Inclusive histories | Representing hidden and untold stories - Museums Association

Inclusive histories | Representing hidden and untold stories

Barbara Walker, Vanishing Point 29 (Duyster) Image courtesy the artist and Cristea Roberts Gallery, London © Barbara Walker, 2023
Luke Syson
Director, Fitzwilliam Museum

When I came out in my early 20s, at the height of AIDS activism and resistance to Section 28, I used to proclaim that the personal is political. I’m not sure though exactly what I meant. And though I never concealed my gayness at work, I didn’t until very recently see my work as in any way connected with my sexuality.

My 2011 National Gallery exhibition on Leonardo da Vinci resolutely ignored his homosexuality (and I remember that the single mention of it in my essay was challenged by a nervous editor). That changed in a flash during a meeting of senior leadership when I was working at the Met in New York at a meeting when colleagues were bemoaning a lack of join-up between exhibitions.

I pointed out that we were ignoring opportunities – in the upcoming shows on Michelangelo and Hockney, for example. What could those possibly be, colleagues asked. And when I pointed out the obvious, they laughed as if I wasn’t serious.

So even before I arrived at the Fitzwilliam in Cambridge, I was intrigued by efforts to uncover and represent hidden and untold stories in the collections there.

And when in October 2019 we hung together the seventeenth-century portraits by Carlo Dolci of life-long partners Sir John Finch and Sir Thomas Baines (one of the pictures had been languishing in store) with new labels, I felt acknowledged and represented on the walls of a major museum for the first time in my life. Their ‘beautiful and unbroken marriage of souls’, as proclaimed on their Cambridge tomb could now involve me.

But still the Fitzwilliam, like many museums, had evolved over 200 years with a set of assumptions that remained largely unchanged and unchallenged. Its passion for tracing the histories of human ingenuity and artistic creativity remains laudable. But the messages its displays and collections conveyed suggested that only in certain places (Europe, ancient Egypt and parts of Asia), certain people (men) were – or are – ingenious and creative, and that those are the people worth representing and remembering.

To say something different, to make our histories more complex and complete, is emphatically not about obliterating one history for another. Why should it be? To confront the erasure of women artists from the history of art is not to reduce the achievements of Titian or Monet.

When Dame Magdalene Odundo chose the pots that have inspired her brilliant career, the fact that she put pieces from Africa and South America from Cambridge’s Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology with seventeenth-century British slipware demonstrated what a truly global story ceramics tell.

What this effort is about is saying that two facts can live together in a single object, in ways that complicate neat divisions between good and bad. Titian’s Rape of Lucretia may, as art historians have always said, be a particularly remarkable example of his late painting technique – a swirl of impassioned mark-making – but it is also an image of sexual violence against women.

Monet’s Poplars marks the beginning of his ground-breaking series paintings, but it is chastening to know that, having bought them to paint them, he sold the trees for match-wood as soon as he’d finished his pictures.

Telling those parts of the stories of art makes our lives – and the works – richer. They increase our understanding of ourselves and one another. After a long history of exclusion, to include now is not to begin to exclude again.

We’ve only just begun this work at the Fitzwilliam, and there’s a long way to go before we become as open, diverse, inclusive and welcoming as we want to be.

I’m embarrassed that there’s still no interpretation in our gallery that opens up a dialogue about Titian’s Lucretia, and that Rachel Ruysch’s incredible flower picture is still tucked in a corner (and the other four we care for are not on view). We’ll get there, but we know it won’t be all at once.

But I’m proud that last year our exhibition Defaced! presented objects that gave voice to protestors and change-makers from Peterloo to today. I’m delighted too that our recent acquisitions include not just historic works by William Kent, Daumier, Edward Burra and David Hockney, but also great contemporary paintings, sculptures, ceramics and works on paper by, for example, Showanda Corbett, Sylvia Snowden, Reza Aramesh and Jake Grewal. And I’m excited by the exhibitions, interventions, programmes and partnerships we have coming up.

I’m also particularly aware that this is all the more important at the Fitzwilliam because of our origin story. The wealth of the 7th Viscount Fitzwilliam came from his Irish estates and from his maternal grandfather’s investments in the Royal African Company, the South Seas Company and the East India Company, trafficking in humans or in commodities whose production depended on the exploitation of enslaved people.

Our Black Atlantic exhibition this autumn, the first of a series, will explore the context of this bequest, and we’re learning from the process of staging the show: how to discuss inside our organisation the difficult choices as to what we feel able to display; how to ensure the participation of others outside the museum.

Before Covid-19 made it impossible, we’d started taking our collections on the road, to parts of our region which, for a number of reasons, are among our most culturally deprived. We learned a great deal by taking ancient Egyptian coffin fragments to supermarkets, pubs and the market square in Wisbech and it was fantastic to connect with the remarkable museum there.

In shaping Black Atlantic we’ve been listening to different communities – crucially those most impacted by the legacies of Enslavement and Empire, and those who may be much less aware of the part their communities in Cambridgeshire have played in a history of resistance – to give everyone a stake in these complex histories.

Wisbech was the birthplace of abolitionist Thomas Clarkson and its museum houses his extraordinary campaign chest. Soham was the place where Olaudah Equiano lived with his Ely-born wife Susannah Cullen and their daughters, whose imagined group portrait by Joy Lobinjo we have recently acquired.

These conversations are not always easy and they shouldn’t be. After all, we’re confronting uncomfortable truths about our past and present, at the Fitzwilliam and beyond.

But if we don’t have them, we’re less likely to succeed in making the Fitzwilliam a place where everyone’s voices are heard; where we respect difference of opinion (as long as those differences are themselves respectful); where we ensure that our values are anti-sexist, anti-racist, anti-ableist and anti- homophobic; and where we can play our full and proper part in all our communities, local, national and international – making the Fitzwilliam a place where everyone feels they belong. That change needs to be fundamental.

Inclusive Histories

Narrating our shared past in polarised times

This commentary is an extract from a new report by British Future – ‘Inclusive Histories: Narrating our shared past in polarised times’.

Read the full report