I was recently back in Exeter and decided to visit the Royal Albert Memorial Museum (RAMM), to catch up with how their recently renovated ‘World Cultures’ galleries were looking. There were a few new items that I hadn’t seen before, and a few items I thought I remembered were now missing, but on the whole, I was surprised by the lack of change from the old galleries. In particular, I think this came out in the labelling … so, instead of examining the collection itself, or even the explicit stories surrounding the collection of objects, I focussed on what the display labels revealed about the derivation of the objects. What do the labels reveal about the technology of display and how do these technologies of display can act to sustain a certain discourse?
Obtained 1884; Made Before 1880; Acquired 1912; Collected between 1885 and 1889; Acquired early 1970s; Voyage of HMS Discovery 1791-5; Acquired after 1879; Collected 1826-7; Acquired before 1893; Voyage of HMS Blossom 1826-7; Before 1863; Bought 1916; Acquired 1880; Taken from a shrine 1889; Collected 1864;
On the face of it, this is a curated assemblage of treasure, ‘acquired’ (or, perhaps, ‘plundered’) from almost everywhere and anywhere around the world. The collection is described in phrases that seem to hide as much as they reveal. In the old gallery, one item was described as being ‘captured’, which suggests an act of theft and probably a certain level of violence. In the new gallery, one item is described as having been ‘taken from a shrine in 1889’ – tantalising, perhaps, in what it intimates without saying – but what is the difference between ‘obtained’, ‘collected’ and ‘acquired’?
One gap in the collection is filled with a label, that ‘Out of Respect’ a feather bonnet, which was identified as sacred by a visiting delegation of indigenous Blackfoot people, was removed and is now kept in the store. But what else does this store contain? And why is this material culture that is sacred to people living thousands of miles away kept in a storeroom in Exeter anyway? Indeed, how did all these things end up in the RAMM Collection?
There were also a few understated non-references to colonialist and imperialist histories, including a copper manilla that the label described as being ‘exported to Nigeria for use as a means of exchange’, without mention either that the ‘exchanges’ in which manillas are usually associated with were for human cargo, or that Exeter itself was an important producer of such manillas.
Peter Aronsson (2011) write about how discourses of nationhood are promulgated through museums displays within imperial and conglomerate states such as France, Spain, and Great Britain. The British Museum, for instance, does not seek to tell the ‘story of Britain’ as either an eternal entity or a certainty of emergent destiny. Rather than reflecting any pretence of humility, however, Aronsson (2011: 47) sees this as a demonstration of ‘how a universalist approach is identified with a successful national power and reinforced by the sheer magnitude of its collections’.
Bringing a critical perspective to understanding these types of display, one can often tell a lot from reading between the lines of what the displays say and what they do not say; what they show and what they hide. With very little direct reference to ‘Britain’ within the RAMM World Cultures gallery, a 30 minute perusal of its label leaves one with a strong understanding that Britain has the power to ‘collect’, ‘obtain’ and otherwise ‘acquire’ material from anywhere in the world – and that everywhere in the world is categorised according to British value judgement. Through the construction, management and display of knowledge, the gallery reveals a great deal about Britain – British identity narratives, British values and British imperialism – with hardly any mention of Britain.