And what is restorative history
We are often asked why we chose to call ourselves the Museum of British Colonialism. Some people say, ‘But we already have a Museum of British Colonialism – the British Museum’. Other people wonder if we are celebrating colonialism, or enquire as to ‘which side of the fence we are on’.
To set the record straight – neither in the UK, nor elsewhere, do we already have a Museum of British Colonialism. Yes, we have the British Museum. And yes, the majority of objects in the British Museum were ‘acquired’ during the time of the British Empire (still extant). The British Museum could then, therefore, perhaps be ‘read’ as a museum that provides insights and access into British colonial history. In some ways it does. If you would like to know about the British Empire’s astonishing and rapacious desire for acquiring and displaying objects and items from across the world, nowhere is there a finer example that the displays at the British Museum. It is therefore fair to say that if you visit the British Museum and apply a critical lens to their collection, you will probably pick up a thing or two about our colonial exploits. It is also, we believe, fair to say that one could visit the British Museum and come away entirely ignorant as to some of the more challenging aspects of Britain’s Empire and role in the world.
Where in the British Museum, for example, could one go to learn about the British in Kenya at the time of the Mau Mau Emergency, or the legacy of British colonialism in Ireland? Where in the British Museum can we learn of freedom struggles from Burma to Belize; of documents seized and destroyed by colonial forces; of Emergency Villages constructed, refined, redeployed, removed, buried and forgotten? Where in the British Museum would a visitor – be it British or otherwise – be encouraged to come away thinking of England, and thinking of Britain, as anything less than utterly triumphant? A world-class power, in a world-class building, with world-class objects. While it is true that the narrative is being increasingly challenged – and, one would hope, unstuck – this is the message the British Museum projects to the world. And this has always been the intention.
The Museum of British Colonialism, as conceived by our team, has a wholly different objective. Our aim is not to glorify Britain or to display objects from Empire (we don’t even have any…). Our aim is not to declare a side, or to position ourselves as pro or against Empire. Our aim is to provide a space – digital, physical, emotional and psychological – for people to confront, consider, assess and understand our less than glorious imperial past, and help forge a better future.
’We call this process restorative history.’
We call this process restorative history and the reason for this is two-fold. Firstly, much of this history has been actively, wilfully and knowingly removed, concealed or destroyed. Cover-ups, denials, and alternative (glorious) narratives have collectively served to obliterate knowledge, or even the access to knowledge, of many aspects of our imperial past. In an effort to ‘forget and move on’, this has been the case outside as well as inside the UK. It is our belief, at the Museum, that if we care for our present and future, we must also care for and attend to our past. And when and where we know there are gaps in the narrative, stories or experiences denied or over-ridden by false or unfair emphasis, we must work our way back, collectively, creatively and collaboratively, to understand, explore and restore them. We actively work to fill in the gaps in our history. To educate ourselves and in the process, educate others as well.
Connected to this is the second reason. We believe collective, collaborative and active restoration of a history that has been destroyed, concealed or denied is not just a factually and practically important act; we believe it is also an emotionally, psychologically and even politically restorative act. We believe that the restoration of our history can and will lead to a restoration of our relationships, our communities, and – in the long run – our society.
This is what we call restorative history and this is the aim of our Museum. To our knowledge, it diverges slightly from that of the other one…