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books The Whole Picture: The Colonial Story of the Art in Our Museums and Why We Need to Talk About It

The grand art museum can serve as a productive source of instruction and insight into the history of colonialism, and the resistance to it, if you know how to look. This book can serve as a useful guide.

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The Whole Picture: The Colonial Story of the Art in Our Museums and Why We Need to Talk About It
Alice Proctor
Octopus Books
ISBN 9781788401555

There is no document of civilisation which is not at the same time a document of barbarism.

– Walter Benjamin

Shortly before reopening their doors on 27 August 2020, the British Museum removed a bust of its slave-owning founding father, Sir Hans Sloane, from a pedestal to a glass cabinet. This cabinet now serves to acknowledge Sloane and the Museum’s historic links to colonialism, though it falls short of contextualising the museum’s continued complicity. The fact that many of Britain’s museums serve as storehouses for colonial loot is of course no great secret. Yet the British Museum, like other institutions, has tended to obscure the colonial origins of its artefacts in order to keep both its collections and reputation intact. Where these origins are acknowledged, the violence that lies behind the museum’s acquisitions is often glossed over on gallery labels as though the horrors and atrocities of British imperialism are footnotes of minor importance. Although museums have, in recent years, begun to return some artefacts to the nations and communities from which they were stolen, this process has been generally unequal and inadequate. On many occasions, museums have produced research and put forward neo-colonial arguments, so as to discredit repatriation and restitution requests, and justify their permanent ownership of looted objects.

Alice Proctor’s The Whole Picture: The Colonial Story of the Art in Our Museums and Why We Need to Talk About It, is thus a welcome and timely intervention that makes a compelling case for the decolonisation of museums. As its title suggests, the book confronts the colonial legacy of museums – and Britain’s imperialist history – through the artworks, artefacts and plunder they display. In addition to presenting a critique of the relations between museums and imperialism, which serves as ‘an introduction to being a critical museum visitor’ for a popular audience, Proctor also offers practical recommendations for the museum sector (12). At a time when museums are beginning to talk more openly about their colonial past, yet still refuse to return stolen artworks, Proctor’s book reveals the steps they need to take if they are sincere about the decolonisation process.

Museum spaces are neither innocent, nor politically neutral, Proctor warns; rather, they tend to mirror the hegemonic, politico-historical ideologies of the nations they represent (9, 10, 258). Since 2017, the author has led groups around London’s national museums on her unauthorised Uncomfortable Art Tours, as a means of deconstructing such discourses and revealing the hidden histories of colonial-era artefacts. The Whole Picture is somewhat like a virtual museum visit in her company. Each of its four sections represent a different type of museum space (i.e. the Palace, the Classroom, the Memorial, the Playground), and each chapter is staged as an encounter with artefacts that reveal their entanglements with colonial history.

The first of the book’s four parts discusses the ‘Palace’ as an early type of museum, comprised by the private collections of the ruling class. Where once these collections were ‘accessible only to an invited elite’, they were usually sold or bequeathed to the nation, either by being directly converted into museums or preserved within larger institutions (21). Although Palaces are seen as precursors to modern museums, they seem to be more akin to curiosity cabinets (though on a much grander scale), and are often organised today in the rather haphazard, ahistorical and eccentric manner in which they were originally displayed (Ibid.). As such, Proctor argues, these collections tend to celebrate the wealth, tastes and personalities of their collectors, over the cultural value of the artefacts they contain.

This section recounts the dealings of men like Sir William Hamilton, who supplemented his diplomatic income by illegally excavating, exporting and selling antiquities from his post in Naples. Proctor argues that Hamilton’s example as a collector, dealer and popular tastemaker came ‘to shape the idea of collecting art as a national duty’, paving the way for others like Thomas Bruce, 7th Earl of Elgin, to acquire (or rather, steal) ‘cultural treasures’ for the British public (35). In addition to revealing the fascinating genealogies of museum artefacts in subsequent chapters, Proctor also turns her attention to British oil paintings from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A painting by Roma Spiridione, for instance, tellingly entitled The East Offering its Riches to Britannia, is shown to portray imperialism as a ‘consensual and benevolent’ force (57). This work was commissioned for the ceiling of the Revenue Room in East India House, the former London headquarters of the East India Company, which is now, ironically, the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. With Proctor, one might marvel that a painting with a blatant imperialist aesthetic, which depicts ‘racialized stereotypes’, is still ‘on display in a building dedicated to foreign policy’ (62). Then again, one might not be too surprised.

In contrast to the private space of the Palace, the ‘Classroom’ is said to be designed with the intention of educating and ‘improving’ the public (73). Proctor contends that the curriculum of Classroom museums was written by ‘[w]hite, wealthy, educated, European men’, who were themselves ‘the makers, explorers, collectors and authors, the creators of knowledge that it celebrates’ (75, 84). Consequently, the first modern museums tended to display their objects according to an Enlightenment schema of socio-evolutionary progress, which classified non-European cultures and peoples as ‘barbarous’ in distinction to a European ideal of ‘civilisation’. ‘The same systems that organize plants and animals into families and groups’ Proctor points out, were ultimately ‘turned onto people, creating the arbitrary and fictional lines of race and nationality, “civilised” versus “savage”’ (75). Although this racialised narrative is, to some extent, no longer overtly displayed in contemporary Classroom museums, Proctor insists its traces can still be detected, nonetheless.

An illustrative example of the neo-colonialism of today’s Classroom museums is the British Museum’s present ownership and display of the ‘Gweagal shield’. The shield is currently in the museum’s Enlightenment Gallery, where it is connected to Captain James Cook and the history of British ‘exploration’. Its display label reads that ‘When Cook landed at Botany Bay in 1770, two men came forward with spears. Cook fired shot, hitting a man in the leg, the men retreated, dropping a shield’ (129). The label goes on to carefully suggest, yet without confirm, that this is the said shield, and closes with the admission that ‘[f]irst contacts in the Pacific were often tense and violent’ (ibid.). Proctor reads this closing sentence as ‘a stunning understatement’: one ‘that erases the aggressive invasion of Indigenous lands, skips over the violence of White colonisers against Aboriginal people that continued well after first contact, and entirely ignores the long and ongoing history of Indigenous resistance to imperialism’ (132).

In the British Museum, then, this shield is valued precisely because it was ‘touched by a White man’, yet for Aboriginal communities it has much deeper resonances and meanings (Ibid.). In the words of a Dharawal Elder, Shayne Williams, the shield symbolises ‘Aboriginal resistance. And not just resistance back then, but resistance to the destruction of our culture right up until now’ (134). In response to calls for the shield’s restitution, the British Museum changed its gallery label in 2017 to include the uncertainty of its origins and also commissioned research to further cement its unverifiability, and hence the legality of the museum’s acquisition (130, 134).

Following the Classroom, the book’s third part reflects upon the ‘Memorial’: museum spaces, artworks and objects that in some way commemorate history’s victims. In contrast to the Palace and the Classroom, which celebrate the personalities and ideals of the ‘great and the good’, Memorials remember ‘those with a smaller legacy’, ‘primarily, the lives of people without power’ (142). They are viewed as ‘sites of conscience’: spaces ‘that carry a kind of hauntedness, more concerned with the humanity and lives of their subjects than the material or aesthetic qualities of the objects they keep’ (142, 143). Such spaces and artefacts, Proctor argues, require their viewers to not only understand the past events they memorialise, but also their repercussions for the present (Ibid.).

In addition to the descriptions of museum spaces visited and artworks encountered in this section, Proctor presents a trenchant critique of the ownership and display of human remains. She discusses, in particular, the ‘tsantas’ (‘shrunken human heads made by Shuar communities in what is now Peru and Ecuador’) displayed in Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum, and ‘mokomokai’ (‘the mummified heads of Māori people’), which are still owned (though now rarely displayed) by several museums (144, 154). The grotesque means by which human remains were collected by Europeans, then acquired and exhibited by museums, is recounted as a violent ‘history of objectification’ in which museums ‘were [and in some cases, continue to be] complicit in the dehumanization of colonized and racialized communities’ (158, 161). It is indeed one thing to display a stolen artwork from a formerly colonised people, and quite something else to own and exhibit the remains of the people themselves. One may consider this practice the most extreme form of museological objectification. Although many museums have begun to return the remains of ancestors to indigenous communities, there are still those like the British Museum (still in possession of seven mokomokai) that have denied repatriation and restitution requests (160). The problem seems to be one of perspective: where the Māori people view mokomokai as ancestors, and indeed the remains of human beings, the museum appears to regard them merely as objects.

In the book’s concluding gallery, the ‘Playground’, Proctor reviews contemporary artworks that interrogate the role of museums and public monuments. This gallery-type is so named since humour and parody are seen to play an important role in the artists’ work (189). Three chapters in this section are devoted to commemorative public statues, and some of the ways contemporary artists such as Yinka Shonibare, Kara Walker and Michael Parekowhai have reimagined this form to recognise the anonymous victims of colonialism. As Proctor notes, public statues in the cultural West predominately commemorate ‘people with inherited power’, particularly ruling-class men from the colonial era (215, 216). It is unsurprising, then, that many of the statues that have long looked down from plinths in public spaces are of slave traders, imperialists and racists. Of course, as Proctor argues, monuments do not last forever: ‘one person’s hero is another’s oppressor’, and as public sentiment changes one can expect the symbols of former oppression to be torn down (216).

In the short space of time since this book was published, such monuments have been dismantled the world over. The murder of George Floyd by a white Minneapolis police officer has given rise to a momentous renewal of civil rights protests under the banner of the Black Lives Matter movement. Accompanying the rising public demand to dismantle racist state-political structures, a renewed attention has been drawn to the traces of colonialism in public spaces. Following these developments, some of the statues Proctor discusses – such as that of Cecil Rhodes at Oriel College in Oxford (217), and Edward Colston in Bristol (218) – have either been toppled or targeted by protestors, otherwise removed, or in the stages of being removed, by city councils and public institutions across the globe.

Although many museums have recently removed such statues from their buildings, there appears to be little indication that looted artworks will be returned in earnest. Dr Hartwig Fischer, the British Museum’s director, recently defended the transfer of Sloane’s bust as part of proposed changes that aim to acknowledge the Institution’s colonial history, but stressed this will not include the return of stolen artefacts (Bakare 2020). With this in mind, Proctor’s claim that the decolonisation of museums cannot be left to museum leadership teams alone, seems quite right (261). On the one hand, she contends that this process needs to ‘originate […] outside’ of museums; but on the other, and in order for this to be successful, she stresses that museums have ‘to unlock themselves, relinquish some of their control, [and] open out their narratives’ (Ibid.). This call for greater openness is crucial if museums are to become more democratic, trustworthy and relevant for the twenty-first century.

References

Joshua John Headington holds a collaborative PhD studentship between Cardiff University and Amgueddfa Cymru (the National Museum of Wales), which is funded by the ESRC. His research is concerned with critically examining the ‘social impact’ agenda in museums, by way of empirically investigating the manifold ways visitors experience artworks