Accepted Paper:

The British Empire and Commonwealth Museum of Bristol: contesting historical representations from a postcolonial location.  
Giuseppina Muzzopappa (Università L'Orientale Napoli)

Paper short abstract:

The analysis of rhetorical strategies employed in the BECM in Bristol is taken as a departure point to discuss the political implications of this heritagisation built around an often melancholic representation of the history of British empire in contemporary, multicultural Britain.

Paper long abstract:

Based on a research carried out in Bristol and focused in particular on its museums, this paper aims at analysing the place that the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum occupies not only in this specific urban context, but also on the wider background of a country that, quoting Paul Gilroy, has been going through a lenghty and still unresolved phase of "postcolonial melancholia". A museum which explicitly aims at representing the controversial history of the British empire places itself in a problematic space. How is the history of the British empire told (or not told), who tells it (or chooses not to tell), how specific narrative strategies are used in order to convey an interpretation which appears to be strongly political, while openly rejecting any political engagement: these are the main points addressed in the paper, drawing upon theroretical suggestions coming not only from the field of museum anthropology, but also from the ambiguous and often disturbing area of postcolonial studies. Bristol is a city which has witnessed, in the last years, a process of self-redefinition in relation to its past involvement in the transatlantic slave trade: in this problematic process, museums play a pivotal role, constituting the most evident locations of discussion and conflict about the heritagization of the city's past. Rethinking the history of British empire through a museum in a city like Bristol is significative, but it can hide some snares in the very medium chosen to represent this history: the neutralizing aura strictly associated to the museum as institution in the Western culture, even if widely rediscussed and revisited, concurs to objectify this specific narration, crystallizing into a fixed shape a history that is still contested and far from being neutrally accepted. In this perspective, the analysis of the narrative strategies employed in this museum have much to tell, not only about the history of empire, but also about how this history casts its shadows on contemporary, postcolonial Britain.

Panel IW06
Museums, anthropology and the representation of the colonial past