Simon Stephens, Issue 117/11, p4, 01.11.2017
Confronting the legacy of the British Empire
This year’s 70th anniversary of the independence of India and Pakistan has highlighted how the former British empire still has such a huge impact on our society. Museums in Manchester, where this month’s Museums Association (MA) Conference is being held, are among the organisations marking this. Manchester Art GalleryManchester Museum, the Whitworth and the Museum of Science and Industry have been staging exhibitions, events and talks featuring artists, designers, performers and musicians from South Asia and Britain.

But many people feel that the legacy of the empire is something that the UK usually hides away from. Monica Ali, the Bangladeshi-born writer whose family moved to Bolton when she was three years old, recently discussed this on A Point of View on Radio 4. She argued that the repercussions of the colonial era are still with us, whether that relates to immigration to the UK or ongoing conflict in the Middle East. She pointed to Shashi Tharoor’s book, Inglorious Empire, which argues that Britain’s industrial revolution was founded on India’s deindustrialisation, and the destruction of its textile industry. But because the empire is not covered in any detail by schools, debates about the realities of colonialism are rarely heard.

“Post-Brexit, when the fantasy of a small island nation decoupled from the world has never been greater, it is time to put the British empire firmly into the school curriculum,” Ali said.

So, what role could museums play within this? The only UK museum dedicated to the subject, the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol, closed in 2008, just six years after opening following financial turmoil and a failed attempt to relocate to London. But many in the sector are still keen for museums to address our colonial past.

The issue is being looked at in a session at the MA conference that will discuss the part museums can play in exposing the truth of their own development and that of colonial Britain. Museums, with their collections and institutional histories, should start to work more closely with schools to tell the story of empire. As Ali said: “Argue by all means if empire was a good thing or a bad thing. The very worst option is not to have the argument at all.”

Simon Stephens, editor, Museums Journal