8 Jan 2018

"If museums did not exist, would we re-invent them and what would they look like?" - author Robert Janes

Though provoking inter-connections are presently being made at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. The galleries housing Soul City Arts’ Knights of the Raj oral history exhibition on the Bangladeshi origins of the city’s curry trade (ends January 14th 2017), the iconic Burne-Jones collection and decolonial curatorial experiment The Past is Now: Birmingham and the British Empire sit next to each other in a angular shape on the museum’s second floor. 

The challenging and difficult journey that the Museum staff and the group of co-curators that produced The Past is Now undertook has been powerfully and honestly documented by Sumaya Kassim in her essay The Museum Will Not Be Decolonised. It is essential reading, and should be regarded as an integral part of the exhibition. 

The Past is Now: Birmingham and the British Empire exhibition

The Past Is Now is contained in the Museum’s new Story Lab; “a space that will test different storylines and ways of creating museum displays”. However, the inexorable logic contained in the exhibition defies containment, threatening to break out of its ‘storyline’ and cause a much wider disruption. It goes beyond ‘re-interpretation’ into a much sharper debate about whether museums can be meaningfully reformed away from their imperial and nation-building origins or should be abandoned altogether to stew in their melancholic Victorian juices. 

Way back in 1971 Canadian academic/curator Duncan Cameron in an influential speech The Museum, a Temple or the Forum argued that museums were suffering a crisis in role definition and were in desperate need of psychotherapy. They needed to be confronted, challenged, and provoked by forums “unfettered by convention and established values”. He warned these forums should not be neutralised or contained to ensure “the new and challenging perceptions of realities – the new values and their expressions – can be seen and heard by all”. Using this mechanism, he argued, transformational change could be catalysed. 

Is it worth the effort? Should we exhaust our energies by putting our shoulders to the boulder and pushing it millimetre by millimetre up the hill? Gravity is against us. What is the drag- force at the heart of museums as institutions that curator-activists come up against when they seek to enact even small changes? They come to realise that “a museum is not the neutral and transparent sheltering space that it is often claimed to be”, as art historian Carol Duncan puts it . 

If J Mordant Crook (Fellow of the British Academy, Slade Professor of Fine Art, Oxford, President of the Society of Architectural Historians of Great Britain) is correct that “The modern museum is a product of Renaissance humanism, eighteenth-century enlightenment and nineteenth-century democracy”, where is the place for those whose ancestors were enslaved, oppressed, exploited or subjugated, for whom the great European project represents the brutal negation of humanism, enlightenment and democracy?

The dilemma facing cultural democrats is that which James Baldwin identified in 1963 in The Fire Next Time: “Do I really want to be integrated into a burning house?” Why not just leave it to burn, much like farmers set fire to the sugar cane fields before harvesting, to chase away the venomous snakes and make it easier to chop at the root. 

But all this does not take away from the achievement of the exhibition itself (or ‘forum’ perhaps) that successfully combines a post-colonial argument and aesthetic simultaneously. Critical texts are juxtaposed with the weapons of empire – including the gun manufacture that Birmingham fought to monopolise. As the historian Eric Williams pointed out “The Birmingham guns of the eighteenth century were exchanged for men, and it was a common saying that the price of a Negro was one Birmingham gun. The African musket was an important Birmingham export, reaching a total of 100,000 to 150,000 annually”. Williams also established that Birmingham’s eighteenth-century industrial ‘hero’ Matthew Boulton partly financed the development of his business partner James Watt’s revolutionary rotating steam engine with bank loans raised from profits from the West Indian slave plantations. 

The Past is Now: Birmingham and the British Empire exhibition

One section of the exhibition satisfyingly represents a curated toppling of the stature of Birmingham’s late Victorian patriarch Joseph Chamberlain. The rosy reputation of Chamberlain as Radical Liberal, social reformer and legendary Lord Mayor of the city, is dispelled by revealing him as a war criminal, who as Colonial Secretary cruelly prosecuted the Second Boer War (1899-1902). His scorched earth policy included imprisoning white Boer woman and children, and Black African civilians, in (segregated) concentration camps, leading to upwards of 46,000 deaths due to neglect and disease. The vast majority of those who died in the concentration camps were children. In a bold move the curators exhibit the ceremonial trowel used by Chamberlain to lay the foundation of the Birmingham museum itself in 1874, whose creation he was centrally responsible for. The Empire Strikes Back. 

The Past is Now: Birmingham and the British Empire exhibition

The centrepiece of the exhibition is the wall upon which are hung a number of historical and contemporary visual arts pieces. Work by Keith Piper, Turner Prize winner Lubaina Himid and noted Birmingham photographer Vanley Burke are exhibited alongside work by sculptor Jacob Epstein and Pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti. The mind immediately gets to work to figure out the meanings of each work in relation to the others. 

Of course, contradictions arise. Rossetti (and Burne-Jones) were part of the radical Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood that was founded in opposition to the expansion of Victorian capitalism and the degradation it left in its wake. Burne-Jones’ lifelong friend was anti-imperialist and early Marxist William Morris. I think Rossetti’s pencil Beloved- Study of a Black Boy included in The Past is Now is aesthetically pleasing in itself. But when Rossetti later incorporated the boy’s image into his painting The Beloved (The Bride), he racialises it by placing it in inferior relation to the idolised ‘beautiful’ white woman who is the central image of the composition (exhibited in Tate Britain). 

The piece that leaped out at me was contemporary wood engraver Henry Brockway’s lovely woodcut illustration Huck and Jim on the Raft. The African-American boy and the poor white boy are facing away from each other, absorbed in their own separate worlds. Which prompted me to think of the relation between the exhibition and the majority white audience who will pass through it. In her essay Sumaya Kassim refers to “the white gaze” and “systemic whiteness”. I understand these terms in relation to power. 

But a white viewer does not necessarily employ a singular “white gaze”. The Atlantic slave trade and the British Empire created the wealth that allowed British capitalism to leap forward and stay ahead of its rivals. It allowed Birmingham’s industrialists to innovate production and move to the massively profitable factory system. It gave them subjugated markets and peoples to sell its manufacture. But this enterprise also relied on the violent exploitation and immiseration of a new industrial working class. As the academic-activist Walter Rodney pointed out in his seminal book How Europe Underdeveloped Africa (1972) “European workers have paid a great price for the few material benefits which accrued to them as crumbs from the colonial table…In accepting to be led like sheep, European workers were perpetuating their own enslavement to the capitalists”. 

Audre Lorde argued that we should “identify who are our allies with whom we have grave differences, and who are our genuine enemies”. She went onto say: “Anger is loaded with information and energy”. I agree. Whatever angle you come at the legacy of empire, we all need to cherish our anger.

A guest blog by Hassan Mahamdallie, Arts and Culture Programme Manager, Aziz Foundation.