You’ve got to get your history right - Museums Association

You’ve got to get your history right

Tehmina Goskar traces the roots behind years of misrepresentation of social and cultural history in museums and argues change can only come from within
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Tehmina Goskar
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Diorama of Captain Cook and the crew of HMS Endeavour arriving on the shores of eastern Aotearoa, New Zealand in Tairāwhiti Museum, Gisborne

“They came here in their boats and they shot our people. Gisborne wasn’t discovered by him either – we were already here. And they sent us off to war thinking we wouldn’t come back so they could steal our land. You’ve got to get your history right.” 

This is what I heard a mother say to her young child while interpreting a diorama in front of them. We were musing in the Moana Gallery at Taira¯whiti Museum in Gisborne, on the eastern cape of Aotearoa, New Zealand.

The British explorer, Captain Cook, dressed in blue in this particular diorama, and his men are centred in the scene; his officers in red jackets, and the deck hands dressed in whatever they had.  

As the British sailors drag their launch to shore, on the opposite bank we are drawn to the Maori figures, thinly and gracelessly painted, with no faces. 

This diorama does not represent the whole story. Well-researched history and the ancestral memories of those who endured the systemic violence and marginalisation of British discovery and colonialism, from the 17th to mid-20th centuries, still struggle to find space in museums and galleries today.  

Why have museums been so poor at getting our history right? Maybe our expectations have been too high. They are, after all, part and parcel of the same establishment that encourages the remembering of philanthropy and the forgetting of human exploitation and theft, the privileging of stories of wealthy white men and the forgetting of everybody else.

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The heroising of certain kinds of people and their deeds continues to be the modus operandi for museums more interested in promoting their brand and influence than in truthfully representing history, science and art. 

From their earliest days, museums have been creators of pseudohistory. Collections and their anachronistically applied disciplines and typologies – art, archaeology, social history, ethnography – provide no more than a sensation of history.  

A typical British mid-19th century display that demonstrates the dominant ideas of taxonomy and typology of the time

By building collections that affirmed the museum’s own sense of what is important, a conveniently neat and tidy view of the past has been formed that visitors have absorbed and reconstituted. Implicitly, we are taught what and who is important, and by virtue of absence, what and who is unimportant. In the process, collection-building and exhibition-making have skewed society’s understanding of its confusing, diverse and competing heritages.  

The western European imposition of seeing the world, past and present, as a cosmic hierarchy (sometimes referred to as the “Great Chain of Being”), from snail shells to Egyptian pharaohs, is not a colonial invention. Empiricism and enlightenment were the scientific philosophical arms of the so-called “Grand Tour” and neoclassicism of the 18th and early 19th centuries.

These placed the achievements and structures of classical Greece and Rome (as understood and reinvented in a Christian mode) above all other civilisations and peoples, and conveniently positioned (white) European people as their true inheritors. This was especially influential at a point when the new state of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and its empire was starting to foment. 

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It was from this point that museums started to become public institutions, pedalling the collections-based pseudohistory that still underpins things the way they are today. Colonial loot and the ethnographic fetishism that grew out of power and money-motivated maritime expeditions lent themselves well to being slotted into the Great Chain of Being and racial pseudoscience that many of our museums readily adopted in both documentation and presentation.  

These prevailing attitudes about who and what is better, and worthy of preserving, are why racism crept into our descriptions and interpretation. This is why the stories of men and women are so differentiated. This is why museums find it hard to talk about class.  

Black American soldiers (in segregated seating) gather to watch famous African American boxer, Joe Louis, at Bodmin Barracks in 1944 courtesy of the Archives and Cornish Studies Service, Kresen Kernow

This is why we have interpreted disability and neuro-divergency purely through medical lenses. This is why we have ignored other marginalised social and cultural histories, such as queer history. Still less have the people with those memories and lived experiences been able to influence what happens in our museums. This is why we haven’t collected or documented much that represents those lost stories, and now that we want to, we find it frustrating when we can’t seem to find them.  

You’ve got to get your history right. 

And that should start with your own museum. Decolonial practice is not just an ideological drive to transform the purpose of museums and make them openly acknowledge that their existence hasn’t been good for everyone. Decolonising work in museums needs a critically engaged and investigative mind. It also requires a thorough understanding of why museum processes and purposes have emerged in the way they have over the centuries. 

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The real change happens behind the scenes. Adopt a step-by-step approach to changing how you think, be prepared to unlearn, and develop enough self-awareness to accept that museums are not always right and are frequently very wrong. Listen and act. Prioritising research brings dividends to decolonial practice. 

Dr Tehmina Goskar is the director and curator of the Curatorial Research Centre.  She is also a historian and former member of the Museums Association’s Ethics Committee and Decolonisation Guidance Working Group 

A call to arms

The Citizen Curators programme is a work-based training and awareness course provided by Cornwall Museums partnership and funded by the Museums Association’s Esmée Fairbairn Collections Fund.

It is led by the Curatorial Research Centre and this year has added invaluable research capacity to seven small museums, investigating a range of themes such as Black US soldiers, Jews and pacifists in Cornwall in the second world war, the role of telegraphy in controlling the British empire, and the “much longer than you think” history of people of colour in the port town of Penzance.

You can start today with the simplest of questions – “Why do you have this?”, “Where did it come from?” and “Who is that, what did they do?”.

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