Dismantling the master’s house: thoughts on representing empire and decolonising museums and public spaces in practice an introduction - NMS Research Repository
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Dismantling the master’s house: thoughts on representing empire and decolonising museums and public spaces in practice an introduction

3 September 2019

Abstract

Museums were both produced by and producers of the ideals that drove the growth of European empires. As such, many of the collections made during and since the colonial era are unique and powerful reflections of this history. Despite this potential, with few exceptions, object-focused critical histories of empire in museums have typically either been marginalised in favour of celebratory narratives, art historical perspectives or de-historicised ethnographic descriptions. However, this is changing. As museum decolonisation is increasingly being recognised as a necessary aspect of contemporary museum work, there is a movement toward more critically reflective representations of empire within ‘the master’s house’. Yet, just as the desire to confront histories of empire is becoming established, there has been a recent popular resurgence of colonial fantasy and nostalgia in Europe. In response, this introduction for the special edited volume Exhibiting the Experience of Empire: Decolonising Objects, Images, Materials and Words? outlines these decolonial issues and the need to represent the experience of empire, and its legacies, from multiple perspectives. The introduction reflects on two case studies from the British Museum’s recent work that attempted to do this, a major temporary exhibition, ‘South Africa: The Art of a Nation’, and the new colonial and post-colonial displays in the South Asia gallery. In so doing, the introduction draws out four key themes regarding exhibiting the experience of empire that resonate with the other contributions in this special issue, including: the need for 1) curatorial and audience discomfort, 2) inclusion of silenced voices and histories, 3) political curatorial positioning to decentre European paradigms and expose and challenge colonially created subjectivities, and 4) the transparent representation of colonial collecting and display histories. These and other themes are discussed through summaries of the contributions to the volume.

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