The conversation - Museums Association

The conversation

Are museums doing enough to portray the legacy of the British empire?
Avaes Mohammad, Alison Smith
Dear Alison: Whether we consider ourselves ethnically white British or hail our ancestry from what is now the Commonwealth, we are all children of empire. The dismantling of India’s textile industry is all our heritage, as is Lancashire’s consequential textile revolution. Temporary exhibitions on the subject diminish this significance to a passing acknowledgement, especially when museums have yet to acknowledge empire as the context for many of their permanent exhibitions, whether at the British Museum or other feted institutions. Far from enough is being done to portray the true legacy of empire.

Best wishes, Avaes

Dear Avaes: It is difficult to approach empire with detachment and oversight, as its legacies are still being played out. Given that museums are fundamentally concerned with the details of history, as represented by specific objects, we are perhaps placing too heavy a burden of responsibility on these institutions in expecting them to address such a contentious subject through individual artworks, all of which carry their own histories and meanings. The challenge is how to address empire in a way that engages with, rather than alienates, the public. There is no point in mounting worthy projects in empty rooms.
Best wishes, Alison

Dear Alison: If museums are concerned with history as represented by objects, it’s fair to ask why this concern isn’t also afforded to objects acquired from empire – why their history isn’t truly reflected? No object has a single story or context, but if a British museum seeks to effectively engage with empire, how can it do so without some acknowledgement, at least of its own broader imperial context? Embracing this without value judgment and ownership as a history equally defining of us all, ensures an engagement that’s actually relevant, not worthy.

Best wishes, Avaes

Dear Avaes: Several museums are seeking to provide an imperial context for their objects. In many, including the National Maritime Museum in London and the Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in Cambridge, curators are ranging beyond established conventions of presentation to address issues relating to empire. Tate Britain’s Artist and Empire exhibition is based exclusively on works in British collections because we wanted to open up a broader understanding of imperial history.

Best wishes, Alison

Dear Alison: Such direct engagement is to be encouraged and their successes point towards the contemporary relevance of empire and the public need to understand it. The National Maritime Museum’s Traders exhibition demonstrates how this shared history asserts equal significance for all who visit. It’s also important to understand the extent to which empire has fashioned the world in which we live. Could this contemporary engagement still be developed in museums, by exploring what the dislocation of these imperial objects says about Britain’s multicultural society today and, in so doing, provide the contemporary chapter for a story still being told?

Best wishes, Avaes

Dear Avaes: The contemporary ramifications of artworks – by British, colonial or colonised artists – needs to be addressed. Even a cursory glance at the comments surrounding Artist and Empire would indicate that issues concerning ownership and the perception and recontextualisation of objects are uppermost in visitors’ minds, whatever their historic relationship with the British empire.

Key to why objects retain their fascination is that they resist being reduced to academic argument. Nevertheless, there are various ways in which the legacies of empire can be addressed, through audio and film resources, for example, or through the interventions of contemporary artists, all of which can prompt debate and reflection.

Best wishes, Alison

Avaes Mohammad, a poet, playwright and performer, is the project coordinator at British Future, an independent thinktank

Alison Smith is the lead curator of British art to 1900 at Tate

Artist and Empire: Facing Britain’s Imperial Past is at Tate Britain, London, until 10 April

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