Confronting Colonialism

The complexities of addressing the past while decolonising museums

30 December 2020
On 7 June, Black Lives Matter protesters toppled the statue of Edward Colston, a seventeenth-century officer of the slave-trading Royal African Company, in Bristol, England. Racial polarisation in the US sparked debates around the British history of colonialism and slavery, and a demand for confronting unpalatable aspects of colonialism has gained momentum.
Harry Pugsley/Getty Images
On 7 June, Black Lives Matter protesters toppled the statue of Edward Colston, a seventeenth-century officer of the slave-trading Royal African Company, in Bristol, England. Racial polarisation in the US sparked debates around the British history of colonialism and slavery, and a demand for confronting unpalatable aspects of colonialism has gained momentum.
Harry Pugsley/Getty Images

As the Black Lives Matter movement reignited in the United States after the brutal police killing of George Floyd in May 2020, protests spread across the world, with public ire often targeting statues and busts of individuals who were involved in slave trade, imperial war crimes and racist conduct. Racial polarisation in the US sparked debates around the British history of colonialism and slavery, and a demand for confronting unpalatable aspects of colonialism has gained momentum. As statues fell—such as that of Edward Colston in the English city of Bristol, a seventeenth-century officer of the slave-trading Royal African Company—the task of finding them a new home began. In November, the mayor of Bristol announced that Colston’s statue would be placed in a museum alongside placards from the Black Lives Matter protest that toppled the statute, by “early next year.”

Two months earlier, William Dalrymple, an author of several books on the history of British colonialism in India, suggested that the United Kingdom should place its statues of imperial heroes in a museum of British colonialism. He proposed that the British government, in order to confront the sins of its past, should build a museum of colonialism with these expelled statues. Dalrymple suggested that the museum could be modelled after the National Museum of African American History and Culture, a museum dedicated to narrating the story of a marginalised ethnic and racial group in the US.

Dalrymple was speaking at the Jaipur Literature Festival London.  He admitted to a cultural amnesia of colonial violence in the UK. History in British schools gives students the impression that “the British empire was always about liberating slaves and always about anti-racism,” he said. In fact, for many years, British colonialism in the UK has been viewed as a largely peaceful undertaking with hugely beneficial outcomes for the colonies such as railways, English education, and dissemination of democratic and liberal values. In 2004, the historian Niall Ferguson declared in a provocative book on the Empire, “The world we know today is in large measure the product of Britain’s age of Empire.” He added, “Without the British Empire, there would be no Calcutta; no Bombay; no Madras.”

It is only in the last decade that voices challenging such blinkered assumptions of pre-colonial societies—portraying them as static, primitive and incapable of engaging in modern practices without British intervention—have come to occupy a larger space in public discourse. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests this year, anti-racism protestors demanded that statues of Robert Clive in Shrewsbury, Cecil Rhodes from an Oxford college, Oliver Cromwell in Westminster and the former British prime minister Winston Churchill’s statue in London’s Parliament Square be taken down. Activists have also called for the compulsory teaching of Black history in schools, and there is mounting pressure on museums to decolonise their collections.

Given the years of refusal to confront its uncomfortable colonial past, the notion of a museum of British colonialism offers the possibility of the country finally facing the shame of its colonialism. Yet, a museum of British colonialism requires careful consideration of its form, structure and process to act as a catalyst of social and political debate, and to challenge the promotion and sustenance of white cultural hegemony. The idea also raises other concerns about the existing British museums; their role in decolonising histories and their engagement with the thorny question of restitution. The question is no longer what Britain’s colonies would have been without the Empire, but what Britain would have been without the exploitation of its colonies, and how to acknowledge and address this colonial past in its modern-day legacy. These uncomfortable memories of colonialism reside not only in museums born of the Empire but also in museums in the colony, and both need to confront this agonising legacy.

Habiba Insaf is an incoming doctoral student at the Centre for Anthropological Research on Museums and Heritage, Humboldt University, Berlin. She is a recipient of the Gerda Henkel Foundation’s PhD Scholarship and Alexander von Humboldt Foundation’s German Chancellor Fellowship.

Keywords: Black Lives Matter colonialism museums British Empire art history
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