The term “decolonisation” may have become increasingly politicised over the past year, but there is still a growing appetite to tackle colonial legacies in museums. This autumn, the Museums Association will publish its long-awaited Decolonisation Guidance (see box), which has been developed to bridge the gap between theory and practice.
Addressing colonial histories can mean different things in different institutions, but it can pose particular challenges in some areas of the heritage sector. One of those is in the collections and museums dedicated to British military history, which have often faced criticism for whitewashing and glorifying the age of empire.
As institutions tasked with caring for the heritage of the armed forces, they must walk a fine line between respecting their founding purpose and core audience, while giving an honest account of the difficult and complex events that took place at the sharpest end of British imperialism.
Some have baulked at the challenge: several staff at one prominent military museum recently expressed concern to Museums Journal that, in the current political climate, their institution has backtracked on the way it addresses colonial legacies, moving towards a more “sanitised” presentation of British military history in its exhibition spaces.
Introducing the MA’s Decolonisation Guidance
Over the past two years, the Museums Association (MA) has collaborated with its Decolonisation Guidance Working Group to produce guidance for the sector. The group comprises a range of professionals with experience delivering and championing decolonising work.
From the outset, we knew we wanted it to address all areas of practice, being clear that decolonising can impact everything museums do. We’ve created guidance that covers collaboration, collections, workforce and more. The guidance should inspire and motivate everyone involved in museums to be part of decolonising.
It’s a starting point. The guidance includes prompts for reflection and action, but it does not and cannot cover everything. As stated in the guidance, “decolonisation is active, long-term work” and will look different for each museum. The key thing is to take action, learning and developing along the way.
The MA is excited to share this programme to help build people’s skills and confidence in decolonising practice.
Antonia Canal is the MA’s policy and campaigns officer
But important work in this area is happening, even if institutions have to tread carefully in their approach. “Military museums do find it a bit more difficult because we have a strong core audience who are passionate about their history,” says Rebecca Nash, the director of the Royal Engineers Museum in Kent. At the height of the Black Lives Matters protests of 2020, the museum had many enquiries from the public asking for reassurance that the stories of British military leaders such as Lord Kitchener would not be removed from its galleries.
“Obviously we’re not going to do that, but we might tell a different story to the one they’re used to,” says Nash. “It highlighted that if we’re going to make changes in the museum, we’ve got to do it carefully and bring our core audience along with us.”
Nash says that this approach can sometimes mean avoiding terms such as decolonisation. “Being honest, I’d rather get on with the job and then demonstrate what we’ve done,” she says. “Why use a term that all of a sudden makes it more controversial?”
The museum has been steadily building on work in this area since its Encounters exhibition of 2012, which critically examined depictions of non-Europeans found in the photo albums of the Royal Engineers. Approaching it from a curatorial perspective helped to get buy-in from stakeholders. “We set our stall out with trustees that we have a lot of wonderful material that we don’t know much about,” Nash says.
The museum is carrying out a public-facing research project, Making African Connections, that works with the Sudanese community to shed new light on objects and archives relating to Sudan in the late-19th century.
The next step will be a gallery refurbishment, which Nash says will be an opportunity to “get more of the history of the ordinary soldier” on to the exhibition floor, and to rethink the museum’s display on the Anglo-Zulu war of 1879.
The museum recently opened a £1.8m archive centre, which Nash hopes will lead to more projects like Making African Connections.
“It’s a hugely important record of soldiers’ lives out in empire and how they interacted with the people they conquered,” she says.
The Army Museums Ogilby Trust is considering setting up a working group to support museum staff to pursue more activity in this area. But with Ministry of Defence cuts on the horizon, many face an uncertain future. “We need to recognise that change will come, but only as fast as the money comes,” says Nash.
Bodmin Keep: Cornwall’s Army Museum is another institution that is broadening perspectives in its galleries. The museum recently reinterpreted its display of the Indian mutiny of 1857, undertaking new research to ensure that it could tell stories from the Indian and British sides of the uprising.
There was much discussion among curators on the appropriate name to use for the conflict, which is recorded in Indian history as either a rebellion or war of independence; the display gives visitors a chance to vote for their preferred term.
The response has been positive, says Isabelle Hogan, one of the curators who worked on the redisplay. “We tell more interesting stories, showing how complicated it was,” she says. “It’s a richer understanding of history.
“I do understand why some people feel threatened by it. They feel like we’re changing history or holding people in the past to the standards of the present. But we’re not doing that – we’re just filling it out more.”
The RAF Museum London is approaching colonial legacies from the same angle. “It’s not about taking things away, it’s about adding,” says curator Peter Devitt.
On 20 November, the museum is running a workshop, Freedom Fighters: Diverse Identities in the RAF, which will look at some of the servicemen and women who fought and sometimes died for Britain in the RAF, while opposing British rule in their home countries.
They will include the British-Indian spy Noor Inayat Khan, who was murdered at Dachau concentration camp in Germany in 1944, and Irish fighter pilot Robert Gregory, whose death in world war one was memorialised by the poet WB Yeats.
It’s essential that the museum recruits more archival and library staff from diverse backgrounds, says Devitt. “I’m conscious that we’re a very white organisation – and we’re working on it. But jobs in museums don’t pay much.”
Although visitors with ties to colonised nations are aware of the painful side of their history, there’s a hunger for positive stories too, says Devitt: “Visitors want to know what their people were doing in shaping this nation.”
One of the museum’s most popular exhibitions among audiences of all backgrounds was Pilots of the Caribbean in 2018, which was developed in partnership with the Black Cultural Archives to celebrate Black service personnel in the RAF.
Devitt says: “We had no idea it would be so successful, but I’ll tell you why it was – for the first time, visitors came to a museum and saw an exhibition where they weren’t an issue or a problem, they were just heroes.”
Museums have never been neutral. To challenge neutrality is to recognise that colonial values and biases are embedded in many museums. Challenging neutrality can ensure museums mean more, for more people.
Acknowledge power and privilege
Challenge structural inequalities and all forms of intolerance, discrimination and marginalisation.
Grow sustainable, meaningful and equitable relationships with those who are underrepresented and misrepresented within museums.
Value all forms of knowledge and expertise equally
Build knowledge through the exchange of ideas, and value it as you would institutional knowledge. Narratives have multiple perspectives and are not fixed.
Sometimes ethical practice may not align with traditional “best practice” standards. Be ready to challenge norms and encourage taking risks within your institution.
Be transparent about museum practices. Admit the challenges involved, invite and be open to scrutiny, take responsibility and commit to learning and growth.
Do the work
Decolonisation is long-term work, requiring sustained action and resourcing. Go beyond the thinking to the doing.
Care for yourself and all those who are part of this work.
Doing the same things will get the same results. Work differently and be imaginative in creating meaningful change.
Aim for justice
Remember who you are doing this for and why. Work with them to achieve justice on their terms.