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Artillery Row

Corrosive curation

Against the politicisation of museums

It is impossible to identify the first museum. Archeologists have found evidence of sites dating back to c. 530 B.C.E containing artefacts from early Mesopotamian Civilisations. In Britain, early museums often restricted their access to wealthy patrons and educated elites. However, in 1677 Elias Ashmole donated his private collection to the University of Oxford, and in 1678 the Ashmolean Museum was born. The building is widely regarded to be the first truly public modern museum. The project represented a great national achievement — the true democratisation of history. And yet today, the Ashmolean apologises for the “Eurocentrism and lack of diversity in our institution … and accept our responsibility to challenge and change colonial mindsets.”

Throughout history, the preservation and collection of artefacts has been regarded as a noble pursuit. India Jones’ famous catch phrase is of course: “this belongs in a museum”. To spread knowledge and cultural understanding across a community is an undoubtedly noble and difficult task. The presence of museums has injected rich and exciting developments into our culture throughout history. Some of our greatest poems have been inspired by powerfully curated exhibits. Keats’ famous sonnet “On Seeing the Elgin Marbles”, written when he first saw the friezes on temporary display at the British Museum, beautifully captures the evocative power of the museum as an institution. 

So why, in recent years, has wonder at the power of the museum been replaced with despair over its cultural implications? 

This development is unavoidably an Americanism. American activists have long identified museums as the next frontier in their fight to politicise history. In 2017, Laura Raicovich closed the Queens Museum in protest against Trump’s inauguration. In 2018 Jillian Steinhauer wrote on the duty of museum’s to be political, claiming that “activist curators and directors can make truly democratic spaces, but they need brave boards to support them”. Unfortunately, it has not taken long for this mentality to spread to the rest of the world. 

Last year, in a genuinely heartbreaking move, the Wellcome Collection took the decision to close the Medicine Man, a free permanent display of a portion of Sir Henry Wellcome’s private collection. By their own admission, the exhibition “showed extraordinary examples of the many ways in which people, through time and across cultures, sought to understand the workings of the human body, to protect themselves, and care for one another”, and yet curators concluded that the exhibition simply could not be separated from its “colonial legacies” and so it was closed to the public. The collection will never again inspire children towards an interest in history,  medicine, or science. The museum’s decision to obscure and hide a piece of our colonial past has permanently distorted history away from this interesting perspective.

Before taking the decision to close the exhibition, curators attempted to influence perspectives on the artefacts with what they described as a “series of interventions in which artists and writers responded to an exhibit of their choice”.

These “interventions” are becoming all the more common. Museums are not, and have never been, completely neutral. Curation is such a skill because every small decision made about a display will inform the takeaways of its viewers. However, recent decisions made by archivists have taken this to a completely new level. 

Visitors to the Science Museum’s display on James Watt are informed by a large sign on the wall that “now we understand that Britain’s power and influence came not just from industrial and manufacturing power but also through colonial expansion and oppression”. This is not simply an acknowledgement of the influence certain artefacts might have, or of the missing narratives of the past that museums cannot capture. This is the hand holding of the viewer away from their natural conclusions. Let nobody decide that the Watt Steam Engine and its vital role in Britain’s industrialisation had anything to do with the country’s economic success. 

Strangely this isn’t actually the most absurd intervention presented by a curation team

Strangely this isn’t actually the most absurd intervention presented by a curation team. A recent blog post by the collections team at the Mary Rose attempted to “queer” artefacts found from aboard the ship. The post’s author genuinely asserts that “nit combs” found aboard the ship might be understood as Queer artefacts as “for many Queer people today, how we wear our hair is a central pillar of our identity”.

It is impossible to lead the viewer in this way. Both “interventions” have been met with derision from the public, who are not stupid. Ultimately, the power of pieces of art, personal belongings, and great sculptures which have survived the passage of time, offering a glimpse of the fabric of a life many years ago, will always be more powerful than the influence of patronising messages left by curators on the walls. 

The Wellcome Collection closed their exhibition when they discovered that their commentary on the exhibit wasn’t sufficient to steer public perspective. I fear that this might be the direction many museums gradually move in. Perhaps one day it will be impossible to teach the next generation about Britain’s role on the historic world stage. Instead, only the condescending commentary will remain.

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