Culture&, in collaboration with the Black Cultural Archives, continues its monthly series Perspectives, which invites persons from the arts and culture sector to respond to ‘Re’ words from Culture&’s 2020 decolonisation mantra. With the aim of gaining a richer understanding of what these terms mean from different points of view, this month they consider Reappropriate, Remembering and Relinquish.
Subhadra Das, Curator, UCL Collections at UCL Culture
Whenever I think about when objects were stolen from other countries in the colonial past and put in museums, I think about two siblings – one of them has taken a toy from the other. In that situation, it’s the job of a parent to return the toy and make peace. In the absence of a parent, people need to find ways to get their stolen objects back themselves. Until what was stolen is returned, there can be no justice or peace.
‘Museum’ is Greek for ‘place of the muses’. In Greek mythology, the muses were sisters who presided over all artistic and cultural endeavour, from history to lyric poetry. As such, museums are places to think and to be inspired. According to the poet Hesiod, the muses were the daughters of Mnemosyne – a personification of memory.
So museums are all about remembering.
What does it mean to remember? The definition that has always stuck with me comes from a Stephen Fry novel: “The act of remembering is literally just that: the act of reassembling the members of something.” Often in museums, the things being reassembled are stories – about objects and their place in history. In a museum, a history that was written a long time ago can be taken apart and put back together. As long as I can remember that museums are places for remembering, I have hope.
According to Culture& CEO Errol Francis, “Decolonisation is about ceding territory.” This is probably the most poignant – and certainly the most concise – definition of museum decolonisation I’ve ever heard. Just as colonial powers gave up their colonial holdings, decolonising museums involves white people ceding, or relinquishing, intellectual territory. This doesn’t mean giving up or erasing knowledge, but giving up control over who gets to make knowledge.
Samuel Pontin, Programme Co-ordinator, Culture&
Decolonisation involves both meanings; to re-appropriate museums and galleries to be postcolonial spaces for humanity, rather than only a space for objects. To re-appropriate objects themselves, appropriated from their cultural contexts, both extant and extinct. This means returning the huge number of objects in museum and gallery collections where their provenance is unclear, or implies the use of force in their acquisition; freeing up spaces for discussion, and the learning of our shared history.
The act of remembering in relation to decolonisation involves examining our understanding of shared history. What we are taught about Empire, industry and the modern world encourages us to view certain actors in a more favourable light than others. We must remember who figures of commemoration are, and evaluate if they are worthy of our respect.
To relinquish, involves the voluntary giving up of something. With regard to decolonisation this involves the giving up of a number of things in order to allow others to take up: a greater voice in historical narrative, a greater share of space, a greater say in what and how decisions are made, and other aspects.
Dorottya Balla, Masters Student, Goldsmiths University, London
‘The words I’d most often use to describe archaeological artefacts in museums are interesting and educational, almost as if any emotional attachments were scrubbed off of them together with the mud and dust they were found in. Like the Ishtar Gate, the main entrance to the 6th Century BCE city of Babylon (in present-day Iraq), which now stands reconstructed in the Pergamon Museum in Berlin. On a walking tour in Berlin, guided by a refugee from Iraq, who was showing us the city through his experience, we were told that as part of his German integration course he had visited the Pergamon.
Walking from room to room, he suddenly found himself standing in front of the Ishtar Gate, a landmark of his country, something he associated with home. Overwhelmed with homesickness and confusion he broke down in tears. Suddenly finding a piece of home in a different continent was emotional and confusing for him. These emotions attached to artefacts shouldn’t be forgotten when thinking about remembering, relinquishing and reappropriation.’