The old Scottish Museum.
Its grand building probably dates to the 18th or 19th century. It might have once been the stately home of a merchant who made his money through the exploitation of enslaved Black people on tobacco plantations. Once its owner’s family no longer had any need for the building and surrounding lands, it would have been demolished, or bought by the local government and converted into a museum for the health and educational benefits of the locals. Its displays would have been filled with cultural heritage from around Scotland and the rest of the world – some plundered in acts of extreme violence, others taken as “curiosities” by missionaries who had converted the “savages”, who were now no longer in need of the instruments of their previous religions. And don’t forget the natural history collections, showcasing resources from foreign lands, ripe for extraction.
All this done in the name of Empire. An Empire built on White supremacy. It was “the white man’s burden” to rule and civilise the Black, Asian and Indigenous peoples of the world. A burden that involved the mass extraction of human and natural resources; “ultraviolent” wars waged with a storm of bullets from Maxim guns against old rifles and spears; the underdevelopment of countries around the world for the development of the West; the pillaging of cultural heritage; the erasure of histories; and the dehumanisation of Black, Asian and Indigenous people.
The British Empire was central to the museum. As Professor Dan Hicks puts it, “as the border is to the nation state so the museum is to empire.”
If the Empire is racist, then the museum is racist.
The building might have been knocked down, rebuilt, redeveloped. Its displays might have been refreshed or re-interpreted. The staff might have more progressive ideas than their predecessors. They might even have a workforce, senior management and board that is ethnically diverse (don’t count on it though).
None of this changes the fact that Empire is built into its foundations. Its legacy can be felt as you walk through the galleries. Culture is collected and categorised. The galleries about Scotland that show art of White people, by White people, for White people. Where the nation’s or city’s great achievements, its struggles and its path to modernity are told; while its role in Empire and Slavery is tucked away in a corner, if it’s mentioned at all. Egyptian collections are still probably kept separate to African ones. Wouldn’t want to give visitors any ideas about Africa having advanced pre-colonial societies that influenced the world. Those “curiosities” from the former colonies of the Empire, are usually now described as art at least. However, the amount of people who died or the amount of culture that was eradicated to bring those artworks to the museum, is rarely mentioned and seldom is anything done about it. The living cultures those items once were a part of, are now frozen in time, out of context, and any violent circumstances attached to them are frozen and perpetuated alongside them.
The narrative that the visitor leaves with is one of comfortable pride and deafening silence.
We need museums though, right? How many spaces for free collective learning do we have left? Spaces we need in an increasingly insular, individualistic world, where education often comes with a hefty price tag. But what use is a space if it does little to play its part in remedying the ills of society?
Education always seems to be the most common solution to most of our social problems. And when we think of education, we think of schools.
An education that is anti-racist would have to be as deep as it is wide. For one, it would have to involve the study of societies around the world before colonisation to understand the devastating impact of their subsequent oppression and underdevelopment. It would have to explain how racism developed as a tool of colonialism that sought justification for the oppression and enslavement of Black, Asian and Indigenous peoples. Not to mention the narratives of resistance, that show enslaved and colonised peoples as active characters in their own story, rather than footnotes to someone else’s. The weight of this education is heavy, and it can’t be placed on the desks of teachers alone.
Is the museum up to the task of sharing the responsibility? Can the museum be a tool to fight against the same ideologies it helped to perpetuate, and in some cases still does? Can curators and museum educators point to the Benin Bronzes as examples of African artistic achievement and culture, while doing nothing to return those same objects to their rightful owners?
These are all questions that the museum has so far failed to answer.
And yet it must if it is to re-imagine its purpose, take up its responsibility and fulfil its potential as a tool for anti-racist education. “It’s not enough to be non-racist; we must be anti-racist,” applies to us all, including the museum. The value of the museum isn’t innate. Its value is in the role it plays within the society in which it exists.
Delivering anti-racist education should be a key function of the museum. Many museum educators and curators work hard to try and fulfil this function, but there will always be a contradiction at the heart of their work while the museum as an institution, fails to understand, address and rectify its own complicity in systems of racism and colonialism.
The museum’s reckoning with its own past and role within society is part of fulfilling any commitment to anti-racism.
Then, perhaps, the museum could be a space where its global collections are used to challenge and decentre Whiteness and the West. Where people can come together on an equal basis, for a free collective educational experience; where we learn about each other, our place in the world, our different and universal ways of being. A space where comfortable narratives are challenged, and where racism is no longer upheld, but actively dismantled.