Labelling ‘World Culture’ in a Museum

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’?

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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.

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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.

Boundaries and Heritage of Distinction part 5 – the House of European History: a sad celebration of the echo chamber

Last month I visited the House of European History, in Brussels. Opened in May 2017, the House of European History is located in a refurbished dental hospital. The bill for the total refurbishment and exhibition development was something approaching 70 million Euros – and for that sort of money, I had high hopes for something better than a trip to the dentists.

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The exhibition spaces follow a fairly traditional and not exactly innovative layout of chronological linearity, with a floor that pulls together various historical strands before embarking with the French Revolution and traveling on a upward trajectory through a series of floors towards the present. I have written before about such a chronological layout in the National Museum of Scotland – and almost teleological story to explain how we get to ‘today’ through an inevitable progression of ‘great events’ (often associated with great men), with each floor dealing with a succession of chronologically ordered events, which lead inexorably to ‘the present’.

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For a museum that claims to focus on transnationality and the experiences of ordinary people, such a linear pathway is a little disappointing. Indeed, in many ways the museum can be seen perhaps as being a little too faithful to French Revolutionary ideals, in the manner through which 1789 becomes ‘Year Zero’ within the inevitable progress towards the point at which the Nobel Peace Prize, awarded to the European Union in 2012. The 2012 Nobel medal and diploma were the first objects within the Museum’s collection, and it is perhaps a little alarming (especially for Europhiles) in the way that they appear to form a sort of ‘end point’ to the story. Is that it?!

In the first galleries, which document various strands of European culture before 1789, amid various displays of Classical material, about democracy and politics, trade and industry, religion and ‘civilization’, there is a very small section about imperial endeavor and the trade of enslaved people. The role of Europe within the slave trade and some reference to wider imperialism and colonization, therefore, is acknowledged – almost in passing – and this forms almost the only reference to non-white people in the entire building. More on this later.

Many Brexiteers will probably feel a sense of self-justification in the way that the Code of Napoleon – in various translations – is given such a central and prominent role as the basic root of the European Union. Indeed, within these sections of the galleries, the Museum sometimes seems to provide a proverbial red rag to a Brexiteer’s bull: culminating with the 2012 Nobel Peace Prize, it seems that the EU was really Napoleon’s idea and that his peaceful intentions were just a bit ahead of his time?

The Museum is, to my mind, more interesting (and more successful) when it narrates the stories of the First and Second World Wars. While certain elements – of muddy trench warfare in the First World War, and a juxtaposition between Hitler/Nazism and Stalin/Bolshevism in the Second – are perhaps inevitable, the galleries work hard through these sections to tell a story of total war without getting bogged down in military history. It is vital not to loose sight of individual people and their experiences, particularly in relation to dealing with the Holocaust and the Shoah. However many languages the Codes of Napoleon were translated into, surely the memory and realization of holocaust lies at the heart of the so-called European project in the later 20th century.

Within the Museum, however, we are soon heading to the next ‘key event’, as the Cold War division of the continent is ‘inevitably’ reconciled through the Fall of the Berlin Wall. Again, these sections generally work through comparing the experiences of ordinary people, the availability of consumer goods and the growth of the welfare state. Conflicts in the former Yugoslavia form a backdrop to the post-1989 era, but where does it end? The Brexiteer might again be happy with that, since it seems to end in 2012 with Nobel Peace Prize!

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Looking back at the exhibition as a whole, it is a little disappointing to see such a singular narrative: it breaks into two at various points (Totalitarianism and Democracy; East and West of the Iron Curtain etc.), but there seems to be a supposed golden thread from Napoleon to today. The exhibitions try hard to deal with the Genocide, but hardly scratch the surface of empire and colonialism. Indeed, there is hardly a non-white face portrayed anywhere in the exhibition. There is a passing acknowledgement of the slave trade, but surprisingly little reference to decolonization and postcolonial migration.

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The museum claims to provide a history of integration, transnationalism and multilingualism, but I can’t help thinking that they have grabbed the wrong end of the stick on these accounts.

The entire exhibition is almost entirely free from written material on labels and signage, but rather relies on people carrying I-pads through which the audience can obtain information that is spoken in 24 different languages. Enabling visitors to experience and explore the museum through 24 different languages must have seemed irresistible on the drawing board, but in practice these devices serve to draw divisions between the visiting public. This is a celebration of Europe, in which everyone’s right to be different to each other can only be realised by recognising everyone’s right to draw boundaries between each other. This is a Europe that celebrates division, and which builds barriers by emphasizing and solidifying what separates us from our neighbours.

While in the Museum, I might be standing next to someone from Greece or Spain, Finland or Ireland, Slovakia or Belgium but since everyone is listening to their own narrative in their own language, the whole experience ends up as working to cement a sense of isolation. Even within our own language groups, everyone has to listen to their own I-Pads – take the earphones off and the Gallery spaces are eerily quiet; no conversation, no discussion, no participation, and certainly no ‘transnational celebration’. … family groups walking around as groups of individuals hardly talking to each other. Maybe that’s a good metaphor, in a media-bubble world of echo-chamber politics.