Books | Rewriting history - Museums Association

Books | Rewriting history

Deirdre Osborne looks at the writers and books that challenge our understanding of the past and pave the way for an inclusive future
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Deirdre Osborne
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African born Roman emperor Septimius Severus died in York in 211 CE © STAATLICHE MUSEEN ZU BERLIN, ANTIKENSAMMLUNG/JOHANNES LAURENTIUS

Reviewing the past in terms of Black people’s presence in British history has produced distinctive cultural interventions. Working with and through the imprint of the imperial-colonial aftershock can produce a variety of unsettling encounters that reconfigure the ways in which  
the “canon” and the “collection” can be reconsidered.  

For a number of contemporary Black British writers, museums, burial places and monuments have catalysed a means of representing Black people’s lives in illuminating and imaginative ways. By creatively rendering heritages hidden in the museum space and inscribing Black presences into landmarks, they contribute to a radical revision of commemorative cultural history.  

“Landmark poetics” is a term I coined to describe poems that are engraved on surfaces other than paper – particularly those that have a commemorative function in sculpture and on pavements, buildings and gravestones. Poets such as SuAndi (Poems on Discs, Centenary Walkway, Salford Quays, 1994), Jackie Kay (Anne, The Bronte Stones Project, 2018), Lemn Sissay (The Gilt of Cain, set in Michael Visocchi’s sculpture, Fen Court, London, 2007) and Fred D’Aguiar (At the Grave of the Unknown African, Henbury Parish Church, 1992) have all produced counter-monumental works that create their own archive of Black people’s bodies in relation to British history.  

Acclaimed author Bernardine Evaristo

Another point on this reorienting of the cultural compass is Bernardine Evaristo’s 2001 novel The Emperor’s Babe. This features an unforgettable Nubian-Roman heroine Zuleika, of whom her author states: “The idea of a Black girl in Roman Britain is a revolutionary idea because it challenges notions of Britain and its history.”  

Set during the rule of African-born Emperor Septimius Severus, Evaristo’s tragicomic epic stretches imaginations back beyond the entrenched “known narratives” of post-Renaissance periods (enslavement, colonisation, post-second world war migration) in white-dominant culture.  

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Evaristo says: “I wanted to write about the African presence in Roman Britain because there was a legion of Moors stationed in the north 1,800 years ago. I wanted to disrupt the notion that Britain was populated only by white people until recently.”  

The Emperor’s Babe, a novel in verse, digs deep into the ancient past when Britannia was merely a “far-flung northern outpost” of the Roman empire. Readers see ancient Londinium through a Black-woman-centring lens and they emerge from the novel with fresh understanding of the period.  

Evaristo notes that: “I did actually use the term ‘literary archaeology’ when I began working on The Emperor’s Babe. I saw myself as an archaeologist, partly inspired by the fact that I was working at the Museum of London as poet-in-residence and carrying out research for the book with archaeologists and conservationists there.”

She adds: “Since the book came out, the museum has introduced a Black Roman character played by an actor who guides people around the Roman part of the museum. I get great satisfaction from that very tangible result.” 

As Evaristo unearths hidden “herstories” in order to represent Londinium 211 CE, it is worth inviting comparisons with another empire, the British empire, as Britannia was to develop into centuries later, and the results of what remains in museum collections.  

Grave matters 

Disinterring indigenous burial sites and their destruction is one cornerstone of British museum history generated by imperial ideology and attitudes to collecting. The excavation of ancient burial sites from the renaissance period onwards were generally displayed under “antiquities”.

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That has meant human remains ended up in boxes, drawers, store cupboards and display cabinets in British museums that are overwhelmingly linked to the violence, displacement and dispossession caused by the British empire.  

The assumptions behind the evolution of Britain’s collections have been traditionally rationalised by an agenda of civilised safekeeping, a perceived right to protect cultural material taken from colonised territories and elsewhere. The return of people’s ancestors’ remains is, indisputably, the only moral and ethically appropriate action for the institutions who hold them, but it is far from straightforward.  

First, there is the racist cataloguing of people who have not been accorded their humanity by the imperial bone collectors. Artist, curator and scholar Brook Garru Andrew, who is of Waridjuri and Celtic parentage, recalls: “Early on in my research of archives at the Royal Albert Memorial Museum, I encountered a human skull of an Aboriginal person that was part of the ‘mammals register’.”  

The Museum of London introduced a Black character to its Roman events

Alongside the iniquity of dehumanisation is the irreversible loss of place of origin. Author and journalist Paul Daley writes of the boxes of 725 indigenous people’s remains stored in the National Museum of Australia in Mitchell, Canberra: “The identities of pitifully few of those held at Mitchell can be determined. The provenance of 434 can’t be established. The rest are either held indefinitely at the museum at the request of communities or can’t be returned for other practical reasons. The stories of most are lost.” 

But what of the archaeological exhumations of ancient burial sites in Britain? The ways in which ancient funerary contents (bones and artefacts) are displayed has offered insights and correctives to misremembered and erased presences of people of African descent in the British Isles. The disinterment of graves dating back to Roman occupation has reconfigured the closed narratives that aided and abetted myths of a mono-racial history. 

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These “remains of the day” are approached in terms of discovering African ancestry through bioarchaeological evidence via ancient DNA and diet, as the Museum of London’s Roman Dead exhibition in 2018 testified. The care and respect for how individuals from ancient eras were buried opens up fresh perspectives, not only on those periods but on how later history displaced such facts.  

The case of the Ivory Bangle Lady uncovered in York in 1901, “contradicts assumptions that may derive from more recent historical experience, namely that immigrants are low status and male, and that African individuals are likely to have been slaves,” according to a book on the subject, A Lady of York: Migration, Ethnicity and Identity in Roman Britain. 

Writing past wrongs 

Crispin Paine, in the 2013 book Religious Objects in Museums: Private Lives and Public Duties, writes that “museums drain objects of their power”. But from whose perspective does such an observation come from?  

For many visitors, a museum displays the evidence of a past in which one’s ancestral cultures were collected, displayed and objectified, a place where architecture, atmosphere, contents and emotions all collide to produce a traumatic experiential space.

They can also be places of omission, as freelance writer Yosola Olorunshola memorably describes when encountering a single room dedicated to the Haitian Revolution in London’s British Museum. When she “wandered into the neighbouring room, desperate to find out more”, she found herself “surrounded by portraits of white men”.  

“The juxtaposition was jarring,” she writes. “I realised the exhibition had already come to an end. That was it – a single room on an entire revolution. Instead, I’d entered the museum’s vast Enlightenment Gallery, brazenly labelled Collecting the World.” 

In her article on the subject, Olorunshola quotes Sandra Shakespeare, co-founder of Museum Detox and founder of the Black British Museum Project, who expresses the pressing need for a museum dedicated to Black culture in Britain.

“There are around 2,500 museums in the UK depending on what you include. There’s a dog collar museum, a marble museum, and a lawnmower museum. But, surprisingly, and given the Black presence in Britain dating back to Roman times, there is no permanent museum dedicated to Black British history and art.” 

As Brook Garru Andrew, the first indigenous director of the 2020 Sydney Biennale, argues: “While an exhibition might speak to themes of the global – and include artworks by ‘other’ makers – this by itself does not make for a radical activity that undoes the canon. To be antagonistic towards histories of imperialism, through an exhibition, involves a dismantling of the institution itself.”  

There’s a dog collar museum, a marble museum, and a lawnmower museum. But, surprisingly, and given the Black presence in Britain dating back to Roman times, there is no permanent museum dedicated to Black British history and art.

Sandra Shakespeare, founder of the Black British Museum Project

The formation of two significant organisations in the UK, Museum Detox and the Black British Museum Project, are visionary examples of curatorial practice that promises to unsettle and dismantle (white) Eurocentric dominance.

This work is vital to engender how both the “sites” and “sights” of museum spaces are transformed by social, cultural and racial justice. However, in creating space for “feeling better”, this must be accompanied by justice. As British-Australian scholar Sara Ahmed cautions: “Feeling better is not a sign that justice has been done.”  

It is also unavoidably emotional work, as Ahmed explains: “Emotions show us how histories stay alive, even when they are not consciously remembered; how histories of colonialism, slavery and violence shape lives in the present.”  

The Black British Museum Project work on the provenances and inheritances from the past promises to emancipate museum space through re-interpretation. As Shakespeare writes: “A Black British Museum needs to think intelligently about the objects and collections it seeks to exhibit and display. What can we do differently?” 

The late US novelist, essayist, playwright, poet and activist James Baldwin provides a partial answer when he urges: “Go back to where you started, or as far back as you can, examine all of it, travel your road again and tell the truth about it. Sing or shout or testify or keep it to yourself: but know from whence you came.” 

Dr Deirdre Osborne is a reader in English Literature and Drama in the Theatre and Performance Department at Goldsmiths, and co-convenes the MA degree in Black British Writing 

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