The legacy of colonialism in armed forces museums - Museums Association

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The legacy of colonialism in armed forces museums

Working closely with communities is vital, says Clare Hunt
Decolonising Museums Military
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Clare Hunt
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Armed forces museums, from the nationals to the UK’s many regimental museums, are awake to the need to address their role in the maintenance and expansion of the former British empire.

But this is a complex and challenging topic, which means staff in these institutions need help and support to carry out this work effectively and ethically.

Almost all armed forces museums hold material from military campaigns – most of which was collected during, or as the result of, conflict. This adds to the challenges for these museums when addressing the legacy of the British empire. 

These objects are invariably the result of violent action such as looting or battlefield collecting, and there can be a dearth of information and little understanding of the significance of the items to their original communities.

Staff expertise is often confined to the core military collections and subjects, with limited support to develop knowledge of other parts of the collection. 

Furthermore, armed forces collections were created as a vehicle for pride and memorial, and they often have ex-military governance and/or staff. With a range of opinions present, sensitive handling is often needed to avoid offence or alarm.

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The provenance of objects that reflect colonial and imperial histories in armed forces museums comes from those who “collected” the items or their direct descendants.

The terms used to describe acquisition – such as “collected”, “acquired” or even “liberated” – hide methods we would now consider immoral or illegal.

This mislabelling is also present in the original cataloguing of these objects, with terms such as “trophy” or “souvenir” commonly used to record items that were looted or taken from a battlefield. Trophy, in particular, has a celebratory resonance no longer deemed appropriate. 

The National Museum of the Royal Navy (NMRN) is in the process of removing that term from the “object name” field in its collections management system, replacing it with the proper title, such as clothing, weapon or musical instrument. This dignifies these items with their proper identification and ensures they are accessible in database searches. 

“Taken” is now used to describe the collecting method of an object that was – or was likely to have been – looted or picked up in the aftermath of battle.

This approach was inspired by National Museums Scotland’s research project, Baggage and Belonging: Military Collections and the British Empire, 1750-1900 (project active from 2017-21). This has been an essential point of reference for the NMRN, which formed an Addressing Empire working group in 2021.

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Many armed forces museums have also made significant steps to reinterpret their collections and work with communities of origin. Projects include the AHRC-funded Exchange research project; the Royal Engineers Museum’s Making African Connections; and the Highlanders’ Museum’s work with communities on subjects such as the Indian Rebellion.

Hopefully, these represent the beginning of improved community relationships and better object records, as well as broader narratives to work with in the future. 

The issues outlined above led me and a colleague to set up a network for armed forces museums to exchange ideas and pool information about collections. Our museums have many military campaigns in common, some infamous for their extensive looting and “collecting”.

Many collections within the network also care for material acquired during military support of the transatlantic slave trade. The smaller museums have limited resources, but together we aim to share experience and knowledge, and to provide support for each other to ensure that object information is more accurate, detailed and accessible. 

Our first project is to develop a shared glossary that can be used as a resource across our museums. 

Clare Hunt is the principal curator (Hartlepool) at the National Museum of the Royal Navy

If any readers from armed forces museums would like to join our network, email me at clare.hunt@nmrn.org.uk

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