(P014)
Representing 'Modern' Global, Local and Imperial Histories in Object-Centred Museums
Location Brunei Gallery - B204
Date and Start Time 01 Jun, 2018 at 14:00
Sessions 2

Convenors

  • John Giblin (British Museum) email
  • Imma Ramos (British Museum) email

Mail All Convenors

Short abstract

How can museums use object-centred approaches to communicate global and local histories of the past 300 years in the context of shifting structures of political and cultural power, including imperial, postcolonial and neo-colonial narratives?

Long abstract

This panel will ask how museums can explore the last 300 years of global history through their collections. Specifically, how can object-centred approaches be developed that allow museums to communicate global and local histories in the context of shifting structures of political and cultural power, including imperial, postcolonial and neo-colonial narratives? This question is raised in the context of the recent creation of the British Museum's cross departmental research group, Global, Imperial and Local Histories, 1700 to present, and one of its identified challenges: to consider what objects and stories should be prioritised in any future gallery of the modern world. Papers will consider a broad range of topics relating to the British Museum's or other institutions' collections, including but not restricted to: curatorial engagement with the history of Empire and decolonisation; colonial collecting and how this is addressed across permanent displays; collecting and representing the contemporary; the role of contemporary art in mediating between the present and recent histories; theorisations and deconstructions of the modern in history museums; specific ongoing or forthcoming gallery projects; ethical issues of representing the recent past, and 'modern' imperial, global, or local stories that should feature in a gallery of the modern world.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.

Papers

Revolution in Room 3: Toussaint Louverture, Haiti and the British Museum

Author: Esther Chadwick email

Short abstract

This paper will discuss the objects, interpretative frameworks and curatorial objectives of a recent spotlight display at the British Museum, "A revolutionary legacy: Haiti and Toussaint Louverture".

Long abstract

This paper will discuss the objects, interpretative frameworks and curatorial objectives of a recent spotlight exhibition at the British Museum, "A revolutionary legacy: Haiti and Toussaint Louverture" (February-April 2018). It will pay particular attention to the display's focal juxtaposition of two very different but historically connected objects: Jacob Lawrence's "General Toussaint L'Ouverture" (1938, printed 1986) and a Haitian Vodou boula drum, confiscated during a police raid in Haiti c. 1929. It will also highlight the critical perspective of Haitian-born artist and anthropologist Gina Ulysse, who was commissioned by the BM to respond to the display.

"… a bastion of colonialism." Visitors' attitudes to empire and colonialism at the British Museum

Author: Stuart Frost (British Museum ) email

Short abstract

A recent survey indicates that 60% of the British public views the British Empire's history positively. Media debates about Britain's imperial past are ongoing. This paper uses audience research to explore British Museum visitors' attitudes to empire and their implications for future displays.

Long abstract

A recent YouGov UK survey (July 2014) indicated that the British public views the history of the British Empire positively. Around 60% felt that the British Empire was more something to be proud of (59%) rather than ashamed of (19%). Debates in the media about the realities and legacies of Britain's imperial past are ongoing. This paper explores British Museum visitors' attitudes to empire and colonialism through audience research undertaken from around 2005 onwards. It will draw on three types of data: i) Qualitative formative and summative exhibition evaluations which provide glimpses into the attitudes of British visitors towards the subject of empire. ii) Recent audience research about overseas first time visitors' perceptions of the British Museum. iii) Analysis of visitor feedback via comment cards, email and social media posts that relate to imperial histories and colonial legacies. The paper will use this data to explore public perceptions of the relationship between the British Museum and the history of the British Empire. It will consider the implications of this for future redisplays of the British Museum's permanent galleries and special exhibitions.

Collecting Another India: Challenging representation, patronage and otherness in the postcolonial museum

Author: Mark Elliott (University of Cambridge) email

Short abstract

This paper reflects on a recent project to commission new artworks for an exhibition on Indigenous and Adivasi peoples in Cambridge, and on the processes of knowledge production, objectification and othering which the process set out to critique.

Long abstract

The recent exhibition, Another India: Explorations and Expressions of Indigenous South Asia, began as a project to make sense of historic collections of ethnographic artefacts from India in Cambridge, focusing on those from Indigenous and Adivasi peoples. It became an opportunity to reflect upon and reshape those collections through creative collaborations with contemporary Indigenous and Adivasi artists.

The exhibition set out to explore marginalised and suppressed narratives and engage with contentious histories that continue to impact on populations in India and the UK. New commissions were envisaged as tools to support the democratisation or decolonisation of narratives for source communities, curators and visitors alike. Our title highlighted terms we sought to challenge by exploring how 'otherness' is created in the colonial archive and in contemporary artworlds. The process of commissioning new works of sculpture that responded directly to existing museum collections, their histories and legacies, required the curatorial team in England and India to critically reflect on strategies of knowledge production, representation and museumification in colonial and postcolonial contexts. It also required a continuing reflection and reassessment of our own positions within such histories, and our roles as curators, art-makers and patrons.

This paper reflects on the process of commissioning new artworks from indigenous artists and makers, and the intellectual and ethical approaches that such collaborations generated. It highlights museums and exhibitions and important sites of action and intervention to challenge the very processes in which they have been historically complicit, and asks what the next steps might be.

Views of Java: what's in a collection?

Author: Alexandra Green (British Museum) email

Short abstract

From both European and local perspectives, this paper considers the various modes of ownership, perceptions of value, and exchange practices relating to objects that Sir Stamford Raffles collected on Java between 1811 and 1816 and which are now housed in the British Museum.

Long abstract

During his time as Lieutenant-Governor of Java from 1811-1816, Raffles collected objects from contemporary society, as well as earlier Hindu-Buddhist bronze figures, stone heads, and more than 360 drawings of sites and sculptures. The objects demonstrate an attempt at thoroughness with large bodies of material, but ultimately there is little comprehensiveness in a particular subject. In various ways, all of these objects provide extensive information about Javanese and European societies and their beliefs and concepts. The collection also tells us substantially about Raffles: what he thought, understood, and planned; how he connected with his milieu and how he differed from it. Many collection histories focus upon the European interests, opportunities, and collecting methods, but Raffles' collection also subtly reveals interactions with local people through its shape: what was and what was not gathered together. This paper considers the various modes of ownership, perceptions of value, and exchange practices relating to the objects that Raffles collected from both European and local perspectives. In the process, it decolonises the material by revealing local contributions and the varying purposes behind Raffles' collecting. Gaps in the collection relate to historic events of which the Europeans had no knowledge, cultural constructs that they could not grasp, and local efforts to protect Islamic artefacts. There are also early examples of 'tourist art.' On his side, Raffles was not only trying to explain the Javanese to a European audience for the purpose of colonisation, but also promoting himself politically in Europe by demonstrating competence and expertise.

Between global and local: "Objects of Encounter", the new exhibition gallery of The Museum of Cultures (Mudec) of Milan

Authors: Carolina Orsini (Museo delle Culture) email
Anna Maria Montaldo (Museo delle Culture) email
Giorgia Barzetti (Mudec - Museo delle culture) email

Short abstract

In 2015, the new exhibition gallery "Objects of Encounter" of Mudec opened to the public. It present the history of the City of Milan's public ethnographic collections from the XVII century to the post WWII between local stories and global background, in a selection of 300 objects.

Long abstract

In the last thirty years, an intense debate has taken place regarding the ethnographic museums in Europe: recognizing historical mistakes and that a new deal must be undertaken, many ethnographic museums have changed their cultural policies, their mission and, sometimes, their proper denomination (Pagani, 2013: 155). A clear need to involve local communities, through a bottom-up approach (Simpson, 2001; Krep, 2003) has increasingly spread. In this historical context, MUDEC opened to the public in 2015 in a former industrial area, now mainly devoted to design and fashion. The permanent exhibition of the museum was designed to present the history of the City of Milan's public ethnographic collections from the XVII century to the post WWII, stressing the relations between local stories and global background embedded in a selection of objects. Against this historical backdrop, the exhibition also documents the changing nature of the encounter between Milan and the Region of Lombardy and the various cultures that the collections represent in material form, tracing a second history - that of the evolving posture towards "the Other" and "Otherness". In other words, rather than classifying artifacts geographically or ethnically as tradition wants, in "Objects of Encounter" cultures are presented in terms of how specific societies, in this case those of Milan and Lombardy, encountered and "looked at" them. Needless to say, these contacts have deeply affected us: our "gaze" has changed over time, so has the pursuit of ethnographic collecting.

The currency of communism: representations of value in socialist material culture at the British Museum

Author: Tom Hockenhull (British Museum) email

Short abstract

This paper examines the challenges that come with assembling a tangible and representative material culture of monetary exchange from socialist countries, whereby traditional payment mechanisms are often fragmented and thus subverted.

Long abstract

This paper discusses research and acquisitions of communist and post-communist financial material, conducted by the British Museum in the build-up to the centenary of the Russian Revolution. The project, enabled by a grant from the Art Fund, began with two aims. The first was to look at how shared political ideologies can influence the aesthetics of currency design in socialist states. The second, less definitive aim was to explore if, and how, material culture can inform our understanding of how exchange mechanisms work under the planned economy. Arguably this second aim has had the greater potential impact, asking fundamental questions about how concepts of value should be represented in national numismatic collections. Socialist states themselves sought to redefine concepts of value among their citizens and, therefore, the traditional approach to numismatic collecting, namely of state currency in the form of coins and banknotes, has required some redefinition. While remaining important for everyday transactions, currencies of socialist states have often been supplemented by various forms of official and unofficial exchange including voucher systems, awards and decorations, barter and the black market - often known as the 'shadow economy'. Navigating the complexities of an extremely fragmented monetary system, this paper will discuss how the Museum attempted to define some of the official - and unofficial - characteristics of a socialist planned economy in its recent temporary exhibition, 'The currency of communism' (October 2017-March 2018).

"Across the World and Across the Street"

Author: Christina Homer (Bangor University) email

Short abstract

The county museum in Bangor, North Wales, presents local, national, and global identities through its collections. This paper outlines the ways in which these multiplicities may be displayed in the museum, including the crucial factor of bilingualism of the institution.

Long abstract

This paper will investigate the ways in which the county museum in Bangor, North Wales presents local, national, and global identities through its collections. The founding collections of the museum came from Bangor University, including items gathered during international expeditions.

This paper will compare two recent exhibitions as case studies to explore the expression of identities through objects. The first of these, entitled "Connections", comprises a variety of objects representing the nine University collections, ranging from fine art to zoological specimens. The other, "Notes from the Past", displays ancient musical instruments from Mexico. In both cases, the objects were brought together through colonial ways of collecting, and this is reflected in the curation of the displays.

This research uses ethnographic methods based on fieldwork in the museum space, and interviews with museum staff and visitors. An additional dimension is the intersection of local identities as expressed through the Welsh and English languages. As a non-Welsh speaker myself, I have compared the results my research with a Welsh-speaking research colleague.

Reflecting the quotation from Peggy Levitt which forms the title of this paper, the museum is both ethnographic and aesthetic, local and global. The strong local identities reside in tension with the cosmopolitanism of the University town. This paper outlines the ways in which these multiplicities can, and cannot, be displayed in the museum.

'Miscellaneous articles'

Author: Jessica Harrison-Hall (British Museum) email

Short abstract

This short paper will air some of the challenges of communicating (to various audiences) aspects of China's long 19th century. It will introduce some ideas through past, present and planned future displays of 19th century material culture at the British Museum, London.

Long abstract

A new display of China's history, art and archaeology at the British Museum (in Room 33) exhibits objects and paintings dating from prehistory to the present. Human engagement with objects takes many forms and hundreds of researched stories are also told of production, consumption and possession of things through time.

Cases devoted to the period 1800-the present are new to the permanent displays. Curators, conservators and designers worked within the restrictions of historic listed cases, the material available from the collections and loans, to highlight some aspects of China's long 19th century. This short paper looks at the material selected and the reasons behind those choices.

It introduces ideas from past displays and demonstrates how the work for permanent galleries is enlivened by longer research projects and how the displays can in turn act as a catalyst for future research and exhibitions.

This panel is closed to new paper proposals.