By Andrew Parkin, Keeper of Archaeology, Great North Museum: Hancock
The Great North Museum: Hancock was founded during the height of the British Empire. This means we have lots of objects that came from former British colonies around the world. But we don’t always know how they ended up here or what they really meant to the people that made them. We are now trying to research these items so we can tell their stories more fully.
We are not seeking to return all these objects to their original locations, but we are open to claims for repatriation. This post explains the differences between decolonisation and repatriation.
The term ‘decolonisation’ has, over the past decade, become important for museums and galleries in Western Europe and North America. It is a contentious term that has led to a great deal of debate within the museum world, as well as much soul searching about the role museums have played in different countries’ colonial pasts. But what do we mean by decolonisation and why is it important?
Decolonisation, at its simplest, is when a colonial power gives up its control of a colony, withdrawing from it and leaving it independent. This is a process that western imperial powers have been undertaking since the end of the second world war; allowing their overseas possessions to become self-governing. Britain, for example, granted India independence in 1947 and this was the beginning of a long process of gradually breaking up Britain’s Empire, allowing former colonies to become self-governing nation states. However, decolonisation can mean much more than this and can relate to dismantling the legacies of colonialism that run deeper than just the occupation of overseas territories. Many museums and galleries now recognise that they are institutions founded during the colonial era and their collections, to a greater or lesser extent, were acquired from areas of the world that were colonised. They are coming to recognise how important this history has been in shaping their growth as institutions and the collections they hold. In the Great North Museum: Hancock we have world cultures collections that come from different parts of the world that were under British rule. We also have numerous biological and geological specimens from former British colonies. In many ways the museum can be seen as a reflection of British imperialism and visitors can gain a sense of the extent of the British Empire from the Museum’s collections.
Like many other museums we are thinking about the implications of having collections that are inextricably linked with the story of British colonialism and how we now shed more of a light on these stories in our interpretation. One of our concerns is to find out how the Museum acquired these objects. Many of them were probably obtained through trade or as gifts. A result of imperialism is that people serving in an Empire’s colonies would bring souvenirs of their time overseas back to their homeland and many of these have eventually found their way into museum collections. Nevertheless, we are aware that some of our collections may well have been taken by force from their owners, as another result of imperialism is the looting of resources and material from subject peoples. As part of the Great North Museum’s decolonisation process and its ambition to tell these stories, we have to try and understand as fully as possible how its collections were acquired and then be open to the possibility of claims for the return of items that were taken, perhaps violently, and without their owners’ consent. When objects are returned this is a process called repatriation, and when a claim is made the museum enters into a collaborative and legal process with source communities. This process is not easy, not least because our collections’ documentation is not always clear about how and when certain objects were acquired. A great deal of detective work is necessary to trace the stories of some objects and how they came to be in the Museum.
Decolonisation of the museum is not just concerned with being more honest about the background of our collections. It also acknowledges that the museum is an institution that is complicit in imperialism. Most western museums have presented the past in a highly selective way, often choosing to ignore uncomfortable stories about the origins of their collections, or prioritising western interpretations of material rather than trying to understand what particular objects meant to the people who made and used them. Therefore, a significant element of our decolonisation programme is to expand the perspectives the Museum presents in its interpretation beyond those of dominant white western culture. We are beginning to think about the way we label certain items and the stories we chose to tell about them.
The Great North Museum: Hancock is a museum that has its roots in the 18th and 19th centuries and is thereby closely associated with British imperialism. Consequently, it is impossible to completely decolonise the Museum. We cannot deny the Museum’s background and escape its colonial past. Decolonisation, for us, is not an attempt to completely rewrite history, but rather an effort to shed light on areas of our past that have been neglected, or simply ignored. By changing the way, we work and acknowledging our colonial past we can decolonise how we work and move towards becoming a more open, honest institution.
The process of decolonising a museum requires a great deal of time and effort, so why is it important that museums undertake this kind of work? Perhaps the biggest motivation lies in the desire for a museum to represent all sectors of its community. If our interpretation and documentation only reflect one dominant point of view, we are doing a disservice to other sections of the community who will feel they have no voice in the museum. We want to democratise the museum so that everyone can feel welcome and participate in what the museum has to offer.
Decolonisation also gives us the chance to build bridges with people from around the world. A willingness to discuss issues, such as the repatriation of objects, can lead to further dialogue with source communities. Museums can learn from these conversations, especially in ensuring that they represent different source communities in the way they would like to be represented. Rather than seeing decolonisation as a threat it ought to be regarded as an opportunity to build deeper relationships, both at home and abroad, and strengthen the museum’s ability to understand different cultures.
Like any other change the move to decolonise museums can be regarded as controversial. Some believe that it will lead to large-scale loss of collections and an impoverishment of the museum. This fear is understandable but fails to acknowledge the opportunities decolonisation offers to enrich the museum and move it into the 21st century. Museums are never neutral spaces, how they chose to present the past to their visitors is always an active process and is shaped by contemporary concerns. Therefore, it is undesirable for museums to stand aside and ignore current debates, such as the one around the impact of slavery on British history. We have a duty to our audiences to actively engage with the past and provide an insight into important issues. Therefore, we need to understand the negative legacies of imperialism and how they have shaped the world we live in today. Museums can, and should, play an active role in highlighting these stories. Their collections and relationship with British imperialism place them in a unique position to reassess our imperial past.