This article was first published by Vogue https://www-vogue-co-uk.cdn.ampproject.org/c/s/www.vogue.co.uk/arts-and-lifestyle/article/black-british-museum?amp
In the midst of debates on decolonisation, Yosola Olorunshola wonders if the European museum model is fundamentally past its sell-by date.
On a visit to the British Museum in 2018, I wandered into a small, dimly lit room beside the main entrance. I was surprised to discover a free temporary exhibition dedicated to the Haitian Revolution of 1791-1804. Although I spent two years studying the French Revolution as part of my History A-Level, the more radical Haitian Revolution it inspired had only ever appeared as a brief footnote.
In 10 minutes, I devoured every caption explaining how a movement of self-liberated slaves had led a rebellion to overthrow French colonial rule. Seizing the ideals of the French Revolution and the Declaration of the Rights of Man, the rebels successfully defeated the French, abolished slavery, and declared the sovereign state of Haiti the world’s first post-colonial Black nation.
I wandered into the neighbouring room, desperate to find out more. I found myself surrounded by portraits of white men. The juxtaposition was jarring. I realised the exhibition had already come to an end. That was it – a single room on an entire revolution. Instead, I’d entered the museum’s vast Enlightenment Gallery, brazenly labelled “Collecting the World”.
As I walked past the images of 18th-century collectors and the “exotic” items they brought back from their colonial exploits, I found no reference to how these items were acquired in the first place. The British imperial project had begun in earnest by the 18th century, and yet the labels in this room were still cloaked in euphemistic language. Who authorised these men to believe the world was theirs to collect? What made them believe they were the first to “discover” territories that had been inhabited for generations before they arrived? The dissonance jolted me back to reality. While the Haiti exhibition had offered a fleeting glimpse into a story of Black self-determination, the return to the museum’s permanent collection was a brutal reminder of exactly where I was – a space built on white supremacy.
In light of experiences like mine, it’s not surprising that Black people in Britain are less likely to visit museums than their white counterparts. Between 2018-19, a report by the UK government showed that 51.1 per cent of white people had visited a museum or gallery, compared with 43.7 per cent of Asian people, and just 33.5 per cent of Black people. Although there are many intersecting barriers that explain this disparity, one key question shaping attitudes towards museums among under-represented groups is: Can we bring our whole selves here?
“There are around 2,500 museums in the UK depending on what you include. There’s a dog collar museum, a marble museum, and a lawnmower museum. But, surprisingly, and given [that there was] a Black presence in Britain dating back to Roman times, there is no permanent museum dedicated to Black British history and art,” says Sandra Shakespeare, an independent museum consultant and co-founder of Museum Detox, a network of Black and ethnic minority museum workers.
She has recently launched the Black British Museum Project, which aims to create an online platform curating Black British history, with the ultimate goal of developing a physical Black British Museum. The project is currently seeking creatives, researchers, artists, and curators, as well as investors, to contribute to shaping the vision and pushing the boundaries of what a museum could be.
A bricks-and-mortar Black British Museum would undoubtedly fill a chasm in Britain’s cultural landscape. In light of the Black Lives Matter protests, recent debates on statues and decolonising the curriculum have revealed gaping holes in Britain’s collective memory. The reaction (on both sides) to the toppling of a statue of the slave trader Edward Colston in Bristol proves how far the built environment – our buildings, our memorials, our street names, and our museums – reflects and reinforces the stories we tell.
Arike Oke, managing director of Black Cultural Archives (BCA), the national charity for documenting, preserving, and celebrating the heritage of people of African descent in the UK, agrees that Britain needs more cultural spaces where Blackness is centred. She joined Shakespeare to champion the need for a Black British Museum at last year’s Museums Association conference on ethical museums in a globalised world.
“The Black experience is in fact a multitude of cultures, languages, colonial, post-colonial, and never colonised experiences. To imagine Britain without at least one Black British museum is myopic, to imagine Britain with many is utopic. We need at least one,” says Oke.
Capturing this multiplicity is vital. In October 2016, Gal-Dem’s first takeover of the V&A Museum in South Kensington offered a glimpse of what transforming a museum could look like. A DJ-set by BBZ seeped between the cabinets as thousands filled the space, resisting the neat categorisation of curators and collectors by simply being themselves. Around every corner was an example of Black and Brown creativity that disrupted the traditional space – from a WAH nail bar to a photo installation by Black in the Day. Firmly rooted in diaspora cultures, the night provided an opportunity to see what a museum centred on the experiences of people of colour could look like.
Ultimately, however, British museums lending their marble halls briefly to Black creatives for Black History Month, or dedicating a space to a fleeting exhibition on decolonisation, feels all too temporary. These moves do not lead to radical change, as institutions return to their dominant narrative once the party – or protest – is over.
Shakespeare, in the meantime, is working towards a more lasting change. She cites a 2019 report from Arts Council England that showed that arts organisations, including museums, have failed to significantly improve the diversity of their leaders and staff. While this year’s anti-racism protests have issued a sharp wake-up call to cultural institutions, more investment is needed in Black-led organisations to transform the sector and change the face of our cultural landscape.
“The imperial model for a museum was never intended for Black visitors, let alone as a showcase of our beauty, style, aesthetics or achievements,” says Shakespeare. “This absence has resulted in a void that continues to present Black history in fragmented, distorted ways, and this is problematic.”
As Black Lives Matter fades from the news cycle, we need manifestations of a more permanent shift. A Black British Museum is not only an opportunity to record the experiences of Black people in Britain, but also to celebrate our roots around the world. Although transforming existing institutions is vital to painting a more honest picture of Britain’s history, this must go beyond window-dressing through new displays and temporary exhibitions. What better way to record the Black British experience than with a museum of our own?