I couldn’t help but be somewhat amused at the differences between two articles that I read this week: One that focused on the passion that Smithsonian has for repatriation of sacred and important collections, the other reporting on the reaction the public had towards the British Museums assertion that their collection is not entirely made up of looted items from the colonial era.
Amusing to me, and it must make others grind their teeth in total frustration.
I’m incredibly disappointed that for the last part of my Open Palaces Programme adventure, I missed seeing Alice Procter’s Uncomfortable Art Tour of the British Museum. Alice is an Australian running incredible tours in London which look at the uncomfortable history of items and artworks in museums. And it’s not just about the stolen nature of some of the objects, but about the way that colonialism continues to effect the way things are described, displayed and stored. I desperately want to get my hands on one of the badges she was handing out “Display is like you stole it”. I also find it amazing that such a great piece of agitation, may have contributed to the British Museum releasing a statement that sounds a lot like “Not everything is looted!”. But enough of it is.
While on the program we visited the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. The Pitt Rivers Museum was founded by Augustus Pitt Rivers (a name which sounds like it should feature in a movie about looting crypts in the Victorian era) in 1884, seeded with 22,000 of his collected objects from around the world. His history is both fascinating and exciting, and completely of the era he was from. Rivers was a noted archaeologist, with a particular interest in tracking the history of human invention. Thus, the museum space is fascinating in its grouping of objects with like objects. The tags in the cases are sparse in information, presenting the item as a piece of a larger puzzle. What this lacks, regularly, is contextual information. What this does (unintentionally, I hope), is to put a beautiful bone china cup next to something rougher from somewhere ‘other’ and allow the viewer to see that obviously the British cup is much less primitive. That evolution and invention has been better in Britain or other ‘developed’ countries.
Hold on, I think I may be letting some of my bias and annoyance show. Let me just try and tuck that away for the moment.
I was born in Australia, and have always known that we are in a colonised land. Opinions and approaches to this have changed dramatically over time, but the violence that is a by product of that invasion is something that can not be ignored. The colonial period is intensely complicated, and is a time of great developments in science and understanding the world we live in. It’s also littered with violence and acts of great injustice which we are only now starting to fully understand and work through. So while I understand the significance of not removing histories successes, I think we need to spend more time really reflecting on what had to occur to make those achievements.
The Pitt Rivers Museum holds a special place in my mind as being stunningly beautiful and everything I imagined a Victorian era museum would be. Oxford is an amazing town (city?), and I felt so amazed to be standing in a place of such history. The Pitt Rivers Museum can be accessed directly from the street, or you can take the scenic route through the Natural History Museum first, with it’s dodos, dinosaurs and other delights. When you walk through the massive doors, you will be faced with soft light bathing the multi story open space. And it is filled to the brim with cases of curiosity. I was properly in awe, my breath lost as I stared at the space. There were giggles and gasps in the museums sound scape as people took in not only the historic items on display, but also the surprisingly gory. I was horrified to discover that the museum is still in possession of Indigenous Australia remains. I was mortified when I began to look at the history of Australian’s asking for the remains to come home only to have to fight for the right to bring their family home to Country. When I asked about the repatriation process, I discovered that the museums policy is really about waiting to receive requests and that these requests do not happen regularly.
The article from the Smithsonian hit the note that I had really been hoping to see. The Smithsonian is significantly larger then the Pitt Rivers Museums, but I should note that the museum is one of many that are managed by Oxford University (which is a fairly large organisation). The Smithsonian has repatriation offices that actively seek to reconnect items and human remains with communities. It has a goal to reduce the number of human remains held by the museums to zero. I enjoyed reading an article that actually celebrated the ideals of repatriation. I feel like British museums could really benefit from setting some appropriate goals around what is appropriate to have in a museum collection.
What I did hear in the museum itself, and from having read a number of articles revolving specifically around the Pitt Rivers Museum were statements of concern to send the items back to the communities from whence they came from. And if absolute evidence can’t be found, then hiccups occur in the process. What this (once again, unintentionally I hope) breeds is a feeling that British Museums feel that they understand our communities and country better then we do ourselves. This is extremely patronising, and honestly there are a good number of institutions in Australia which would be much more experienced in working with Australian communities then most British institutions.
It easy to fall into a thought process that exclaims how easy this should all be. Repatriation and reconciliation is not a simple process, but it is ennobled by being an active process. When an organisation is seen to actively seek out traditional owners and question the history of their collections, it is an act of reconciliation. It’s facing our own complex histories, putting aside the inlaid shame, and offering to be transparent in our desire to be honest about history and ownership. Instead of waiting for communities to present themselves into our European style processes, approach communities and find out how the museum can work with their systems. If you can’t find a community something belongs to, at least have a partnership museum in the right country, and return it to them until a permanent home can be found. Museums and galleries may find themselves with unexpected friendships that deliver more content and information then any stollen artificial could hope to give. They could find deep and wonderful contextual details. And if the list is so huge, because I do understand just how many countries have been touched by the colonial era, then alphabetise it and start from the top. I imagine the process would be hard, with complexities, but reconciliation is not meant to be an easy process. The point is to learn from our mistakes, not to ignore them or explain them away.
Articles that influenced and touched this blog post:
During the Open Palaces Programme, we were super lucky to have a session with the incredible Polly Andrews at the Bath Museum of Architecture. I was really looking forward to this museum, as it intersects neatly with some of my current work, but the workshop here was incredibly enjoyable beyond what I was expecting as well.
The museum is particularly niche in content, concentrating mostly on the design and construction methods for Georgian houses. Located in the beautiful Countess of Huntingdon’s Chapel, it houses a fantastic hands on exhibition of the process for creating a building during the Georgian era, many scale models of buildings and towns, and a large study gallery filled with a very extensive library. The exhibits are extremely hands on, with plenty of things to touch and read. The museum is part of the Bath Preservation Trust, which runs a number of heritage spaces in Bath (some of which I will cover in the future).
The museum has a bustling education and outreach program, which is aimed at an astoundingly wide range of people. I was particularly inspired by Polly’s direction in reaching out to adult disability groups. It was from this session that I took away the statement “Nothing about us, without us”, and a lot of ideas around hands on activity sessions.
‘Nothing about us without us’ (apparently the Latin is ‘Nihil de bonus, sine nobis’) revolves around the ideal that no policy should be created without input from the community that is is designed for. Versions of the slogan have existed in history, but it has particularly become popular since the 1990s in relation to disability activism. This translates particularly well in museum practice, but particularly works well as a slogan for educational or community group activity design. Polly Andrews stressed that this concept is behind the activity and session design for any group that chooses to visit the exhibition. When I have designed school programs, I have always tried to work with curriculum but after this I feel that there is more that can be tapped into. Looking around the internet for further inspiration I found a wonderful blog article by Philippa Antipas that talks about the benefits to students not just learning, but flourishing. Flourishing includes more thought then just what we need a student outcome to be but how to make the environment something that nurtures participants into growing. I now have this slogan on my desk, and I am looking forward to trying to work much more collaboratively then I have in the past.
Beyond consulting closely with groups to for what they need, they design sessions while considering Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs. This theory follows that before education can occur, a participant must have a basic level of human need met. If a participant is hungry, cold, exhausted, as examples, they will be less likely to be able to concentrate on the higher brain function of learning. In museums, we can not magically give people rest, but ensuring that there is water and toilets readily available helps. If you have a community group coming in, something as simple as a a packet of biscuits can help a group that is participating. Penny explained how students are encouraged to bring a snack to some sessions, so that an afternoon or morning break can help to feed students and bring them back to concentration. On reflection, it’s interesting how many times I have talked about Maslow’s Hierarchy of needs in regards to history and inclusivity, but never actually thought to include biscuits or tea during training sessions that I host. The next set of training sessions are absolutely going to include some snacks!
I loved the hands on activities that were set up for participants that were tied to the exhibits incredibly well. I particularly enjoyed getting hands on myself and making bridges, creating some patterns for pressing, making gilded mirrors. It was exceptionally satisfying and covered a wide range of Georgian design. If you check out their website you can find all types of activities that individuals and families can get involved with, and there is a section dedicated to their school programs as well. The space also doubles as an Arts space as well, and I have heard marvellous things about the acoustics in the building.
If you are in Bath, you should absolutely take the time to come and visit this inspiring museum!
Museum of Bath Architecture: http://museumofbatharchitecture.org.uk
Some links to places of information:
Nothing about us without us - Katherine Annear
Nothing about us without us: Student wellbeing
Applying Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs in our classrooms - Tony Kline
What can actively fighting discrimination look like?
After my post on reenactment and discrimination, I started thinking about a few of the practicalities around what options are available to people to actively fight discrimination. I thought a lot about how these ugly situations bleed into the museum and heritage world. It can be tempting to get involved in something that looks suspiciously like a ‘thoughts and prayers’ situation, where there are lovely thoughtful words but no forward momentum. It can be tempting to think that saying nothing is better because everyone should ‘know better’ or ‘know that you support people and stuff’. Or it can be tempting to want to walk away from the whole thing. Leaving will be the right move for some people, but reenactment (and the heritage sector) can be brilliant fun. So, if we never get the chance to witness an actual act of discrimination happen (fingers crossed), what are ways that we can be actively involved in promoting inclusivity and developing strategies around preventing discrimination?
Education is a key factor. It doesn’t need to just be about educating yourself on what discrimination is and how it can appear; it can be about finding the hidden voices inside societies. If you have a particular interest in the year 1456, and have been toiling to create the perfect button from the period, look up from the project and wonder “I wonder what it was like to be a child during this period”, or “Who actually made all of these things that I am recreating?” or “If I wasn’t from a wealthy family, what would that mean if I was disabled?”. In museum practice, it is often called finding the hidden stories, and we use it to humanise collections and bring a greater depth to narratives. You don’t need to make yourself miserable, but understanding what a time period might have been like without privilege can help to not only broaden understanding of the time period but also develops empathy towards modern causes. Try researching other cultures that might have brushed up against the one that you are most interested in, that maybe had a different level of freedoms or rights. Read about what religions or political ideologies existed. Find the humans in the clothes or behind the swords, they are what makes history actually come alive.
Be a thought leader. Did that person just say something that made people nervous laugh with how ‘controversial’ a ‘joke’ is? Maybe have a chat to them about that privately, or try to shut it down publicly if it is particularly heinous (be careful with this tactic, producing public shame is a double bladed dagger). Talk about other cultures in positive ways and don’t promote the use of tropes or stereotypes. These are straight forwards options. You can also share knowledge on hidden stories or ask people what they know about in their period of interest. Take a moment to ask whether everyone is having fun, and be okay if someone says no. Inclusivity can be difficult, and feeling like someone is accusing you of excluding them can bring about complex feelings of hurt and shame, but leaning into that discomfort and finding common ground with them can really cement a person into the group. Be aware of your own privileges and own that you have them, build others so that they can stand at the same height as you. It’s also powerful to verbally say how you want to be inclusive; it doesn’t matter if you assume everyone knows that, because the more we say it out loud and be visible as someone who cares, the more it pushes back some some of the darkness.
Create change. Or as I like to call it - destroy the joint. Change can only happen through people positively interacting with community. This is where it becomes particularly complex, because no one wants to look like they are rocking the boat. One of the very reasons I left was because I felt that I could no longer have a voice without being labeled a trouble maker. But staying in can be powerful, and creating change can be sublimely gratifying. Write letters, write ideas down, make a fuss politely (because I think gentle words are often louder words). If someone tells you that they feel excluded or discriminated against, help them write it down and send it through. If you can, back them up. Don’t belittle someone’s lived experience because yours has been different - everyone’s lives are relevant and honestly everyone is just trying to survive the best way they can.
Be open to the fact that maybe you have not always been a shining beacon of inclusivity. Even typing this now, I know I have not always been amazing and cringe thinking about some of my past thoughts and deeds. I have learned and explored and changed my mind and will likely never stop doing those things. Be open to the idea that people can have been a prat in the past, but are trying to learn and be better at inclusivity. Read articles from different view points and open yourself to the truth that writer is living in. It’s easy to be dismissive, it’s much harder to face our own biases and challenge whether they are the ‘truth’. Try and lean into the discomfort of having challenging conversations. None of these things are easy, but we only develop skills via practice and failing. Try and foster growth by being someone unafraid of it, because we need to keep growing, so that we can continue to push back the gilded words of the past and replace them with honest history.
My interesting read of the week popped up from Medium, with a fantastic article by Ben Freeland titled “When Does Good Art By Awful People Become Untouchable?”. My current fascination with discrimination and history certainly was looking for interesting articles around that topic, and this article had me thinking deeply.
Today in my collection, one of my multitalented coworkers (the lovely Tash) found a rice tin in a box of items we had been considering for an exhibition. The rice tin is likely the right time period, is in surprisingly good condition and completely unable to be used. Why? Because it’s trimmed in swastikas.
As someone who wants to teach good history and stare unflinchingly at challenging narratives, part of me rails against not displaying this, purely because someone might interpret it as an item that supports Nazi symbolism. I want to have deep conversations about the rich history that the symbol has and explain that it’s only problematic when used in conjunction with white supremacy.
This symbol is a little like an artist that has become undone by their own criminal behaviours. Admittedly, the symbol itself has never committed and act, but people have used it with intention and now it has this contextual history linking it directly to harm and pain. Would I display this in a war exhibition? Absolutely yes to create those strong links to that period. Will I place it in an exhibition knowing that the symbol causes fear and distrust? Absolutely not. The conversations about how a swastikas can be used is not necessary in a cute little cottage talking about early Australian life.
The article asks when is too soon, to allow art to become seen almost separately from it’s creator. I think this is really tided up with how long that person, or art, or thing, is used as a potential rally to arms for those who seek to justify a moral corrupt position. Richard Wagner, mentioned in the article for his strong links to the Third Reich, is likely not being listened to in reverence by those who currently ascribe to Nazi leanings. Swastikas certainly are. Even if something is no longer used for potential harm, historical narratives should not ignore that history but use it as part of it’s diverse history. Embracing the power of Wagner’s music, does not mean we should ignore that he was, likely, an awful person. His skills in music should not equate a get out of jail card for the impact he had on the people he effected. It may not be too soon for Wagner, but it still is for many others.
That rice tin may never go on display. Or it could stop being actively used, and with some distance maybe we can have some of those discussions in unexpected museums and heritage houses. Maslow hierarchy of needs tells us that you can’t be an open learner and deep thinker if you are afraid of being damaged. For the moment, it’s too soon. That very average tin could inspire even one person to not feel safe in an environment, and that is one too many for me.
Ben Freelands article can be found here: https://medium.com/@benfreeland/when-does-good-art-by-awful-people-become-untouchable-b24b8fdd118f
As a disclaimer, a number of years ago I joined a historical reenactment group called the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA) . The medieval age as it should have been, sounded ideal as a hobby. I would spend weekends swanning around in a lovely dress, eating food and watching knights in shining armour. For many years I enjoyed playing, but I started to feel disillusioned by a brand of discrimination that made me distinctly uncomfortable, and decided that it was time to find a new hobby. I went back to gaming and doubled down on my career. At times I have a pang of regret and longing for the hobby, because while it was good it was amazing. As long as I could disconnect from the feeling that the ‘game’ was not balanced to support people from all backgrounds.
Fast forward to now, and the ugly rise of white supremacy into the public eye, reenactment of all types are finding themselves uncomfortably linked to discrimination on a grander scale then I personally saw within my little group. I have sat on the sidelines watching friends I adore grapple with what this means: what were the groups doing to attract these members to their fold? Are you a (insert descriptor here) if you liaise with a (insert descriptor here). I can see the pain that it causes the vast majority of people within the SCA, a group stemmed from a group of slight hippy uni kids with romantic Arthurian legends on their mind and a set of elf ears they were dying to try out.
Today I found myself reading a fascinating blog post by Guy Windsor, a mover and shaker in the Historic European Martial Arts (HEMA) group, condemning discrimination within their group. While I read it, I found myself again thinking about how this keeps occurring. In pondering it, I found myself drawn to his explanation of the name HEMA “It stands for Historical European Martial Arts, and a sad and disgusting number of white supremacists, nazis, and other scum have latched on to the “European” bit (at the expense of the historical, the martial, and the artistry) and are bringing the term into appalling disrepute.”.
Historical Reenactment is tricky. On one hand, it can be a fabulous method of learning and teaching history. There is nothing like actually trying to walk in someone else’s shoes to get the full effect of what it means to live in a different culture or time period. Museums often use character actors to great effect to get a message through; immersion is a wonderful tool and can create a long term love affair with history. In the wrong hands though, it is extraordinarily easy to completely miss the reality of a time period. Brain Sarnacki (way back in 2011) touches on some of the danger points with this fabulous quote: Bad reenactments can innocently allow specific details, like clothing, to overtake the importance of understanding the meanings of the event being reenacted or, more sinisterly, whitewash history with patently wrong interpretations of history.
My first thoughts around this are: maybe all historic reenactments are a bad idea. After all, no mater what era you look at, there is a history of minorities not faring well. Sometimes the minorities change a bit, but generally speaking human rights and dignities is an ever changing land scape. Ideally, each generation is trying to be better then the next. Thus, maybe the smartest thing is to just avoid trying to recreate time periods so that we can avoid glossing over the inequalities and nasties that would have made living in those times a lot less comfortable. There are certainly groups that can achieve whole truth scenarios, but I’m not certain anyone specifically does them for fun. As people living in a modern world looking for enjoyable pastimes, maybe focusing on our current or future society and not romanticising the past would be wisest. This has the benefit of just not having reenactment groups for discriminatory practices to hide in, but certainly seems heavy handed.
My second thoughts were around history reenactment groups that have not publicised problems around harbouring secret Nazis. Admittedly, just because I haven’t heard about it doesn’t mean they are not struggling with it. However, I think two points might contribute towards groups avoiding discrimination: Exclusivity and Knowledge. Groups such as The Companie of St George specialise in very specific time periods and require members of the group to be experts within that. There is no space for romanticism. The requirement to apply to join means that the group can be selective and chose people who are educated within their field.
Which brings me to my next point: reenactment and lack of education is a terribly bad mix. Where groups like the SCA formed from history loving geeks inspired by Arthurian legends and university textbooks, this is particular to geek pop culture from the 70’s and 80’s. I think I would be hard pressed to find members from the era who weren’t part of the geeky minority that was reading Tolkien and playing Dungeons and Dragons. Their inspiration came from the ideal notions of chivalry and the hero of the day. I’m sure many new reenactors may have come from this as well. However, there is a growing number of people inspired by “historical” shows such as “Vikings” or even “Game of Thrones” (don’t even get me started). These are just examples, and I’m sure there are plenty of other options available in different mediums. These individuals find themselves caught up in a history that is dubious at best and highly damaging at worst. Before I go any further, I do want to acknowledge #notallreenactors, please don’t flame me. Connection however to “Might is right” is flowing into reenactment groups through people choosing to be Vikings, or Crusaders, or whatever conquering group that appeals to them, because it dials in with the ideals of a white strong Europe. A simple google search will find an assortment of articles approaching this topic for many different history based groups, with one I have linked below written by David Perry, that I think succinctly sums up some of the problems.
So, how do we fix this giant problem? Honestly, today I started to wonder something that would have made my mentors within the SCA go grey over night. I’m going to say something that people are going to think is me either trolling or throwing a grenade into the room and running away. But hear me out.
Maybe it’s time to stop trying to be ‘realistic’. Maybe those elf ears should come back out from the cupboard. Maybe it’s time to stop being serious unless you have very specific and restrictive recruiting processes.
Live action role play (LARP), has had a chequered past. LARP is where you will find people however remaking history in a fantasy style setting. In the SCA over the last year I have listened into the fairly serious conversations of whether a swastika should be allowed to be worn in public because some research proves that it has been worn by non-nazis 1500 odd years ago. That’s correct, but hiding behind historical ‘research’ completely ignores the fact the the world has marched on. It ignores that history happens in context, and sometimes things are inextricably tangled up in different events (particularly when those events happen in living memory). LARP has the benefit being able to say “Not in our make believe system” and bypassing those problematic conversations altogether.
In discussing the Richard Iott controversy in 2011, Robert Slayton explores some of the dangers in War Reenactment, and I think makes an excellent point in saying that “reenactments on American soil fail to reflect the historic record. They work against the noblest aspirations of the historian. By cleansing war of ideas and policy, they purge history of human meaning and of its moral dimension”. Most reenactments are going to be toeing this uncomfortable line. People will hide behind what they argue is a legitimate historical position with out understanding the full context of the history they are interested in. Or they will twist historical ‘facts’ and research by latching onto the small points that can back their opinions. The more we fall down the hole of defining history through the small details, we lose track of the big picture of why it’s good that we don’t live in the past. It’s not educational, it isn’t good representation, it the corruption of truth through good intentions and the search for connection.
I used to wonder why historians and museum professionals were so rare in the reenactment community. I think I understand now, and suddenly my occasional pangs for community based games with fun costumes makes me wonder if it’s time to check out a different course of action.
I also stumbled on an amazing article about LARP and consent culture that further sent my mind reeling while connecting up some ideas. When we enter into a historical reenactment event, we are in a sense placing ourselves in a position of vulnerability. We dress up and hope that we fit into the group. In Sarah Bowmans article, she touches on the problem of the ‘Cult of Hardcore’ within LARPing communities, and I have certainly seen these problems regularly in a number of historical groups. The answer that the Hardcore will give to a perceived slight is, in a nut shell, eat a spoon of cement and harden up. In a community where we ask people to trust that they will not be abused or hurt while being vulnerable, this style of interaction further damages the whole. It creates an atmosphere of distrust and agitation. To foster creativity and empathy, we need an understanding of group consent and personal consent within what is effectively a giant community led game. Learning how to accept that we will, inadvertently and sometimes deliberately, hurt others is paramount to developing the skills to appropriately address some of these extremely delicate conversations. Instead of bullheadedly sticking to “This totally isn’t a swastika and people are stupid”, opening ourselves to vulnerability and empathy by saying “I’m so sorry, I didn’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable and I want you to be having as good a time here as I am”. It’s hard to face our own failures, but owning them outright means we have any chance of learning from them and building the bridges we (generally) accidentally burn.
I have waxed lyrical now for almost 2000 words, and only touched on the tiniest part of this iceberg. I have linked below to some of the articles that I thought of while typing this up. I’ve made an additional list of extra things that I have gathered up while thinking this over as well. Please keep in mind, that I am not an expert on this topic, just a curious bystander hoping for the best and enjoying a good thought exercise.
Articles actually used:
Sarah Bowman: A Matter of Trust – Larp and Consent Culture
David Perry: White supremacists love Vikings. But they've got history all wrong.
Brian Sarnacki: My View on Historical Reenactments
Robert Slayton: Reenacting Evil
Guy Windsor: Fascists are poisoning HEMA. Here’s one small thing I’m doing about it.
Articles I found interesting along the way:
If you have the time, the Public Medievalist has some really interesting articles that delve into some of these topics: https://www.publicmedievalist.com/race-racism-middle-ages-toc/
Jameson Adame: Why living history matters in teaching
Maury Brown: The Consent and Community Safety Manifesto
Joshua Green: What’s Wrong with Nazi Reenacting
Jamie MacDonald: Larp and the joy of collective bullshit
Kate Townshend: Role play, chivalry and a world without sexism: Welcome to the ultimate female fantasy
Clayton Willets: Reenacting in a Modern World
Museum working, game playing and dog loving geek. Tune in for musings about the GLAM sector, and generally geekiness.