Summary of Proceedings: Empire and the New Museum Paradigm

The Empire and the New Museum Paradigm ran from the 16th-17th of September and consisted of four panels of papers, a workshop and keynote on the University of Sussex campus and a final workshop in Brighton Museum and Art Gallery. The attendees represented a range of researchers, museum professionals and practicing artists from a variety of institutions and stages in their respective careers. The museum professionals present represented a variety of institutions including the nationals in London, regional museums such as Paisley Museum in Scotland and representatives from the National Trust. Additionally, present were a small number of artists conducting practice-based research and members of the BME Heritage network, an organisation of BME identifying artists, activists and researchers involved in heritage.

This range of experiences and expertise led to many productive discussions over the two days. On day one there were two panels: the first on the curatorial experience of working with histories and collections linked to empire and its legacies. The papers from Charlotte Johnson, Shelly Angelie Saggar and Janine Francois generated a lot of discussion about the place empire occupies in museums’ conceptions of themselves. Discussions raised questions around the role of ‘dis-remembering’ empire and how this materialises in the museum space through interpretation. As Shelley and Janine both identify as BAME they discussed their survival strategies for working on empire and its legacies in largely white institutions that are complicit in those histories. They both discussed the importance of critical distance as well as having emotional support from fellow BAME scholars and museum workers.

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The second panel focused on the many links between museums and the Transatlantic slave trade. The papers covered a wide cross-section of these relationships. Sarah Thomas’s paper on the painting Patrons and Lovers of Art (1830) by Dutch artist Pieter Christoffel explored the myriad of ways the system of the slave trade infiltrated the world of aesthetics and played an important role in in the emergence of major art museums. Both Hannah Young and Sophie Campbell focused on contemporary museological approaches to researching and displaying the history of the British slave trade. In particular Hannah Young made explicit that this is not only an issue of accurate research but of how resources are allocated in museums and what position the results of this research have after projects are completed.

The workshop on the first day was run by Alice Proctor which focused on a series of reflections from Alice on different museum labels she has encountered through her work as a researcher and museum education activist. This workshop served to highlight both good and bad practice when it came to label writing. The focus often being on how labels can mis-represent the history of an object through leaving out important contexts or obscuring the stories of the source communities of these objects. There was also a focus on accessibility and the use of different types of languages.

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Similarly, the keynote by Corrine Fowler also focused on making heritage more accessible by exploring creative ways to engage with audiences. Fowler gave an overview of the Colonial Countryside Project which focuses on the reinterpretation of National Trust houses through assembling writers, ports and historians to work with primary school children to explore the colonial histories of these country houses. Fowler reflected on the experience of working mainly with primary school aged children noting how quickly they grasped certain histories through relating them to everyday experiences.

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On the second day there were two further panels and a workshop at Brighton Museum and Art Gallery. The first panel on day two focused on the experiences of working with indigenous artists and communities as well as communities local to museums and heritage sites. Each paper gave a different perspective on this. Jack Davy reflected on his time as a curator of the Native North Americas Collection at the British Museum and the contemporary Native American concern with UK museum curation. Kate McMillian focused on the role of artistic and curatorial practice in the global south in order to explore the uneasy relationship first nation artists have with museum spaces. Jatinder Kailey reflected on her work as Community Assistant Producer at Historic Royal Palaces, Kensington Palace, working with local South Asian communities to develop a series of text labels in the forms of ghazals for the exhibit Victoria: Woman and Crown marking the bicentenary of the birth of Queen Victoria.

The final panel highlighted attempts to decolonise and reframe museum collections from both a curatorial and research perspective. Joel Fagan’s paper regarding the work being carried at Paisley Museum on their ethnographic collections showcased a museum beginning to come to terms with the colonial links in their collection and how to frame these links for a community that struggles to see the relevance of these collections to their local identity. In a similar sense Kaisa Tomasiewicz’s paper on the IWM explored how the collections of the IWM could be used to focus on the violence of imperialism as the narrative of the IWM starts in 1914 and primary concerns the total wars of the twentieth century. Sarah Cheang’s paper takes a different point of departure, fashion collections in the Dutch Museums of World Cultures, in order to argue similarly in that through collaboratively developing new interpretative tools for fashion collections.

The workshop that ended the conference took place in Brighton Museum and Art Gallery and involved presentations from Tony Kalume and Judith Ricketts who are both members of the BME heritage network. The BME network works closely with Helen Mears, Keeper of World Art, to create exhibits, events and projects for and in the museums. Both presentations highlighted different aspects of this work with Kalume’s projects working on African textiles in the collection and 3D printing the museum’s collection of Ashanti gold weights. Rickett’s presentation focused on her work as an artist who develops digital tools, such as using QR codes that create augmented reality projections on history trails, for museums and heritage sites. This session really served to connect the academic discussions that had been taking place into very tangible examples which highlighted the dynamics of working with colonial histories that very much have a material presence in museums and around heritage sites.

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Altogether this was a great opening to mark the inauguration of our new Postcolonial Heritage Research Group Network. Many of these discussions will feed into themes for discussion in upcoming seminars and events hosted by the network. It is our hope to grow the network, and for it to be a platform for PhD students and ECRs to share writings and ideas, propose events, while promoting complex and provocative research across a number of inter-related questions pertaining to representations of empire, colonialism, and slavery at museums and art galleries.

If anyone wishes to share research on our blog in the form of short articles (c800-2500 words), or to join the mailing list, or indeed share ideas for events, promote CFPs, then please drop us an email on postcolonialheritage2019@gmail.com.

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