Building a shared future and avoiding divisive stereotypes
With the welcome and necessary focus on issues such as decolonisation, poverty and the climate crisis, the sector is proving it can respond to events and debates within wider society. At National Museums NI, we feel that our work is simultaneously about helping our audiences to understand our past, supporting them to challenge our present and encouraging them to play an active role in shaping our future.
Ulster Museum opened more than 50 years ago – and the vision we had then still rings true today. The museum offered a global perspective and a place of escape and discovery at a dark time in Northern Ireland’s history, and it has evolved to be a space for bold new perspectives, while making space for diverse voices to be heard.
In March 2022, we opened the Inclusive Global Histories exhibition. One year on, it continues to ignite wider conversation about how we decolonise our collections and sites, and address racism and exclusionary practices.
Decolonisation is a potentially confusing term, so we framed our work as “inclusive global histories”, as we feel this brings clarity and positive intent to what we do. It is informed by – and respectful to – source and marginalised communities that are prioritising progress and healing. It does not ignore the colonial injustices of the past, but sets out how decolonisation can – and should – be a positive force for encouraging mutual respect and understanding, tackling racism and promoting community pride.
Here on the island of Ireland, decolonisation is a particularly complex and sensitive subject, and while there is great potential to enhance community relations, there is also an inherent risk of activity being interpreted as anti-British rather than anti-imperial. This is an issue, given the cultural, political and ethnic pluralism of Northern Ireland. Great care must be taken to avoid reinforcing divisive stereotypes of “colonisers and colonised” and Irish republicanism versus British imperialism, particularly when this is played out against the backdrop of Brexit and ongoing conflict and legacy issues.
At the entrance to the exhibition is our “commitment to inclusive global histories”, including how we will bring marginalised voices and stories to the fore, and face up to uncomfortable truths. Such prominence is deliberate, as we aim to be open about our work and to ensure people can track our progress and hold us accountable.
One of our most recent acquisitions for the collection, a Choose to Challenge Racism t-shirt designed by the North West Migrants Forum, is on display in the exhibition. Its sentiment, with the emphasis on personal motivation and proactivity, resonates with us. We want to involve people in a conversation about a better future, to take a stand against injustice and, hopefully, to collectively make a difference to our society.
We must be mindful of different cultures and identities, and wary of continuing to act in a colonial manner while committing to decolonisation. If the objects in Ulster Museum’s World Cultures collections could speak, it is unlikely they would introduce themselves as being “a colonial object from an imperial collection”. The fact that they’ve travelled long distances is an important part of their story – part of the object biography. But arguably, it is more important that we develop, respectfully, a fuller understanding of their meaning, invested in them by those who made and used them; and their significance in contemporary society, to people who value them as objects reflecting their history, identity and culture.
“Co-creating” with our knowledgeable and passionate partners enables us to better understand the cultural heritage and contexts of our collections. Collaborating with local communities, who are sharing their own perspectives and experiences, is essential to understanding the evolving diversity of our society, the complex legacies of our past and how we can together build a shared future – and be proud of our legacy when we look back at it in 50 years’ time.
Hannah Crowdy is the head of curatorial at National Museums NI