The campaign to decolonise culture in Britain

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Activists argue that museums and universities should amplify the voices of the oppressed

A FURORE erupted in Britain in April when the effect of the Home Office’s “hostile environment” policy on Caribbean migrants who came to Britain after the second world war was revealed. Well before the scandal broke, the British Library had been finalising an exhibition to explore the experiences of the “Windrush generation” 70 years after their arrival in London. Titled “Windrush: Songs in a Strange Land”, the exhibition, which opens on June 1st, will focus on political, literary and musical voices from the Caribbean, revisiting colonialism through the stories of people who experienced it. It prompts questions about how people from the former empire have in turn shaped Britain.

This is part of a broader movement in the visual arts. Calls to revisit historical narratives in museums to make room for the perspectives of those who were colonised have grown louder in recent years. Groups of activists seek to identify the Western bias involved in cultural heritage and shame institutions into redressing it. As such, the activists ask provocative questions about who owns culture.

These debates spurred a group of young museum professionals from different minority and immigrant groups to form Museum Detox in 2016. Their aim is to build awareness around diversity in cultural organisations, to build a network and to help members achieve leadership positions. Their inaugural event, in October that year, was a flash mob at the Museum of London. It saw some 60 black and minority-ethnic museum workers disrupt “Punk.London”, an exhibition marking 40 years of punk and its legacy. The flash mob fittingly caused anarchy by raiding the show with cards and texts about African and Caribbean culture. By linking the artefacts with personal stories and facts about migration, Museum Detox offered an alternative view of the collection.

The previous day gal-dem, a collective of ethnic-minority women, had also staged a cultural coup at the Victoria and Albert Museum in London. Commandeering Friday Late, the museum’s monthly contemporary-arts series, they encouraged visitors to take alternative tours of the galleries. Rather than seeing the European artefacts and sculptures that dominate its main collections and the vast halls of its Cast Courts, they would focus on black and Middle Eastern women’s performances, histories and objects. The idea was that these should be central, not peripheral, to a museum visit.

Activists argue that museums are not solely concerned with art and design: they also make statements about identity and belonging in their countries. In February the British Museum, in collaboration with the BBC’s reprised “Civilisations” series, hosted lectures on the topic; curators talked candidly about the difficult provenance of their collections and how to present it to the public. In the original 1960s television series, Kenneth Clark, a celebrated art historian, travelled through Europe feting Western art. This time, three presenters explored the arts of Africa, Asia and the Americas as rich civilisations that can stand with the Greeks and the Romans. Mary Beard, a celebrated classicist, considered perspective: through design histories from Mexico and Greece to Egypt and China, she focused on the human body as a way of framing the discussion of what is considered “civilised”.

Scrutiny of the canon is extending to universities, too. Non-Western academics and thinkers are sharing their “decolonising syllabi” and discussing the subject online. Last year undergraduates at Oxford and Cambridge petitioned to diversify their English-literature curriculum with non-Western voices. At Cambridge, in an open letter to the head of the English faculty, students said they want to change a syllabus which they feel “elevates white male authors at the expense of all others”. They stated that while strides had been made to include women writers, “the curriculum, taken as a whole, risks perpetuating institutional racism.” Students suggested more post-colonial authors in exam papers, more diversified speakers at the university and “a zero-tolerance policy on the dismissal of race as a subject worthy of discussion/enquiry in essays”. The faculty have entered into discussions with the students to address their concerns.

While museums may not be moving towards total decolonisation and returning artworks and artefacts to their country of origin, activists’ pressure can push institutions to be more transparent about provenance. Curators could likewise encourage more nuanced interpretations of collections by juxtaposing canonical works, where appropriate, with artefacts and ephemera. A more diverse workforce may help to deliver those new ideas and approaches. That will be to museums’ benefit. As the Windrush scandal has proven, the story of British colonialism is still being told.

First published by The Economist, 1/6/18.

Edited by NIAS.