Thursday, August 16, 2007

Museum is Maws Muse...More!

As promised/threatened: there is a sequel to my earlier post about analyzing Auschwitz. I've been thinking more about how museums construct our history. So, this meta-narrative thing was very much on my mind when we spent a few hours at the British Empire and Commonwealth Museum in Bristol. To recap, what we're talking about here is not exactly what the museum actually teaches visitors, but rather how and why it teaches what it does. The story behind the story, if you will. I visit a lot of museums, and I deal heavily in the history and education business on a daily basis, so hopefully you can at least understand why I am being such a nerd about this...

At issue this time was another “challenging” part of history – the British Empire and slavery (the museum currently has a temporary display called “Breaking the Chains” to mark the bicentennial of the abolition of the slave trade).

The first thing to take note of is where the museum is located. Now Bristol may not exactly be Poland, and this museum site doesn't carry the significance of a former death camp, but as a city that was essentially built on profits from the slave trade -- perhaps the ugliest component of the story of the Empire -- it is as compelling a place as any to examine this part of history. This is an important starting point in a consideration of this museum's meta-narrative. The choice of location is neither obvious nor arbitrary for any museum or memorial site.

The question that I often pose to the students I lead around Poland applies here just as well: where does this story begin? Take the 'story' of slavery, for instance. It's hard to say, really. You might reasonably frame the story in the context of the slaves themselves, or possibly the plantation owners, or the policy makers who enabled slavery to exist. Or, as is the case with Bristol, we could frame the story in the context of slavery's profiteers, and use one of their major home bases as the backdrop to set it against.

So well done, you Bristolians, for being willing to embrace, or maybe I should say confront, the dark side of your history. It would have been much easier to point the finger elsewhere in telling the story of slavery (it also might not have brought in as much tourism, but I am trying to not be cynical here).

I was impressed with the museum for other reasons as well. The language in this one display (pictured) was fairly typical. It begins, “How much good the British Empire did depends on your point of view…” and goes on to say things like “there were many ethical problems with introducing western medicine and schooling to non-European people.”

I think this strikes just the right tone. Keep in mind that while any debate about the merits of slavery is pretty much over, this is not the case when it comes to the more general issue of the British Empire. This is still a complicated issue today, one that is fracturing contemporary British identity. Gordon Brown advocates that Britons should be proud of the positive legacy of the empire, which probably doesn't sit well with those who view the colonial relationship as one of exploitation and paternalism. I am no fan of the inherent racism of colonial ideals, but I sure do love living in a multicultural London. I should also point out that I visited Bristol with my friend Prash who was born in India. Presumably I have the Raj to thank for our friendship, in some weird indirect way.

So anyway, like I said, complicated issue... Well done.

In the special slavery exhibit, I was similarly impressed. First, by this quote that greets visitors upon entry. It reads, “They will remember that we were sold, but not that we were strong. They will remember that we were bought, but not that we were brave.” Again, nice. From the very outset of the exhibit, its curators are announcing that this story is not going to go along with the traditional narrative. That would be the one in which slaves are portrayed almost solely as helpless victims, whose liberation was only possible thanks to the altruistic actions of benevolent white people. What about slave rebellions and smaller daily acts of resistance? What about the freed slaves who relentlessly spoke out to win white converts to the abolitionist cause?

This more inclusive way of framing the story made it an effective exhibit, I thought. There were other things I liked as well, like the way that they continued the “story” beyond the conventional “ending” -- the one that tells us that the slaves were freed, then lived happily ever after. The exhibit rightly highlighted that the end of the slave trade was not actually the end of slavery, and that the end of slavery was not actually the end of oppression, discrimination and disadvantage. They made connections to musicians like Bob Marley, and to contemporary campaigns against forced labor and other modern forms of slavery. This active attempt to “connect” with a contemporary audience was important for me to see, because it is exactly what Auschwitz does not do (which is sort of OK, because it enables me to have a job making those connections). And it demonstrated that museums can be both objective and activist at the same time. They can teach about controversial parts of history in ways that are educationally sound and don’t clobber you over the head with their bias, but that still inspire you to “do something” in your own life with the lessons you might have learned (hopefully) from history.

In short: Good museum. You should go.

The Balloons were nice too.

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