“The British empire shaped the history of the museum, and indeed the British Museum shaped the history of the British empire.” This quote from the article Dismantling the Master’s House, published in 2019, argues that museums emerged as active tools of empire throughout the 18th and 19th centuries.
The essay from which the quote is taken – by John Giblin, keeper for the department of world cultures at National Museums Scotland, Imma Ramos, curator of the South Asia collections at the British Museum and Nikki Grout, assistant curator at National Museums Scotland – asserts that museums promote Eurocentric and racialised ideologies and narratives that have often reflected the disciplinary logic of the imperial state.
The 18th-century naturalist and collector Hans Sloane amassed 71,000 artefacts, which formed the basis of the British Museum in London. And that establishment reflects those very practices inherent in colonialism and western classification systems.
Its cultural power is derived from a knowing unknowing knowledge of the “other”; the exotic, savage and uncivilised, as described by academic Edward Said in his 1978 book, Orientalism. It is that knowledge that cultural institutions perpetuate in their collections, curatorial and interpretative practices and operational systems.
Changing the narrative
In a post-imperial Britain, the narratives of a not so “great” Britain that these monuments of power propagate have been called into question. An example is the Rhodes Must Fall movement, which began at the University of Cape Town in 2015 and called for the removal of a statue of the British imperialist Cecil Rhodes there.
The movement has since developed to include the campaign to remove a statue of Rhodes at Oriel College at Oxford University. The statue of the slave trader Edward Colston, which was pulled down and hurled into Bristol harbour by Black Lives Matter protesters, has become “a potent artefact”, as the historian and broadcaster David Olusoga has described it. The statue and its demise shout loudly about Britain’s role in the transatlantic slave trade and slavery.
Yet these actions have become totemic of the so called “culture war”. On one hand, the struggle to decolonise British history continues, including the Eurocentric education system that legitimises it. And on the other, there is a “popular resurgence of colonial fantasy”, as described by Giblin, Ramos and Grout in their text.
When I was young I went on school trips to the British Museum, the Natural History Museum and the Science Museum. I used to look at things in glass cabinets, things we couldn’t touch, things taken from somewhere else, someone else’s story, and I waited patiently for myself to appear. In this article, I draw on my site-responsive performance piece Waiting for Myself to Appear and installation-based exhibition The Front Room at the Museum of the Home as interventions towards decolonising museums and the British education system.
The Museum of the Home is the renamed Geffrye Museum, in east London, where there is community demand to remove the statue of Robert Geffrye, the 17th-century merchant, whose wealth from sugar, spice and slaves from the East India Company and the Royal African Company funded the building of the Geffrye Almshouses in which the museum is housed.
This used to be “sheltered accommodation”, initially for poor local residents, but later became a luxury retirement home for widows, governesses, and spinsters. Eventually, the almshouses became an island of Victorian virtue and respectability in a sea of urban deprivation in the surrounding slum areas of Hoxton, Shoreditch and Haggerston.
The building was closed and sold off as prime real estate before the Geffrye Museum subsequently opened in 1914. There are similarities between the displacement of the early-20th century residents in Hackney and the social and ethnic cleansing of gentrification in the21st century.
I grew up in Hackney and when my parents passed away, the house they had bought for thousands of pounds was sold for hundreds of thousands of pounds to people who looked like the ones they had bought it from in the early 1970s. In the era of neoliberal free market economics of late global capitalism, descendants of the Windrush generation cannot afford to live in the areas in which they grew up.
Waiting for Myself to Appear is a response to these cultural political shifts, The one-woman show that I wrote has been directed and performed by Esther Niles. It takes place in the 19th-century period display rooms of the Geffrye Almshouses and uses the material culture of these spaces to create an intimate, immersive “mise en scene” performance with audiences limited to 10 people.
The piece looks at the past through the lens of the present and in developing it I drew on archival research, including academic Stuart Hall’s ideas about what constitutes the archive.
In Hall’s 2001 text on the subject, he says: “Archives are not inert historical collections. They always stand in an active, dialogic relation to the questions which the present puts to the past; and the present always puts its questions differently from one generation to another.”
Hidden histories brought to life
In this spirit, the first character in Waiting for Myself to Appear is Alisha Gumbs, a Black woman of Caribbean migrant heritage who works in the museum. She discovers a book from 1881 in the archive titled The Diary of Ernest Baker, who, it turns out was the son of a Reverend Henry Baker, the late-19th century chaplain to the Geffrye Almshouses.
Ernest’s mother, Grace Sweeny Belmore, was born in Spanish Town, Jamaica, and was escorted as an orphan to Britain with her Black nurse, as Ernest describes in his diary.
Alisha wonders who the Black nurse was and, echoing the US academic and writer Toni Morrison’s idea of “re-memory”, she invites the audience to join in reimagining her. Alisha thus becomes Mary-Anne Belmore, and we learn that Grace’s “Black nurse” wasn’t a nurse to the sick but, like many Black women during the colonial era, was coerced into weaning white babies. She gave Grace all her breast milk, while her own child went without and she was eventually forced to leave it behind.
Alisha’s black museum uniform doubles up as a men’s suit worn for Mary-Anne, along with a bowler hat and bespoke African print waistcoat. As a distraction from the trauma of being separated from her child, Mary-Anne buys things she doesn’t need, such as the smart suit she wears, a box camera, a gramophone and vinyl records of Bessie Smith, which symbolise the late-19th century’s modernity with female independence as consumers, and the Black modernism of early jazz music.
She uses the masculine sartorial power of her suit to go out at night to music hall venues in the area, unlike the typical Edwardian woman respectably dressed in restrictive corsets and long dresses. And to keep her company, she chats with the Black subjects in her collection of 19th-century framed photographic portraits, such as the portrait of Peter Jackson, the world boxing champion from St Croix.
Underlining the historical continuity of the exploitation of Black women’s bodies, Mary-Anne reminds Alisha of her grandmother, who, as an NHS nurse experienced racism. To honour both women, Alisha asserts her agency to not wait for herself to appear in the museum.
My other artwork at the Museum of the Home was previously titled The West Indian Front Room. As if Black people lived on the streets with no homes to go to, British social and design history has given little attention to the material culture of the Black British home. In a minor but significant way this erasure was addressed by my installation-based exhibition The West Indian Front Room: Memories and Impressions of Black British Homes, which I guest-curated for the museum in 2005.
It turned out to be the museum’s most successful exhibition to date, because it had cross-cultural appeal that went beyond the African-Caribbean and Black British experience, in that it resonated with other migrant and white working-class communities.
The West Indian Front Room provided a discursive space where audiences who would not normally visit museums could engage emotionally with the material culture of the homes they grew up in. This is because, if we have a home, many of us designate a space to perform rituals of hospitality towards receiving and entertaining guests.
This front room emanates from the Victorian parlour, and through postwar Caribbean migration across the African diaspora, it is a cultural translation of Victorian bourgeois values of the colonial elite, but also expresses migrant aesthetics in the home of postcolonial modernity. The front room is an aspirational space of being and becoming and, as Hall argues, signifies a conservative and richly complex element of Black domestic life: one that general society rarely understands.
Home is where the heart is
Arriving in the “Mother Country”, West Indians realised that they were West Indian when they met other West Indians. And they experienced a colour bar, which meant they were often not welcome in pubs, clubs and churches. Consequently, they entertained themselves with house parties in the front room, played imported music on the Bluespot radiogram, expressed their religious identities in wall-hangings such as The Last Supper, and held prayer meetings.
It was often women, like my mother, who dressed the front room and controlled how one should behave in there. In representing the fruits of their hard labour, working multiple jobs, each matriarch’s front room provided a space of selfhood where Black women could express their feminine style and creativity.
These women challenged racist stereotypes about not being respectable, good spouses and proper mothers. The colourful, starched crochet that covered every surface in the front room was made by Caribbean women, who often crafted them to supplement their incomes.
No matter how poor the family was, if the front room looked good, then our family was respectable. The front room was also a safe refuge from the racism of the outside world, and an intergenerational space of identification and disavowal that young Black people born in the UK, such as myself, rebelled against in grappling with their identity.
Now simply called The Front Room, over the years my artwork has been shown in a number of forms – in both museum and gallery spaces – and also as public art.
I am always curious about how audiences experience the space. Visitors are free to touch the installation, so long as they remain respectful. Ultimately, depending on the space in which The Front Room is sited, there is a curatorial negotiation between it being an immersive installation where audiences experience the material culture of their everyday lives, and a cordoned off display with rarefied artefacts displayed behind glass.
The West Indian Front Room was a temporary exhibition and, despite its popularity, it developed an organisational imbalance of power with the museum’s senior management, who felt that as a guest curator I was working for them, rather than with them. This led to struggles over ownership and intellectual property.
Leading from the front
Nevertheless, its success led to iterations in the Netherlands, Curaçao, South Africa and France, the basis of a BBC documentary, Tales from the Front Room, and the publication The Front Room: Migrant Aesthetics in the Home (Black Dog, 2009). Audiences have always requested The Front Room’s return to the Geffrye Museum, and in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, I proposed it as a permanent archetypal 1970s front room of a working-class Caribbean migrant family in a council flat.
As a result, The Front Room has now been reinstalled in the redeveloped Museum of the Home. It is in the Rooms Through Time section and is complemented by a triptych film installation of Waiting for Myself to Appear. The films were made in collaboration with sound artists Dubmorphology, and are appropriately sited in the museum’s almshouse chapel.
Difference has been weaponised in the popular resurgence of colonial fantasy
In the Museum of the Home, Waiting for Myself to Appear and The Front Room serve as interventions that bring into being other forms of knowledge from communities of difference and practice, which are not always literate, but always wise, and in so doing unpack the coloniality of the museum.
This is evident with The Front Room, which engages with the Black British material culture of the home as part of the African diaspora and, in its similar difference, resonates on a wider level with migrant and white working-class aesthetics in the home.
During these strange times, where difference has been weaponised in the popular resurgence of colonial fantasy, agency in compassion and empathy are fundamental to protect human dignity and respect of difference, which takes us back to where I began.
Dr Michael McMillan is an artist, playwright curator and educator