Decolonising our galleries: An introduction

Crucial aspects of Scotland’s history are underpinned by the exploitation of enslaved and colonised people around the world. As we invite you to join us on the journey of decolonising our museum, we want to explain how we’re doing it and why it’s vital.

<h2 class="sir-trevor-section-divider__title">Part I by Meredith More, Curator at V&A Dundee</h2>

“‘Decolonisation’ has come to represent a whole host of ideas: It’s an acknowledgement that in the West, society has been built upon the colonisation of other nations, that we exist within a system of privilege and oppression, and that a lot of the culture we’ve come to see as ours has actually been appropriated or stolen.”

Our Scottish Design Galleries explore Scotland’s design history from 1500 to the present day. Their themed displays focus on things that make design in Scotland unique, from the country’s specific natural resources, to its patterns of immigration and emigration. A wide range of fascinating objects show the huge breadth of design creativity across Scotland, from weavers and furniture makers to shipbuilders, architects and digital innovators.

But these galleries are not a definitive statement about Scotland’s design history. They only provide a snapshot of a much more complex picture. We want to change the perception that these galleries are ‘permanent’ and that they tell ‘the’ story of Scottish design, because there are countless alternative perspectives that can and should be brought in to complicate, challenge and provoke further discussion about what characterises Scottish design in the past, present and future.

From now on, we plan to focus on a new theme each year to help bring in missing perspectives, allowing us to decentre prevailing narratives. Our focus in 2020/2021 is to begin decolonising the galleries, acknowledging that much of Scotland’s design history is built upon the exploitation of enslaved and colonised people around the world.

As a new design museum, we have no excuse for omitting and misrepresenting this history in our galleries. Through collaboration, we will begin to address this by adapting our labels, bringing in new objects and developing a new commission. This is only a small start and it is more important than ever that we open the conversation beyond our walls. We want to speak with our audiences and neighbours and use our platform to effect change. We have a lot of work to do ourselves and we’d love to hear from you. You can share your views using #decoloniseSDG

The first step we’ve taken in this process is to re-write a number of object labels in our galleries so that they reflect a decolonial and transnational approach to Scotland’s design history. Some of these original labels omitted important details about the colonial context for the objects’ creation, while others unwittingly misrepresented the facts. To re-write them we worked with a group of experts from the Transnational Scotland Network, who took part in a workshop we held at the museum in August 2019.

Through a collaborative research and writing process, we have made small but important changes to the narrative of the galleries, especially regarding Scotland’s role in building and maintaining the British Empire and the devastating impact of this on colonised people around the world.

This is the first in a series of articles that will focus on the content of the labels that we have changed. The experts we worked with will explain what was wrong with what we had written in the first place and delve deeper into the background of the objects and their complex histories.

Before we start, what characterises decolonial and transnational approaches to history? Since the recent Black Lives Matter demonstrations there have been numerous petitions calling for more education on Black British history and Britain’s colonial history in schools and universities. In the meantime, many people are trying to educate themselves.

We’ve asked Emma Bond, who instigated and leads the Transnational Scotland Network, to help us define these terms. And to explain why it is so important that we use these approaches when telling stories about the past, whether that’s in a history book, a news broadcast, a school curriculum, or indeed, in a design museum.

<h2 class="sir-trevor-section-divider__title">Part II by Emma Bond, University of St Andrews</h2>

Someone on Twitter recently posted a list of the population of the one hundred principal European cities in 1854. I couldn’t stop looking at it. It mapped a totally different Europe: one where Sophia was in Turkey, Warsaw in Russia and Trieste in Austria. But something else caught my eye.

In 54th place (ahead of Bologna, Toulouse, Frankfurt and The Hague at the time) was my own local city of Dundee. Dundee’s population had grown rapidly between the mid-eighteenth and mid-nineteenth centuries because of the city’s involvement in multiple industries. This was primarily textile based (beginning with wool, then linen, and, from the 1830s onward, jute), but also whaling and shipbuilding. Industrial centres like Dundee relied heavily on international networks of commerce and exchange.

Whaling would connect Scotland with the Nordic countries, Greenland and Inuit communities of Canada. The production of jute notably intertwined the economic, social and cultural lives of Dundee and Kolkata. It’s clear that the city’s newest museum, V&A Dundee, is placed within a local history that must also be read through a transnational lens.

I want to explain a bit more what I mean by ‘transnational’. And why I believe it’s important that the story being told about that history in the Scottish Design Galleries also engages with movements calling for the decolonisation of cultural institutions such as museums.

There is always more than one way of looking.”

I’m an academic based at the University of St Andrews. For a long time, my work has been focused on elevating and highlighting the transnational elements that underpin the stories that we tell about the past.

Looking at stories and histories ‘transnationally’ means reorienting our lines of enquiry beyond national frameworks. These tend to support binaries of ‘us’ and ‘others’ and, as a result, can reinforce hierarchies of inequality. It means highlighting the networks and connections that have facilitated cultural and economic exchange across national borders. And recognising that those networks have underpinned violent systems of exploitation, extraction and inequality that still mark societies in multiple damaging ways today.

In 2018 I applied to the Royal Society of Edinburgh for funding to set up a network of museums under the umbrella of ‘Transnational Scotland’, together with my co-investigator Dr Michael Morris from the University of Dundee. Our museum partners all hold collections that tell the story of Scotland’s transnational past through its various commodity trades: the Fisheries museum (herring), New Lanark Trust (cotton), Verdant Works (jute), and the Watt Institution (sugar).

Our starting premise was that Scotland’s global trades and cultural growth benefitted from interconnected networks of colonialism and empire. The sugar refineries of Greenock, fisheries of the long East Coast, cotton mills of New Lanark and Paisley and jute mills of Dundee attracted raw materials from the West Indies and North America to India. Scotland then exported finished products across the world, creating an elaborate network of interconnected routes, objects and peoples.

The economic, technological and cultural successes of the history of Scotland’s global trades have been well documented. But only recently has due attention been paid to the histories of exploitation that underpinned them, including Scotland’s role in the transatlantic slave trade. Dundonian jute sacks transported sugar from Jamaican plantations, coarse Scottish linen was used to clothe enslaved peoples across the Caribbean, and the lowest quality Scottish herring was exported to the West Indies to feed enslaved people. A latter’s fishing trade route tellingly vanished entirely after abolition passed in 1833 (shrinking from 82,000 tons in 1824 to just 2,000 in 1845).

We were lucky to be funded to carry out a series of workshops at our partner museums between 2019 – 2020. In March 2019 we were contacted by V&A Dundee, who were interested in rethinking the interpretation in the Scottish Design Galleries to reflect the histories of empire and colonialism that underpinned the production and use of some of the objects on display there.

We organised a workshop at the museum in August 2019 which brought together academics, museum staff, artists and activists over the course of an intense and challenging day. We deconstructed a lot of the existing museum labels as a group and had candid conversations about ways to move forward in decolonising museum practices. These include displaying and narrativising collections and commissioning new works.

Decolonial practice is human-centric, democratic, self-reflective, critical and active.”

To return to my anecdote at the start of this article, 1854 was a year at the height of the age of empires. The cities I mention above, Sophia, Warsaw, Trieste and Dundee, were part of imperial structures (Ottoman, Russian, Austro-Hungarian and British respectively) that spread far beyond what was then classed as Europe.

The societal structures that we live with in Europe today are imperial in their foundation and colonial in their methods. Our current ways of learning, of building knowledge, and therefore the foundations of our political, economic and cultural systems are all built on colonial principles. The great national museums of Europe were founded as imperial projects. Museum methods (such as acquisition, conservation, interpretation and community engagement) are often still inflected with colonial ways of thinking that carry imprints of extraction or appropriation.

There is so much exciting decolonising work being done by people within museums in the UK. People such as Subhadra Das, Sumaya Kassim, Rachael Minott, Alice Procter and many, many others. I believe that academics and museum professionals can work productively together alongside communities and the public to think through the processes of decolonisation.

Academics can help with changes to object interpretation by bringing new specialist, often historical, knowledge to light. But critical theory is a crucial part of this process too. It’s able to articulate big ideas like decolonisation and offers an understanding of the processes that will allow us to enact real change on a wider scale.

Cultural critic and author bell hooks experienced theory as a place where you can “imagine different futures, a place where life could be lived differently” (Theory as Liberatory Practice, 1991). In a similar vein, scholars such as Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, Frantz Fanon, Saidiya Hartman and Ann Laura Stoler have guided me on my own research journey. They’ve shown me not only that imperialism lies at the root of world injustice, but also that we can think of creative alternatives. Unlearning imperialism allows us to create both alternative pasts and alternative futures. Through the creative processes of decolonisation, we can work towards undoing harmful structures and practices, and we can make space for critical dialogue and increased democratisation.

The struggle is for changing the terms in addition to the content of the conversation.

I live just across the river from Dundee and I watched the final stages of V&A Dundee’s construction with growing excitement. I am even more excited now about the future of the museum. Affiliated to its sister museum in South Kensington, it is itself without the burden of imperial archives or object stores. It is young, and it can be nimble and responsive to contemporary societal movements and challenges as a result.

V&A Dundee is now making a start to its own journey of decolonisation through re-writing object labels in the Scottish Design Galleries. That journey has to involve multiple voices and perspectives and must engage fully with the local community. The museum needs to set targets in relation to representation, training, institutional processes, exhibition, curating and commissioning practices. And it needs to be accountable to those targets.

As Yvette Mutumba has recently said, “decolonisation has to hurt” (Frieze, 2020). There is pain because these are emotional encounters. They are emotional because colonialism affects the past, the present and the future of communities. Decolonising our community museums is work we must all participate in, and work that is of infinite benefit to us all.

Meredith More is a Curator at V&A Dundee. Dr Emma Bond is Reader in Modern Languages at the University of St Andrews.

This is only the beginning of our decolonisation journey and we have a lot of work to do. We’d love to hear from you. Share your views on social media using #decoloniseSDG

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image that represent two pages of V&A dundee website