A museum pivots to address its colonial past

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A museum pivots to address its colonial past
“I Beg You to Define Me” by Azraa Motala, a multidisciplinary artist from Lancashire, in the new South Asian Gallery in Manchester, England on Feb. 13, 2023. The Manchester Museum was founded at the pinnacle of the British Empire and now it is embracing the city’s South Asian population and reassessing the colonial past. (Tom Jamieson/The New York Times)

by Farah Nayeri

MANCHESTER.- The World War I uniform, found in a family trunk in Pakistan, is in a glass case of its own, honoring colonial subjects who fought for Britain. Nearby is a rickshaw festooned with flowers and ribbons, imported from Bangladesh and richly decorated by Bangladeshi and British artists. A large self-portrait on the wall, titled “I Beg You to Define Me,” shows a young woman wearing elaborately embroidered South Asian garments over sweatpants and running shoes.

This is the new South Asia Gallery at the Manchester Museum, which reopens Saturday after an eight-year, $18 million redevelopment. The first permanent museum gallery in Britain to spotlight the South Asian diaspora, it focuses on the community’s lived experience: on what it means to be British and South Asian at the same time. The gallery was curated not by a posse of bookish conservators but by 30 local people of South Asian heritage. They came up with the stories they wanted to tell and looked for the objects that told them best.

The Manchester Museum, a sprawling 133-year-old institution linked to the University of Manchester, is home to 4.5 million objects, from coins, pottery and Egyptian antiquities to dinosaur skeletons and even some live animals.

Founded at the pinnacle of the British Empire, the museum is undergoing a rethink, led by its director, Esme Ward. In her post since 2018, Ward wants to make the free-of-charge institution more inclusive, imaginative and caring. She has repatriated 43 ceremonial and sacred objects to Aboriginal communities in Australia, and appointed a curator to reexamine the collections from an Indigenous perspective.

Manchester is one among many museums and historic sites that are foregrounding minority groups and reassessing the colonial past to broaden their audience in multicultural Britain. The National Gallery is investigating the role that slavery had in Britain’s history by highlighting individuals who were linked to or benefited from the slave trade; Tate Britain is rehanging its collection to spotlight similar figures.

That approach is dividing opinion, with some right-wing commentators and lawmakers objecting that issues of diversity are being placed above preserving the nation’s heritage.

“All of us in museums have a responsibility to really think about who they are for, not just what they are for,” Ward said in a recent interview in her office, which has a velvet sofa and a framed poster reading “No Sexists, No Racists, No Fascists.”

Calling museums “empathy machines,” she said their mission extends beyond caring for objects and collections to “caring for beliefs and ideas and relationships,” and being “a space that brings people together.”

Noting that the Manchester Museum was founded as “part of a broader colonial project,” she said there are “all sorts of stories that have been obscured, hidden, that haven’t been part of the narrative.”

The National Trust, a membership organization that looks after historic buildings and sites across Britain, has also been bringing hidden stories to light. In 2017, the Trust marked the 50th anniversary of the partial decriminalization of homosexuality in England and Wales by highlighting LGBTQ figures in history via its “Prejudice and Pride” program. That sparked heated controversy in the news media, leading to a significant number of complaint calls and some membership cancellations, although a visitor survey showed that 72% favored the program.

A short film about disability that the Trust released in January — which includes Henry VIII, because a jousting accident and leg ulcers led him to use canes and a wheelchair — provoked columnist Richard Littlejohn to comment in The Daily Mail: “Everything is now viewed through the prism of the modern obsession with diversity, identity and, lately, slavery.”

Richard Sandell, a professor of museum studies at the University of Leicester who worked on those National Trust projects, said Britain’s museums and historic sites are “simply widening the lens” and broadening their programming, because they were enjoyed by “a very narrow proportion of the public,” and the narratives they presented could “sometimes do harm in their exclusions and erasures.”

On a recent tour of the Manchester Museum, the new mindset championed by Ward was very much in evidence.

A major draw of the reopening is “Golden Mummies of Egypt,” an exhibition that rethinks past approaches to Egyptology. The show runs through Dec. 31.

Wall texts note that objects were excavated thanks to British colonial control of Egypt, allowing Western archaeologists to “claim a share of their finds from the Egyptian government.” The archaeologist who led the digging, Sir Flinders Petrie, was “very interested in the ‘race’ of the mummies he found” and measured the skulls of mummies for that purpose, the wall label says.

Upstairs, a new “Belonging Gallery” is the first space visitors see as they come in via the museum’s new modernized entrance. Ward said the aim was to make visitors feel welcome and to “explore belonging and inclusion, not from a white British perspective” but “through other perspectives as well.”

Different forms of belonging — through relationships, places and actions — are considered via illustrations and collection objects.

The South Asia Gallery, next door, is another example of Ward’s inclusivity push. It features a mix of displays: A third come from the British Museum (the gallery’s partner), including a Buddha statue and Indus Valley pottery; a fifth are from Manchester Museum collections; and the rest are from the local South Asian community: family photos and archives, album covers, tablas and costumes.

The gallery’s creation was announced in 2015 with a $6 million government grant, and it was originally conceived as a chronological history of South Asia.

“That felt really wrong: That didn’t reflect these communities in Manchester,” said Ward, who, arriving halfway through the planning phases, consulted with many local South Asian people before changing course.

Asians make up 21% of the city’s population, and most of those have South Asian roots.

To curate the gallery, she appointed Nusrat Ahmed, who was previously a Manchester-based organizer of community projects celebrating South Asian heritage.

“I’m a person who didn’t go to museums and art galleries. I was not represented in their stories, and I felt out of place,” said Ahmed, who explained that the gallery’s purpose was to tell stories that had never been told in a museum context.

Ward said she now wants the museum to reach out to the 11,000 children living in poverty near the museum, and she has advertised for a social justice manager position on Twitter.

“Why do you need a social justice manager? You’re a museum!” someone tweeted in response. “Haven’t you heard of #GoWokeGoBroke?” read another tweet.

Sadiah Qureshi, a history lecturer at the University of Birmingham, said white audience members who feel threatened by diversity campaigns “are not being excluded, but they are no longer being centered in the way they have been.”

“A lot of people have assumed that museums are neutral spaces, when they are not, and they see any change as making them political,” she said, noting that museums have been, from the outset, “deeply political ventures on the part of people who thought they were going to be educational for the working classes.”

“Museums do need to be for the people around them,” Qureshi said. “The museum does need to change.”

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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