At the third Travellers’ Tails seminar in The Queen’s House at Greenwich we enjoyed a stimulating evening of discussion on the theme of ‘Museums and Empire’. Elizabeth Edwards’s fascinating paper on her research, primarily conducted in local authority museums, explored the invisibility of imperial themes and some of the reasons behind these – what she terms the ‘colonial elsewhere’.
The ‘unspeakability’ of empire, as Elizabeth described it, resonated with the issues I addressed in my paper. I focused upon powerful objects in the British Museum collection which I regularly use with our audiences to investigate the British Empire and the Museum’s relationship with it. When working directly with our audiences – whether students or general visitors – we are able to discuss and bring forth more complex and nuanced histories of empire than is possible on a museum label. The objects I chose examined empire from different angles – for example, those stamped with the marks of imperial possession, or depictions of empire from diverse perspectives, including indigenous peoples.
The ensuing discussion allowed us to reflect in more detail on the inherent challenges of representing imperial stories. We considered the ubiquity of empire within museum collections, noting, however, that often this aspect of the object’s history is not discussed. The example we returned to several times was that of a china sugar bowl – sugar itself being an imperial commodity, which drove the transatlantic slave trade. However, such items are more often displayed within the context of porcelain production or British domestic life. These everyday objects, with the help of a line on a museum label, can reveal the myriad ways in which overseas trade, expansion and empire have underpinned so much of British life since the 17th century. Museums might not wish to create galleries devoted to empire, but through small and regular interventions across collections, these global stories can be sensitively explored and acknowledged.
Blogpost by Dr Sarah Longair, Education Manager, British Museum
The next seminar in the Travellers’ Tails series is on Thursday 29 January – Arts and Science: an enlightened approach. Speakers are Artist Emma Smith and Artist and Tutor at Royal College of Art Tim O’Riley with Chair Richard Dunn, Senior Curator and Head of Science and Technology at the National Maritime Museum.