The Past is Now: Birmingham and the British Empire, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery - Museums Association

The Past is Now: Birmingham and the British Empire, Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery

Jonathan Wallis visits a groundbreaking exhibition that offers new perspectives on the British empire, as seen by six co-curators who worked with the museum’s team
Jonathan Wallis
The British empire is something that is little understood in today’s Britain. It has different meanings to different people. Some will claim that the empire “brought civilisation to the world”, while others will say it was a cruel and unjust period of British history that brought misery to millions across the world. Whatever the empire was, it is unlikely that agreement will be reached any time soon, or that a single exhibition on the scale of this one at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery (BMag) will be able to do full justice to the subject.

This exhibition, however, does not set out to tell a comprehensive story of the empire, which, at its height in 1922, covered a quarter of the world and ruled over 458 million people. Instead, it gives visitors a particular insight into themes that have relevance to Birmingham and its people.

The Past is Now does not attempt to be neutral, or to present the long-held white British view of the empire’s benevolence and paternalism, which of course would be incorrect. It states right at the start that there is no neutral voice, and in this case the voices are of the six co-curators who worked with the team from Birmingham Museums. The co-curators comprised graphic designer, Abeera Kamran; arts activist, Aliyah Hasinah; writer, Mariam Khan; cultural activist, Sara Myers; textile designer, Shaheen Kasmani; and writer and researcher Sumaya Kassim.

The exhibition is in the museum’s Story Lab, a gallery that has been set up to explore different stories and new ways of telling them. Birmingham Museums is planning a refurbishment and complete redisplay of BMag, and it hopes that the Story Lab will be a place that it can test out new ideas. Every few months the exhibitions will change, enabling it to gain people’s views on new subject matter, methods of interpretation, and display. This first Story Lab exhibition is one that certainly pushes the boundaries.

In the past, museums have mostly ignored the inglorious history of the British empire. Institutions, often with their own imperial past, seem to have been happy to leave the subject well alone. They displayed objects looted from across the colonies – originally to show the superiority of the British people and later the artistry of other cultures – yet failed to mention how the museum obtained those objects, or discuss the issues related to the political state of each object’s country of origin.

In this show Birmingham Museums has taken a different viewpoint from many museums in the past and had decided that it is time for Britain to come to terms with the results of colonial rule and no longer ignore the horror of empire. Millions of people died or were displaced as a result of colonial rule. Uprisings and demonstrations were ruthlessly suppressed.

And the problems did not end with independence from Britain. More than one million people died and 12.5 million were forced to leave their homes during the 1947 partition of India, for example.

City links

The eight subsections of the Past is Now are a mix of very Birmingham-based subjects, such as “Joseph Chamberlain and Guns in Birmingham”, to very generic ones like “Capitalism”, “Eugenics” and “Environment”. But all of them have specific links to the city and its people.

The section about Kenyan Independence explores the Mau Mau Rebellion (1952-60), not through the conventional history of the uprising against the British, but through the later history objects that the museum collected.

Most notably this included a homemade gun with a barrel made from a copper pipe and two knives that were described as “blood-stained” when they were originally collected. A letter written at the time of acquisition, from the curator, stated that the objects would “make an amusing addition” to the collections without reference to any political situation or human tragedy that had occurred in Kenya.

It is thought that most of these homemade guns exploded when fired, injuring or killing the user – an indication of the desperation of the Mau Mau fighters. More than 20,000 are thought to have been killed by British troops and up to 450,000 detained in concentration camps, described by some British officials as no better than the camps run by the Nazis in the second world war.

Although the subject is shocking, the exhibition interpretation fails to give the figures as I have done here. The interpretation asks: “Can objects collected under colonial rule be used to tell a fair story?” It would have been great to see in what way visitors to the exhibition have responded to that question.

There were places for feedback, which is important in a gallery designed to elicit information that could be used to inform decisions around the museum’s future redevelopment. However, much of the feedback could not be seen during my visit as the large whiteboards with questions had been wiped clean, and the bulldog clips with cards contained little of interest. I am sure that there are more illuminating reflections in the comments postbox, although other visitors are unable to see these.

It would be interesting to use these comment cards to create a dialogue between visitors. This could be risky, particularly when dealing with the sensitive subjects that the Story Lab will hopefully address over the next few years. But the museum has started with a provocative subject that has traditionally been ignored by museums, so I hope it discovers that it can push the boundaries a little bit further in future.

Looking ahead

Co-production techniques can produce engaging and relevant exhibitions. But the space is described as a laboratory, so I would have liked to have seen more experimentation and testing of new ways to really engage visitors with the subject.

Dealing, as it does, with such a sensitive topic, this exhibition breaks new ground. It shows that museums can begin to throw off the shroud of imperialism and colonialism that still casts its shadow over many civic organisations. The best way to do this is with the co-curated exhibitions and programming techniques that Birmingham Museums is beginning to use.

Jonathan Wallis is the head of museums at Derby Museums
Project data
Cost £95,000
Main funder Arts Council England
Exhibition design Leach Studios
Lighting design In house, Carl Turner
Exhibition fit-out In house
Graphic design Leach Studios, Marie Gallon
Exhibition ends 12 March
Admission Free

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