Following the culmination of empires, previous colonieswithin Britain have expressed their profound and unnoticed opinion of beingdepicted more explicitly within the British civilization. Due to these demands,Museums across Britain have actively been promoting the culture and reducingthe harsh, difficult viewpoints for which this British colonial historypossesses.
The first breakout museum to challenge these arguments and putforward an exhibition on a sensitive topic such as this was in 1994 and named’The Merseyside Maritime Museum’. With this museum exploring various differentactions, ‘Transatlantic Slavery: Against Human Dignity’ was key in thepublicity of the museums actions moving forward regarding British colonialhistory. Given the state of such a sensitive, difficult heritage it can beargued the museums play a vital role in the diplomacy of this. SharonMacdonald, a recognised academic and Professor of Social Anthropology at theUniversity of Manchester formally stated that it is ‘a past that is recognizedas meaningful in the present but that is also contested and awkward for publicreconciliation with a positive, self-affirming contemporary identity’.1Given the actions and successful movements being played via these museums overthe course of the past twenty years, these dilemmas have prevailed as thegovernmental society have found further flaws within the public exposure oftheir colonial past forcing them to object to the positive movements made bythese museums in light of what is equivalent to the damage done since 1833where slavery was abolished by Parliament within the UK. This essay shall explore the multifarious arguments to thisdelicate topic, the main focus is to understand the function of which museumsplay in the public’s interest with this field of argument being Britishcolonial history. As this famous topic has been commented on by a significantamount of people, I shall be endeavouring into seeking these differentexpostulations and interpretations of what is the history of the British Empireand comment upon these contextualised ideas and responses.
Of late, there was a controverting display of an argumentregarding the reminiscence and rich history of the British history and how theyshould be portrayed moving forward within the British society. Multiculturalistviews being exhibited by historians such as Niall Ferguson advertise theirsentiment of conforming a judgement that the British Empire was philanthropic.He established during a written piece of work that ‘no organization in humanhistory has done more to promote the free movement of goods, capital and labourthat the British in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. And noorganisation has done more to impose Western norms of law, order and governancearound the world’.
2 Recently, there have beena number of dissatisfaction with these comments as On 19 January the OxfordUnion voted in favour of having the statue removed. Nicky Morgan, the EducationSecretary, commented: “It’s a matter for Oxford and for the students to havethe debate. But better actually to have a debate about what happened in thepast and to realise that we have moved on as a country,”3 she said. In accordance tothis, there have been added comments such as Ashley Jackson, Professor ofImperial and Military History, King’s College London, commented: “We do needbetter education.
..what’s important is that we should understand our past, andthat means a warts and all understanding.” He added: “Understandably a lotof British people would like to think that the imperial past was generally ok,but unfortunately if you look at the record of empire it’s very difficult tosay that overall it was a good thing.”4 The list carries on and on, with thesenegative clarifications and expert opinion, this encourages the public toaccount for these past events and fully acknowledge what has occurred and tomodify any false pretences and to actually remember the British colonial pastfor what it so deserved. Significantly, it lead towards certain serious eventsoccurring such as campaigns, protests etc.
A famous protest which eventuatedwas the ‘Rhodes Museum Fall’ campaign of 9th March 2015 in SouthAfrica. This was a substantial and sententious exploit of the removal of theCecil Rhodes statue who they deliberated as being a racial figure. In spite of these modern analytics and perceptions ofempire, it is evident that there is an increasing percentage of the publicforming to impeach upon colonial history. The British public still have amalgamatedviews and strive to acquiesce with their colonial history. A YouGov pollin 2014 found that 59% of people surveyed believed the British Empire ‘moresomething to be proud of’ than ashamed (or don’t know).
5Given the number of challenges and disputes made in order to reconcile any formof belief as to whether it was just or not is to remain as the Britishcommonality is undecided, following the YouGov poll, it can be concluded thatit was a force of good rather than a naturally occurring good. Theestablishment of the British Empire and Commonwealth museum in 2002fundamentally defended the legacy of the British Empire as it was solelydedicated to this and raised significant awareness and public exposure. Notonly was it a huge step for museums as it gained recognition across Britain butalso stood for the rights which should be awarded to the events which occurredand finally be given the status which has been demanded by the public for solong. Thecountry’s only museum dedicated to the glories of the British Empire has closedfor good. The British Empire and Commonwealth Museum has been forced to sellits premises in Bristol and give up its collections because of public antipathytowards the country’s colonial past.
Sir Neil Cossons, chairman of the museum’sboard of trustees, last night blamed the demise on ‘post-imperial angst’. Hesaid: ‘I think the time has not yet arrived for the proper story of Empire andCommonwealth to be told.’ Although attitudes to Empire were improving, he saidit was still an ‘unfashionable subject’ and ‘more healing of time’ wasrequired.
6 Parlaying this extract,its undeniable that the public have shown negative receptions towards therestoration of the past colonial history. Understanding that there have beenmany experiences with what stand to consort with as there was a lack of being adefinitive answer and collectively not a response or movement engineered enoughto convince the civic of the past. Subsequently, this would have impacted themuseums power for which they have to promote past colonial history and beundermined as a shutdown of a museum trying to reconnoitre antithetic ideas hadproven to be a failure. Consideringthe illustration that Museums and art institutions have long been at theforefront of representing cultural values and morals, being utilized aslocations for centuries.7 It can be of no surprisethe closure of the museum was a clear defiance as a means of enlightenment andsatisfaction with understanding the differences of the past. Now,touching upon the issue of the diversifying culture of museums A number ofprojects demonstrate the changing culture of museums themselves, partly shapedby their responses to government initiatives.
The ‘Slavery and Nature’ projectwhich was held in the National History museum raised many challenges for theMuseum including: the provision of different interpretations of evidence;public access to the volume of evidence and information available; awareness ofthe bias inherent in European accounts of the history; platforms for debate anddialogue; staff knowledge and training; ongoing engagement to explore hiddenhistories and alternative perspectives.8Realising the several matters of contention, it is indisputable that museumshave accepted a large burden in accepting the responsibility of publicisingcolonial history. Given the mediapropaganda, it is easy for the public to be influenced into strengthening theiroriginal beliefs that museums have not been productive in promoting thefelicitous notoriety which it warrants. Again, Neil Cossons,who took over as chairman of the board of trustees when the museum closed tothe public in 2008, conceded the BBC’s figure of 144 may be correct, but hecould not be sure. He said this was in part because of confusion over the waysome objects were counted: whether, for example, a group of African spears wasin fact one object or several. He said it was fair to say that”dozens” of items were unaccounted for but also admitted that it maynever be known exactly how many objects went missing. “It’s hard to bemathematically precise,” he said. The museum opened in 2002 in IsambardKingdom Brunel’s original Temple Meads station and won a string of awards.
Bristol was chosen because of its historic connection with empire throughvoyages of exploration, trade – including slavery – piracy, shipbuilding andthe railways.9On the contrary, there was praise beingawarded to the museums for its valiant efforts. On a website dedicated to beingpractical with reviews of attractions, it positively stated that it is ‘a must-see attraction in London if your visitingfor any length of time’10 Also receiving animpressive 73% of people commending the trip as ‘excellent’ proves that thereis recognition being ensconced for the hard work museums have done. An articlefrom a newspaper had one of its guests say ‘From what I saw, it willcertainly open the eyes of thousands of Bristolians, schoolchildren andstudents who visit this exhibition, opened by the Princess Royal at the BritishEmpire and Commonwealth Museum. It is high time that black people wereacknowledged – British history is their heritage, too.
Whenever I walk aroundBristol and visit a country house or a museum and churches, I am struck bytheir absence.’11Statements such as this being made, shines light upon the fact that the museumwas successful in some aspects. Due to media uprisings and over the natural course of time,the public interest has skyrocketed with the histories and legacies of theBritish Empire. A popular website has addressed this issue of the horrendousevents which took place. It all seems so muchmore appealing than the decline and desperation we face now. Never mind thatapproximately 35 million Indians died because of famines caused by Britishmisrule, or that Winston Churchill blamed one of these famines on the”beastly” Indians for “breeding like rabbits”. Never mindthat 5.5 million Africans were taken into slavery and the concentration campwas invented by the British Empire.
12The use of these bewildering statistics will definitely contribute towards thenew valued judgement for which the community will possess. Raising issues suchas this and setting down facts & figures will definitely sway opinions ofthe public. The large proportion ofnon-committal responses, also suggest that the Empire is not a salientissue for the public. That is, it is not something on which the majority ofpeople have a clear and fixed view. Given the distance in time since the end ofEmpire, not to mention its peak, this is perhaps not surprising. Italso perhaps serves to reinforce the argument that there is a need for more education about Britain’simperial past. A wider understanding of the impact of the British Empire bothon the world, and on Britain today, may not lead to greater consensus on theissue but it might serve to move it beyond simplistic chauvinistic debatesregarding the sources of national pride.
uk/ShowUserReviews-g186338-d187555-r285075281-British_Museum-London_England.html11D. F. Courtney, ‘We must remember what the slaves did’, Western Daily Press, April 26 200712https://www.vice.com/en_uk/article/3d9jdw/britain-has-never-faced-up-to-the-shame-of-empire13https://whorunsbritain.blogs.lincoln.ac.uk/2016/02/02/what-does-the-british-public-really-think-about-the-empire/