Sumaya Kassim describes the challenges of trying to bring context to Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery
“The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.” Audre Lorde, 1978
Earlier this year, I was part of a group of co-curators invited to set up an exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (BMAG) which would use the Museum’s collection to confront history in new and challenging ways. The attempt is worthy – reflective of movements like ‘Rhodes must fall’ and ‘why is my curriculum white’, which call for a radical reassessment of history, an awareness of how colonial processes impact our present times. However, the exhibition brought into focus an important question – one of whether large British institutions like BMAG can and should promote ‘decolonial’ thinking, or whether, in fact, they are so embedded in the history and power structures that decoloniality challenges, that they will only end up co-opting decoloniality.
At the start of the project, we toured the permanent nineteenth-century exhibition together. One of the museum staff drew our attention to the labelling – the authorial voice of the museum – and the way that certain objects are deemed ‘valuable’ and therefore are placed in central positions, most of which are paintings by white men. In this time period, it seemed as though brown and black faces only appeared in Orientalist paintings, images which created a fantasy version of the rest of the world as underdeveloped, static, feminine. One such painting we saw languished in a corner, depicting a veiled woman whose mouth was literally being covered twice (by a veil and a man’s hand). Someone muttered: “I’m tired”, and everyone laughed.
Museums are not neutral
Museums are not neutral in their preservation of history. In fact, arguably, they are sites of forgetfulness and fantasy. The way exhibitions are constructed usually assumes a white audience and privileges the white gaze. The white walls signified the choices of white people, their agency, their museum collections, and the endeavours of colonialists. To many white people, the collections are an enjoyable diversion, a nostalgic visit which conjures up a romanticised version of Empire.
For many people of colour, collections symbolise historic and ongoing trauma and theft. Behind every beautiful object and historically important building or monument is trauma. As the historian and writer, Nana Oforiatta Ayim has said: “In the British Museum, you have the African galleries, and it’s like, ‘This drum is from 1500 Ashanti,’ but there is nothing else about it. You don’t know what it is used for, what context it’s from, how it was brought here, who stole it. The museum as it exists today is so much an imperialist project and is so much about power”. The craftsmanship, the display case, the beauty of the institution that collects and protects its imperial hoard: the way items are described, the way they are catalogued and what gets shown and what remains hidden; all work to deny, retreat, and forget.
As the project proceeded, we were given presentations by the curators about the acquisition history of the museum collections. Many of the collections pertaining to Empire were donated by colonialists, merchants, collectors, or just “taken”. One of the most famous (and controversial) objects is the Buddha Sakyamuni, who greets visitors at the museum entrance. The statue was discovered by British railway engineer E B Harris in north-east India in 1861; he transported the statue from India and sold it to a West Midlands industrialist for £200. It was destined for the museum of Birmingham, whose foundries had produced many of the rails, sleepers and carriages for the East Indian Railway. Where museum objects come from and the circumstances surrounding their acquisition are seen as secondary to the value of allowing the British public access to “history”. Often it takes repatriation campaigns to highlight these issues.
The museum itself sits on Chamberlain Square. The Square (alongside many of Birmingham’s buildings and locations) is named after Joseph Chamberlain, who is celebrated as the ‘father’ of Birmingham. He has a whole display in #ThePastIsNow dedicated to restoring historical accuracy, highlighting his role as the British Secretary of the Colonies. Chamberlain is comparable to Cecil Rhodes in his unwavering belief in imperial expansion and the superiority of the ‘British race’. We gave him room to explain his imperialist, racist ideology, exploring how his social reforms in Birmingham were made at the expense of the colonies.
Although the connections between Empire and Birmingham run deep, this story is rarely represented within institutional spaces in the city. As the project continued, it was clear that there were so many stories and not enough time and money to do justice to them. Each of the displays we went with could easily have whole been exhibitions, whole buildings, dedicated to their decolonialisation. The pressures of the project led to difficult questions, including whether these histories could translate into Birmingham museum in a way that was truly radical. It was going to be a challenge, a struggle, for everyone involved.
We were all wary of being tokenised
The museum staff were aware of this in theory, but I don’t think they were prepared for us in practice. We were intent on drawing attention to the museum as an imperial structure that is intimately tied to systemic whiteness. We also strove to highlight how individuals reproduced institutions. In meetings, we threw out phrases like ‘white fragility’ and ‘systemic racism’ to staff who had, perhaps, never been confronted in this way. Although we were allowed creative freedom within the exhibition and were encouraged to be candid, it often felt like the price of our honesty was any future chance to work with the museum or, worse, that it might jeopardise further decolonial projects. Though we were encouraged to be upfront, we were never sure where we stood. Meetings could be very tense.
Though a large part the project involved managing other people’s emotions, it also meant managing our own emotions. All of the co-curators of #ThePastIsNow are women of colour with diverse heritages. As such, we all deeply felt the weight of responsibility to represent and narrativize the perspectives of our communities. At the same time, we were all wary of being tokenised. (Plans to have our photos in the exhibition were scrapped for instance) We wanted to be sure we were not being exploited; that underlying anxiety was difficult to shake off. There was always a power struggle at work, and it often felt like there was a ‘scramble for the museum’ in terms of how the stories would be told, how much we could say, how open we could be.
Decolonising is deeper than just being represented. When projects and institutions proclaim a commitment to ‘diversity’, ‘inclusion’ or ‘decoloniality’ we need to attend to these claims with a critical eye. Decoloniality is a complex set of ideas – it requires complex processes, space, money, and time, otherwise it runs the risk of becoming another buzzword, like ‘diversity’. As interest in decolonial thought grows, we must beware of museums’ and other institutions’ propensity to collect and exhibit because there is a danger (some may argue an inevitability) that the museum will exhibit decoloniality in much the same way they display/ed black and brown bodies as part of Empire’s “collection”. I do not want to see decolonisation become part of Britain’s national narrative as a pretty curio with no substance – or, worse, for decoloniality to be claimed as yet another great British accomplishment: the railways, two world wars, one world cup, and decolonisation.
Rather than place the onus on people of colour – either as facilitators or as an audience for the museum – we need to flip the narrative and ask how the museum can facilitate the decolonial process for its majority white audience in a way that does not continue to exploit people of colour. Key to this is accepting that the museum needs us; we do not need the museum. Institutions need to stop considering giving access to BAME people’s own cultures something they should be grateful for, and they should definitely ensure that ‘focus groups’ and visiting curators are remunerated adequately for their work.
This came to a head at the last meeting. We raised these issues – about emotional labour, about not receiving adequate pay for the work we were doing, and about the fact certain key decisions were made without us – and explained that the co-curation process betrayed a fundamental lack of understanding of what decoloniality is and who it is for. We argued that words and systems that hide exploitative practices such as ‘volunteering’, ‘zero-hour contracts’, and ‘diversity’ have no place in a decolonial project. Too often people of colour are rolled in to provide natural resources – our bodies and our “decolonial” thoughts – which are exploited, and then discarded. The human cost, the emotional labour, are seen as worthy sacrifices in the name of an exhibition which can be celebrated as a successful attempt by the museum at “inclusion” and “decolonising”, as a marker that it – and, indeed, Britain – is dealing with its past.
Decolonising is challenging
After this, the co-curators were emailed the interpretation (the exhibition text). To our dismay, it was written in the same neutral voice that we had critiqued weeks earlier. We were told that we could ‘edit’ the text, but there would be little time to make larger changes. There was nothing to be done: we had to set aside questions like am I being exploited and would a white man accept this and what about self-care so that we could “decolonise”. Four of us locked ourselves in a room and collectively re-wrote the entire interpretation. We spent hours arguing about wording and grammar – what would be added to the story, what would we leave out – on the history of Birmingham and eugenics, partition, Kenyan independence, the environment… All the while we were concerned that our efforts might not be accepted, and that our passion might be edited away.
I know that the museum staff also had a lot to lose. Later, I met up with our wonderful research assistant and she explained how certain curators were put in difficult positions, where their reputation was at risk because of what we wrote. I empathise – decolonising is challenging. It means institutions reflecting on their processes and practices critically. It means acceding privilege, and that is almost always painful. Decoloniality is also challenging because it is necessarily unreachable, necessarily indefinable. The legacies of European colonialism are immeasurably deep, far-reaching and ever-mutating, and so decolonial work and resistance must take on different forms, methods and evolve accordingly. However, one thing that I am sure of is that decolonising is a process we must all work on together. Curating #ThePastIsNow was hard – but I recognise in that difficulty something was changing within us all, that there was the possibility we could work through that difficulty together. The co-curators were learning how institutions work and think, and institutional actors were learning about how institutions can better serve their communities.
In the end, the museum accepted our re-write. And when I walked into the exhibition gallery, it was undeniably moving: objects are properly contextualized as souvenirs of traumatic histories. And those histories are narrativized from our perspective. Works of contemporary art from artists such as Donald Rodney, Keith Piper, Lubaina Himid, Vanley Burke sit next to orientalist pieces on a salon wall; there are mirrors on the wall, prompting you, the viewer, to see yourself as part of the exhibition, part of the process.
I’ll admit that there were tears. Even though the process was challenging, I couldn’t help it: we got Audre and Malcolm on those white museum walls.
#ThePastIsNow is showing at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery until the 12th of March 2018.
Sumaya Kassim (@SFKassim) is a writer and researcher. She is a contributor to the essay collection Cut From The Same Cloth (Unbound, 2018) which you can pre-order here. You can find the co-curators on twitter @AbeeraKamran @aliyahhasinah @helloiamariam world @SKbydesign
Main image:William Holman Hunt – The Lantern Maker’s Courtship, A Street Scene in Cairo
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