Museum Detox joins the party at the British Museum

I was told that my first Detox was an unconventional one. The usual format is an after hours or behind the scenes tour of an exhibition that is organised specially for the group, followed by drinks and conversation.

This time however, Detoxers were meeting at the British Museum to attend a talk by Wayne Modest, Head of the Research Centre for Material Culture, Tropenmuseum, Museum Volkenkunde and Africa Museum, Netherlands. This talk, which was open to public as part of the BBC Civilisations Festival, followed the one day symposium on issues related to Exhibiting Experiences of Empire, for invited speaks and the British Museum staff. As I chatted to the members of the group which I had recently become part of, I imagined that like myself, most Detoxers have an Experience of Empire. It was no wonder then, that the group decided to break from convention to listen to what Wayne Modest had to say about Museums and the Materialisation of Refusal.

We refuse to be

What you want us to be

We are what we are

That’s the way it’s going to be…

~ Bob Marley – Babylon System ~

Wayne Modest sang this refrain a couple of times through his talk. He began by asking the question – when we talk about ‘Experience of Empire’, whose experiences are we talking about?

Museums talk about Empire through Empire’s objects. They are displayed to educate audiences about people, places and cultures that are different from themselves. Empire’s objects, however, were not collected for that purpose. They were collected by missionaries, military officers and explorers. They were collected as trophies and objects for private pleasure, their displacement and revised context often romanticising the other.

Loud Empire/ Loud Objects Exhibiting Empire/ Great Exhibitions

The idea of ‘loud empire’ is familiar. As museum professionals, we know about the Great Exhibition of 1851. Wayne told us that Jamaica also had its Great Exhibition in 1891 but there was a suspicion amongst the local population about it. Their fear of entrapment is known, but not visible.

He elaborated this idea of ‘loud empire’ by talking about his current research on a painting entitled ‘Fatima.’ The artist and his context is well know… it is loud. But nothing is known about the subject of his portrait, a young girl, apart from her name – Fatima.

“Loudness is not loud for everybody.”

The Quiet and the Quotidian

Wayne spoke about the possibility of archiving the quiet and the quotidian. He spoke about the intertextuality of the BBC Radio beeps and archiving sound and radio, whereby de-centralising the emphasis on the visual. He showed us objects of quiet protest that found themselves in awkward places such as a chalice ‘commissioned by the enslaved’ and a colonial bonnet made of fibre and seed in the collection of Kew Gardens.

An important message from the talk that evening was that we must “learn from being uncomfortable.” The project that Wayne Modest did with his museum – Decolonise the Museum, invited young people from the community to critique and rewrite museum text. Along with the intervention, the museum invited discomfort into their space. Though he admitted to nerves before the opening, he claimed that the public now trusts the museum more because of it. “We are not doing great work… we are doing necessary work.”

As I walked out of the lecture theatre, my mind was spinning under the effect of part poetry and part academia. The sentiment that resonated the most with me was a “call to battle.” In answer to a question from a member of the audience, Wayne Modest explained the use of his vocabulary and said that we must do battle with each other in the hope that we understand each other and come closer.

I found that Museum Detoxers are engaged in that battle. Their projects question the status quo of established institutions and they refuse to be, what you want them to be.

Manasi Pophale, 9 March 2018, London

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