Museums in a Post-Colonial Commonwealth: identities, issues and opportunities

Image taken from the West Africa display at Liverpool International Slavery Museum

When the entire concept of some of the most famous museums is based on the desire to showcase the extent of Imperial power, it is easy to understand why discussions of how to move towards post-colonial narratives are still unresolved. How can and should we change the stories to do proper justice to the peoples whose histories are fragmentally captured in museum cases? Each speaker at this symposium represented organisations who are moving ideas about what a post-colonial narrative can look like, from theory to practice.

Say “colonialism” in a museum context, and thoughts tend towards the debates which rage around who artefacts in museum collections should be said to belong to. With experience both in London’s Victoria and Albert Museum and BAME representation group Museum Detox, Priya Khanchandari was perfectly placed to critique how museums across Britain currently present their objects. How to make sure fair representation is given to the people left out by traditional structures, meanwhile, is explored by Holly Tebbutt and Ali Eisa from Autograph ABP. The organisations’s approach to filling in “absences of representation” – a term referring to both artists and subjects – is part advocacy, part guidance on how institutions can make the most of resources they already have. Eisa’s story of the impact of their work on people from marginalised groups is a powerful statement on why post-colonial thinking is important for museums.

How to move beyond Imperialist narratives is a question with international implications; not only an issue for the colonisers, but also the colonised. First speaker Catherine C. Cole from the Commonwealth Association of Museums discussed what steps museums are taking to become relevant for the societies they exist in now; by working with the Commonwealth’s 2018 themes of fairness, sustainability, prosperity and security, she described how museums across the Commonwealth are creating campaigns and public outreach projects based around their relevance for reframing national identities.

One of the most sensitive talks told a story from a nation where questions of what “post-colonialism” even means are unresolved. Professor Graham Black and Dr Chris Reynolds from Nottingham Trent University have been working with Northern Ireland’s Ulster Museum on how to deal with what their talk calls a “difficult past”. How to tell the story of the Troubles in a country which may have a shared past, but not necessarily a shared memory about how events are interpreted, is a challenging terrain which they are committed to approaching in an ethical way, critiquing without blame. More than once, Black and Reynolds made the point that museums, unlike politics, are a trusted space in which this can happen – the vital point as to why all the approaches discussed today need to be shared, learned about and learned from.

In a post-Brexit era, questions of who is represented, and how, is perhaps more important than at any other time in the last fifty years. When many see politics as creating a climate of hostility, museums can use their powerful positions to responsibly critique accepted narratives. Colonialism may be dead, but museums can help us figure out what comes next.

This symposium took place at the museum of Liverpool in April.

Julia Johnson is a writer based in Liverpool, interested in how engagement with art can be opened up to the widest possible audiences.

Published 01.05.2018 by Sinead Nunes in Explorations

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