In Defence of Collections Part 5: Collections- The Colonial Issue8 June 2022
Recent anxieties around colonial collections and the need to confront their social legacy is the main force behind challenges to collections’ centrality to museums. Sharon Heal, director of the Museums Association (2019b, p.3), describes collecting as fundamentally ‘imperialist’: Simpson (2001, p.1) explains that colonial era collections were made to show ‘cultural and intellectual sovereignty’ over colonised peoples, part of which was using the knowledge of peoples signified by holding these collections to assert power (Said 1979, ‘Chapter 1, I’, para. 4). However, as Pearce suggests, and as demonstrated by the responses of minority communities to their representation in museum exhibitions, this need not be the message that collections on groups and historical events connected to former British colonies convey, or the relationship museums must have with originating communities.
Power and Privilege in 21st century museums gives the example of the RAF Museum in the ‘diverse and impoverished’ Barnet, where community involvement in creating the narrative around the existing museum collection was enough to revitalise the museums and repopularise it amongst local people, a strategy used to similar success in the Nottingham Castle Museum, which saw the colonial tone of its previous display transformed through the ‘Circle of Life’ exhibition, despite the fact that it contained exactly the same objects (Museums Association 2019b, p.8; Sandell 2007, p.102). This extends to collections known to have been acquired through colonial violence. The University of Sussex-led project that saw the Royal Engineers Museum in Gillingham collaborate with Sudanese museums saw the co-production of exhibitions and online resources and no repatriation requests for any of the 200 Sudanese objects and documents they hold. The only objects returned as part of the project went to Botswana, having been held by Brighton Museum (Museums Association 2019a, p.11).
The Let’s Talk Labels panellists discuss how museum possession of collections can falsely imply that their originating communities no longer exist, and thus erase extant indigenous communities and their concerns (TORCH 2021). Museum collections do not have to be ‘dead’, however: calls for greater ‘interactivity’ and more ‘hands-on’ experiences with collections from the British public suggest they would not be opposed to the continuing use of museum objects (Ambrose and Paine 2018, pp.32-33). As Woldeyes points out, in some cases, returning objects is the only option, but this does not mean that collections cannot be contributed by local diasporic groups in the context of collaborative rather than ‘extracti[ve]’ relationships (TORCH 2021), or that historical (or ‘dead’) ‘originals’ are not the only objects suitable for display from minority communities. Simpson (2001, p.277) describes the case of the Lakota Ghost Dance shirt, returned to the Lakota tribe by the Glasgow Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum in 1999 at the public’s behest and subsequently replaced with a new shirt made by Lakota craftspeople and gifted to the museum, ensuring subsequent generations of Glaswegians can continue to learn about Native Americans and appreciate them as a living people, rather than imagine them as relics of a bygone age.
Collections can be at the centre of egalitarian, decolonised relationships based on mutual understanding and learning as much as they can be at the centre of oppressive colonial regimes.