With funding from the Friends of the Pitt Rivers Kenneth Kirkwood Memorial Fund I was able to travel to the Research Centre for Material Culture at the NationalMuseum of World Cultures, Leiden, to attend the conference ‘Reckoning with History: Colonial Pasts, Museum Futures and DoingJustice in the Present’. The conference brought together academics, curators, artists and Museum professionals from all over the world. It was led by the charismatic Professor Wayne Modest. Early in the proceedings Prof. Modest asked “what is this specific moment? What is the conjuncture? What is at stake now that makes it possible to speak about these changes? What is the specific moment that makes thinking about the colonial possible?” He indicated that this was a new era for Museums and a changing mood has begun to encompass Museum thinking. In recent years what was formally a taboo subject, colonialism, has become a buzz word and everyone is keen to jump on the band wagon. But why is this and what does it mean to confront our chequered colonial pasts? Indeed a question that we hope to tackle at the next Museum Ethnographers Group Conference hosted at the Pitt Rivers Museum in April later this year. 2017 was an interesting year on mainland Europe where a number of Museums engaged in redisplay, redevelopment and exhibition programmes exposing and laying bare colonial genealogies. The conference offered the possibility to critique this approach and analyse public reaction to such explicit reckonings with the colonial past. I feel that this approach to Museum practice both internally and more publicly has been absent in Museums in the UK. One reason for attending this conference was to be able to think more about how we confront the colonial past through the collections at the Pitt Rivers Museum.
Whether or not the Museum can be decolonised I believe remains to be seen but any effort to do so should focus on practice and structures and should be carried out with commitment, a willingness to change and an investment to do so. Rajkamal Kahlon’s exhibition ‘Staying with Trouble’ as part of her residency at the Museum of Ethnology,Vienna, reimagines ethnographic portrait photography redrawing and repainting the bodies of native subjects inviting visitors to question their own gaze. Kahlon spoke of her reservations about working with an ethnographic collection and her fear of her work being employed as an instrument to lessen colonial guilt. Having just undergone a major redisplay Kahlon was left feeling uncomfortable with the inclusion in the new displays of a trophy head from the Munduruku people from Brazil. Whilst for most (white) European Museum visitors this would not cause distress she stressed the trauma associated with such displays for people of colour and asked “What is the work of recovery? What is the work of recuperation? What does it mean to live with extermination? During an earlier panel, we were reminded of issues of law, ethics and responsibility. Catherine Lu, associate professor of political science stated “The project of reconciliation should not be understood as the same as the project of justice” and whilst repatriation is one act of decolonising the Museum this act alone does not exclusively make amends for past wrong doings. Repatriation is a process of reconciliation but arguably the relationships built whilst negotiating these acts of decolonisation are just as valuable as the act itself.
There were moments during the two days when I thought the future looked quite bleak, it was even suggested that the only reasonable resolution would be to abolish the Museum and I was left fretting about my curatorial responsibility and indeed my chosen career path. As the last session of the conference dawned the conclusion was reached that perhaps the best we can hope for is to ‘live with the trouble’. But to feel troubled and to be troubled is progress and perhaps on the horizon lies hope and the ability to imagine new structures and ways of being for the Ethnographic Museum, one of equally and transparency, honesty and truth. We have important lessons to earn and much work to do but I still believe that there is a place for the Museum in the contemporary world.
‘Should museums display human remains from other cultures?’ The Art Newspaper, Katherine Hickley 8th January 2018.
‘Rajkamal Kahlon: Staying with Trouble’ Museum of Ethnology, Vienna, Austria. 25th October 2017 – 31st March 2018.
‘German Colonialism. Fragments Past and Present’ German Historical Museum, Berlin, Germany. 14th October 2016 – 14th May 2017
‘The Guardian view on the colonial past: a German lesson for Britain. Editorial’ Monday 26th December 2016
‘The museum will not be decolonised’ Media Diversified, Sumaya Kassim 15th November 2015