Material culture and empire

Material culture and empire

I recently had an interesting interview with an anthropologist about museums, decolonisation and materialism. It’s me asking the questions. For the purpose of anonymity and because I am transcribing this through notes and my own dubious memory, some parts may be edited. I’m presenting this without comment because it’s a period of looming deadlines for my course at university, I’m also an idiot and I’ve never read anything in my life.  

Can you tell me a bit about your background in the field?

My masters was the Anthropology of Art which had a component focussing on the study of museums, so I chose to do that. I then worked at [museum in London] in the late 90s during a trend, among exhibition spaces, of changing national museums to reflect a bicultural narrative. This was a curatorial process of talking to and bringing in consultants from various ethnic and indigenous groups to assist with presenting this narrative. Before this, museums were seldom self-reflective and would often display objects as a means to convey a kind of ‘evolutionary’ process from Primitive – Enlightenment and Science.

In the early 2000s, I began studying art, museum heritage, souvenirs and looked at the content of collections to analyse how these all related to the ‘Market of Empire’ for my PhD. This is where I encountered valid critiques and scepticism towards referring to objects as “stolen” as a catch-all, which is so often ascribed to items from colonised societies, or vaguely presenting them as the product of theft and disempowerment. The problem with this rhetoric is that firstly, the objects are not usually stolen. In my field research, I traced the markets of empire by interviewing curators and archivists at local levels, acquisition of the objects was largely by early industrialists and ‘tourists’. Through navigating oral history, visual material and social impacts, you learn that colonised people were involved in that process of acquisition often. When the tourists would come in search of art and such, the Chief (or whoever meets them) is actually quite powerful. If an object was to be stolen, the thief would likely have been caught and even killed. What would tend to happen would be that the item would be presented as a gift or exchanged for a small sum. By calling it “theft” you effectively disempower the indigenous group twice. These cultural items were already acquired on an unequal, colonial ground but to then write their agency and participation in the process out of history is to disempower them again.

As I mentioned, a big part of my fieldwork was to study the oral history and the discourse of science and ethnology when these objects were acquired. I wanted to tell the story of a (hypothetical) “woman’s grandmother who had given this cloak to a head of empire, who could trace where the item had been sold and how it was made”. I then proceeded to frame the object within its cultural relativism, rather than presenting something which was perhaps used for ritual, religion or even eating as something which is purely aesthetic (as was often the case). I would identify this to curators of museums and a timeless representation would be put back into its imperialist and religious (etc.) historical context.

You mentioned the modernisation of museums to reflect a bicultural narrative, can you elaborate on the rationale behind this and talk about your experience with the process?

For example, the Horniman Museum used to look much like what the Pitt Rivers Museum still looks like now. Both were amassed collections by scientific industrialists who presented the objects using racist science (the aforementioned tendency in the C19th to fetishise the items and also present them as primitive). In the 90s, the Pitt Rivers Museum designated that the display shouldn’t change and I agree to an extent, it was naive of the Horniman Museum (and others) to think that the display could ever have its ‘impurity’ removed through decolonising in this way. There have been attempts to un-modernise and they are largely met with resistance. [Museum in Vancouver] want to put the context back into the cultural items rather than presented as an aesthetic. The indigenous people would be the curators of the spaces, it was an idea to break down hierarchies between the qualified and the public. So, they would have storerooms with glass doors so that the public could see the objects in them for example. This changes the role of the curator as well to an extent. Before, the public would only see what the curator had chosen to be on display. There’s a good book about this process called Museums and source communities by Laura Peers.

Following on from that point: In your experience, to what extent do you feel the perspectives of archivists, historians and curators influences the final exhibition of the objects? How significant would you say their impact is in general terms?

Historians define object selection and text while the conservation group can absolutely put a “no” on something. The role of the architects of the space is also understated because they have a stake in how the exhibition is built. However, the criticism of the museums tends to fall entirely on the curators.

The biggest change since the 90s has been the inclusion of source communities within the museums, which is basically naming people. It’s ‘rehumanising’ and ‘de-ethnologising’ from when indigenous and colonised groups would be classified as ‘types’. Artist interventions have also been great in this too, artists become a somewhat heroic voice in deconstructing ‘the racist voice’ and were seemingly beyond critique. They would start doing consultation with indigenous groups and once you start this, they will appropriate you for their own means, as a way of validating indigenous culture. Take textiles for example, take something that the West values and use that as a lever for something that has been devalued in your culture. Get white people to value your culture and that way, they might listen to your political demands because we always denigrate something, art was a way of reorienting a negative discourse to a more positive one. Although the spaces were never going to be as subversive as [the artists] wanted, museums are so entangled with commissioners and bureaucracy in a way that largely prohibits radical change.

What do you think the future looks like for curation? 

The funding is in crisis, particularly for university museums in the UK, they are losing their economic base and having to look to philanthropists and new funding models. An important role for museums in the future is to show the cultural exchanges that have taken place, through the movement of people and objects. You could have a much less hegemonic history. By eliminating these simple binaries and narratives about “stolen objects”, the divisiveness of the museum space is tackled effectively. Historically, the argument for decolonisation of exhibitions has been used by right-wing governments and authorities to shut museums down, they will say “you’re right, these objects are stolen and this is not true to history” but they aren’t thinking about repatriation, they don’t give a shit about returning the objects, they just want to whitewash history entirely. This is where it becomes dangerous, decolonisation is then used to defend a white purist narrative and the double disempowerment that I mentioned becomes more violent.

Moving back to your question about the future, they should also project collections outwardly into schools for example, using digital imagery as a vehicle for education and it’d be much more socially inclusive. For a more cohesive view on society, this would be a very useful way to disseminate. Similar projects could be deployed using the digital imagery from storerooms and exhibition spaces too. This doesn’t seem to be happening widely though and how do you engage with people that don’t want to know?