today’s Nigeria, at the National Maritime Museum in London and the curatorial project ‘The Blind Spot’ at the Kunsthalle Bremen in Germany. Both projects depended on the collaboration with anti-racist and diasporic partners who introduced performative ways of narrating colonial pasts, contradicting victimising accounts of colonisation and challenging white visitors to engage with embodied experiences of Empire. Moreover, my collaboration partners insisted on defining themselves and their histories beyond experiences of Empire and on envisioning decolonial futures. Can these chronotopes be brought into dialogue with the museums’ attempts to come to terms with their colonial pasts?
This article examines ‘The Fabric of India’ exhibition which took place at the Victoria & Albert Museum (V&A), London, from 3 October 2015 to 10 January 2016. The exhibition explored the expansive global history of Indian handmade textiles with a lavish display of splendid and decorative objects. The fulcrum of the exhibition was the complex story of the struggle for Indian Independence and the role of fabric within that, told through a few simple utilitarian objects. Two-thirds of the objects on display were selected from the V&A’s colonial-era collection. This article argues that it is possible to integrate uncomfortable histories into a grand and otherwise celebratory narrative to convey a strong political and emotional sub-narrative, and that key to this is an understanding of the collecting history of the objects. Furthermore, it contends that this colonial-era collection can be revitalised to bring the Indian voice onto the exhibition platform.
This article provides a reflective overview of ‘What Lies Unspoken: Sounding the Colonial Archive’, a sound intervention which I initiated and produced in collaboration with curators at the Statens Museum for Kunst and the Royal Library of Denmark, whilst conducting artistic research within the Living Archives Research Project at Malmö University. The project was part of commemorative activities during 2017, marking the centennial of the sale and transfer of Denmark’s former Caribbean sugar colonies (St Croix, St Thomas and St John) to the United States. The intervention aimed to address the uncomfortable silences surrounding institutional and societal engagements with colonial history in Denmark. In the article I describe how and under what particular cultural conditions this project was developed, share some of the thinking that underpinned its making, and finally reflect on the realities of what it takes for cultural heritage institutions to share interpretive power.
This article reflects on the curating of an exhibition at the Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology, University of Cambridge, ‘Another India: Explorations and Expressions of Indigenous South Asia’ (March 2017–April 2018), and particularly the process of commissioning new works by Indigenous and Adivasi artists and makers from India for the exhibition. The project set out to be a critical exploration of the colonial legacies of museum collections and museum practices, and on the representations and treatment of peoples in India that such legacies perpetuate. Exploring collections with a critical eye is perhaps one way to begin a process of decolonising museums, yet documenting and commissioning both presented themselves as methodologies of reflection and re-study that shed light on historic practices and make possible new ones.
Coloniser and colonised were produced as subjectivities through power relations mediated through objects. The erection of public statues of ‘great men’ in prominent places in European and colonial cities was a political act with an ideological meaning. These survive within the curated space of the city long after the end of imperial domination. In the case of Barbados, for example, a statue to Lord Nelson was erected in the early nineteenth century in Bridgetown, decades before its London equivalent, as part of a planter politics of anti-anti-slavery. The statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford, together with the other commemorative plaques and statues placed in his honour, were similarly part of an Edwardian pro-imperial propaganda in Oxford. In these places, as elsewhere around the world, from Barcelona to Cape Town, public campaigns have demanded the removal or public remediation of these forms of rhetoric via monument. But opponents of the removal of Nelson and Rhodes from their privileged positions in Bridgetown and Oxford have argued that these statues were very old, and were therefore now part of a public culture which should be preserved without revision. To remove them would be to ‘erase’ history, in Mary Beard’s phrase. But is leaving these objects as they are not also a kind of historical erasure, a silencing of the past in Michel Rolphe Trouillot’s terms? For without a new mediation, what is lost from public memory and attention is that these objects were contested projects of minority ideologies and interests, both at their origins and today. Is the argument from ‘heritage’ not bound up with an odd contemporary imbalance of attention towards the needs of the present and future vs the legacies of the past, the retrogressive temporality of the neo-liberal moment? The point is not the destruction of ‘the past’, as if there was ever one monolithic uncontested past, but the renegotiation of which past the present holds up to its face.
THIRD TEXT is published in print and online by Routledge, Taylor & Francis Group