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:
It’s interesting just how much angst I have felt about writing this blog, and amusingly this morning I found that the draft I had been working on had disappeared. Which means I have had even more time to dwell on the embroidered food bags that I have recently completed for a heritage home display.
The food bags were decided on to fill an interpretation hole in the space. The space is not able to have any panels or electronic means for interpretation, but there is an enthusiastic volunteer and staff team. The embroidered food bags were to be added into the living area of the 1860s zone, along with a number of other display food items. A common way of storing dry staple foods during this time period were cotton bags, but having bags without interpretation seemed lacking in depth. We were also a little concerned about people trying to open them and spilling the stuffing out in an attempt to work out what was in them (curiosity being the chief mother of invention and also mess).
I am an embroider, and love spending time on researching historic embroidery pieces. I sadly have been unable to find any indication of embroidered food bags. However, I can prove that women on their way to Australia on the boats did spend time embroidering and sewing small pieces. I can say that Mary Ginn, the first female occupant of the cottage was educated and likely had been taught embroidery as part of her education. We know that she could read and write. The font used for the bags is from a period embroidery book, which was fairly readily available. I do know that the fabric is on par with what should be expected, the threads are right and the stitching style is popular during that period.
Can I prove that there were absolutely embroidered food bags in the 1860s?
And it drives me crazy.
So why am I admitting to this?
During the Open Palaces Programme, I was struck by a talk that was given at the Tower of London. The Yeoman Warder who took us around during our tour was incredibly open about what had been tried and succeeded. Beyond that, he told us what hadn’t worked. Why it hadn’t worked. The processes that led to both success and failure and how they measured those attempts. And it inspired me, because in failure there is a great amount of strength. Knowing what has and hasn’t worked helps us to grow.
So, have I failed with these baggies? I don’t know. On one hand, the interpretation works perfectly. Visitors react to them really well and ask why the food is in bags. It sets up an indication of what hand writing could kind of look like. So there is some great things happening. However, I feel like it’s not quite right, so I will keep looking for evidence (whether for or against). I think the chief thing I could have done is finish them a hell of a lot faster. Part way through the process, I froze up with anxiety over whether they were right and how they would reflect on my (and the heritage home) if they were wrong. That was a good learning experience, in that sometimes you need to go forwards to give yourself time to think in the future. I can also say that the embroidery was travelling at about 1 letter per two hours, on average, so they took a really long time to complete. There are dozens of little things that my perfectionist brain hates as well, but they are far less useful to dwell on.
I don’t know if I will call this any type of serious failure. I will call this a learning experience that I can develop from. I will also be open and transparent, because failure is healthy. It’s good to fall over and make mistakes and doubt ourselves. And if we share these stories and these thoughts openly, then it helps others to make informed choices in the future. It also just makes us feel less alone.
Museum working, game playing and dog loving geek. Tune in for musings about the GLAM sector, and generally geekiness.