Fingerprints Episode 1
Join the Ashmolean Museum’s director, Xa Sturgis, as he questions what a museum is for. He introduces us to Powhatan’s Mantle, one of the museum’s founding objects, and one inextricably linked with British colonial history. From there, he traces the Ashmolean’s story to the present day, as special guests explore how we can transform an uncomfortable past into a more positive future. Find a transcript of this episode here
Speakers in this episode:
About the Fingerprints podcast
Every object in the Ashmolean has passed from hand to hand to reach the Museum. In a new podcast, we uncover the invisible fingerprints left behind by makers, looters, archaeologists, soldiers, rulers, curators, and many more. These stories of touch reveal the ways in which the forces of conflict and colonialism have shaped Britain’s oldest Museum. Join the Ashmolean’s curators alongside artists, experts, and community members, for our new podcast: Fingerprints.
Fingerprints will be released on the Ashmolean’s website, on Spotify, Apple, and wherever you get your podcasts, weekly from 21 January 2022 until 25 February 2022.
Fingerprints is produced and hosted by Lucie Dawkins. Guests include Bénédicte Savoy, co-author of the Report on African Cultural Heritage, commissioned by Emmanuel Macron; Professor Dan Hicks, of Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum; and Simukai Chigudu, one of the founding members of the Rhodes Must Fall campaign.
This is Fingerprints, a podcast from the Ashmolean Museum. Every object in the collection has a hidden story to tell about the hands that have touched them. Invisible fingerprints cover every object in the Ashmolean, belonging to of artists, looters, rulers, archaeologists, soldiers, curators, and collectors and many more. These fingerprints reveal the complex, and often uneasy history behind the making of a museum.
I’m your host, Lucie Dawkins, and together, we are going to go on some epic journeys with objects from across the globe, and the hands they passed through to reach the galleries in Oxford.
We will discover the ways in which conflict, colonialism, and the clashing of empires have made the Ashmolean what it is today.
If you wander around the galleries you’ll find lots of information telling you the whats about the objects in the collections: what year they were made in, what they represent, what they were used for, and what they tell us about the cultures which made them.
Much more rarely will you find information about why and how they got here. These are questions we are going to ask over the course of this series.
Before we dive in with in these stories over the course of the series, I’m going to hand over this episode to Xa Sturgis, the Ashmolean’s Director, to tell us more about why he thinks that it is time for the museum to tackle these uncomfortable questions.
I'm standing here right in the very heart of the Ashmolean Museum, asking myself the fairly obvious question - what are museums for?
Of course, it's a question much more easily asked than answered. And if I was forced to say what a museum was in a single sentence, I think I would say that there are places where, through encounters with collections, people are led to a better understanding of their world, and have their place within it. But of course, that answer begs all sorts of other questions. And I think it suggests that museums need to be different things for different people. Museums need to be as various as our visitors are, and everyone who walks through our doors is an individual, and each of them has individual perspectives, individual knowledge, and individual life experiences, and our job is to make sure that everyone has the possibility of recognising themselves within the museum.
I've obviously accepted that this is an impossible task that will never be able to meet all our visitors needs, and certainly never all at the same time in the same place, but it's a job worth pursuing, and it's a job that we are committed to trying to achieve. Of course, as the concerns of society change, as different questions are asked, then we need to change in response to those demands. And if we're to continue to matter as museums (and I think all of us who work in museums are convinced that museums matter) then we have to listen and we have to react. And there's no doubt that right now, there is an ever growing conversation about the ways in which we relate to our own past within this country. And of course, museums play an absolute critical role in considering those questions.
In fact, I think that physical objects invite these conversations and ignite these conversations in a way that can when done right, be more immediate, more emotionally engaging, and more exciting than almost any other way. Encountering an object is not like reading a book. It’s far more immediate, because they don't just communicate cold facts. They communicate human experience.
But of course, objects are also mute, and by themselves they can only say so much. And it's in the context that we in museums give them that they can become eloquent, whether that be in the objects that we display around them, or the words that we describe them with. But whatever we put around objects, and however many words we use to describe them, that context will only ever be partial. It will always suggest or encourage particular responses or particular ways of thinking about things.
And as we learn more, as we question more, as attitudes change, the emissions to that context can become ever more evident and problematic. And for that reason, all museums across the world today I think are thinking about where those emissions lie and how they might be addressed. And in particular, within Britain, we are obliged to look at society today and the people we serve, and consider to what extent colonialism shapes that society, and shapes what is in our museums. There is, in the end, no two ways about it. The history of the Ashmolean is inextricably intertwined with our colonial past.
This is never clear to me then when standing here surrounded by objects from our founding collections. What I'm looking at here is this amazing object known as Powhatan’s Mantle. It’s almost certainly not a mantle, it’s far too big to be worn - it might have been a hanging. And it’s this impressively sized object made of four deer hides sewn together and decorated with a design made up of tiny little cowrie shells. And these show the figure of a man in its centre, with two rampant beasts on either side, one with claws, the other with hooves. And surrounding these three fingers are a number of circles.
We don't know for certain the early history of this object, but what is most likely is that this is the mantle described as being given by Chief Wahunsenacawh, the paramount chief of the Powhatan confederacy of tribes in North America in present-day Virginia. And you might know him as the father of the woman we call Pocahontas. What believe to be this object is described in an account of 1607 to 8 as being given by Chief Wahunsenacawh to King James the First. That’s to say this is a diplomatic exchange in the very first year of British colonialists arriving in what was to become Jamestown, the first permanent settlement of British colonialists in North America.
In other words, this object that lies at the very heart the Ashmolean Museum relates directly to one of the seminal moments in British colonial history. We don't know quite the route through which it came to England, but what we do know is that this very object was in London in the 1630s. And it was in a museum that preceded the Ashmolean, and is arguably the first museum in this country, which was housed in Lambeth and was known as The Ark with the idea that the whole world was under its roof. And it was presided over by two gardeners, John Tradescant the Elder, and then his son, John Tradescant the Younger. As gardeners, they were also plant hunters, and they travelled themselves to North America, and the Baltic and Russia, but they also collected objects.
And within their museum you would have been able to find a dodo from Mauritius and an abacus from Russia, instruments from India and shoes from China, and fragments of wood from Africa. And none of these objects were displayed within the context of the cultures and people who created them, but as an assemblage of the extraordinary, the exotic, and the other. And of course, all of these objects arrived in London for one reason, and that was the explosion in British travel and conquest in the 17th century. The culture of collection making in this country runs in absolute parallel with colonial adventurism and acquisition. British museums, and the idea of collecting the whole world under one roof is clearly linked to what we might call colonial mindsets, and The Ark and then the Ashmolean are among the very first of British museums.
To cut a complicated story very short, the Tradescants left their collection to their neighbour, Elias Ashmole, and he in turn bestowed the collection on Oxford University and created the Ashmolean Museum. And what we call Powhatan’s Mantle has sat here ever since.
This is a completely unique artwork. There's simply nothing else of its size, significance and importance it survives from the Algonquian-speaking people of the region from that time. But still today, it's displayed not in the context of those people who made it and the significance that it might have carried for them, tut it is flanked with the portraits of John Tradescants the Elder and Younger and Elias Ashmolean and surrounded by the other objects from that founding collection. In other words, the context we provide for the Mantle today is not that of the people who created it, but rather, the white Europeans who collected it. And even though this gallery and this display is only a few years old, that feel to me increasingly problematic. For museums to evolve, for museums to engage directly with as many visitors as possible, we have to, I think, face some of these problems full on.
In the Ashmolean, we tell countless stories across millennia and across continents, and they're often stories of cultural exchange and cultural connection. But those themselves are often linked to political power, to wealth, and to empire. And we shouldn't be anxious in looking at the place that British colonial power and wealth plays in the creation of the collections and in the stories related to them. And the process of reexamining and indeed challenging some of the attitudes and assumptions based on that colonial history is part of a process that is often referred to as decolonisation. To unpack some of the nuances of this word decolonisation, I called on some advice from a researcher whose recent video essay with the filmmaker Arwa Aburawa, ‘The Museum Will Not Be Decolonised’ demands that the museum sector works to do things better.
My name is Sumaya Kassim, and I'm a writer and museum sceptic.
Sumaya, very nice to meet you. And really, I would like to talk to you about a word which you have written and thought and spoke about a lot - and that is decolonisation, particularly as it relates to museums. I wonder if you could describe what you mean by the word decolonisation.
I can't, because the word decolonisation means different things to different people. Depending on who you are or where you come from, you're going to have a different perspective on what decolonising means. And in a sense that's quite a big problem. Obviously, the word decolonise has the word colonialism in it, you know, it could mean challenging colonialism. You know, students, for instance at a university, will be challenging the curriculum by decolonising the curriculum. Or, you know, if you are in North America, or Turtle Island, indigenous people would consider decolonising to do with challenging settler colonialism. And so it's very much a land issue, which is something that I believe in, personally - using decolonising as a term for anything other than land and resources kind of dilutes the radicalism of the term.
And a lot of activists nowadays actually don't like the word decolonising, because there's the sense that it's actually kind of a meme or a joke, almost, unfortunately, nowadays, where decolonising is this term thrown around by academics trying to get funding applications, or museums to get funding applications. Rather than using a term like ‘anti-racism’ or a social justice word, they'll use the word ‘de-colonial’ because they'll know that that will get the money.
At the same time, I think it is a useful term because it is a very powerful term, the idea that you will challenge colonialism wherever you are. But as somebody who's part of the diaspora in the UK, in what might be termed the centre of Empire, for me to say that I'm doing de-colonial work here in a museum, which is a colonial construct, there’s a kind of irony and contradiction and paradox there that I think is difficult and challenging in and of itself.
And colonialism is still continuing, it's still happening and it hasn't just gone. And so that's always why I say that the even the idea of decolonising at all could be entirely impossible. And that's why it's useful. Because that's challenging, isn't it? Like, we can't just simply can't do it. And therefore we have to just keep striving and striving and striving and there is no end point because colonialism is not something that happened during 400 years and then ended in the 60s. It's something that is happening today and all the time, basically.
I suppose one of the risks of having a word which means different things to different people, though, is that people can define it to you.
And one of the challenges in fact that I see happening out in the world, is that people claim that decolonisation is about denying history, that it is about closing things off and pretending things didn’t happen, which seems to me the complete opposite of what it actually does mean. Do you, I mean, recognise that risk? And how would you address it?
I mean, that's a very interesting question. Because I think that it's very much to do with about whether you're a good faith or a bad faith actor in how the internet essentially, because, you know, I don't tend to hear this type of thing in person as much as I do on Twitter, essentially. I mean, they tend to say, well, you're trying to act like colonialism never happened - but it's quite the opposite! We want to look at exactly how colonialism happened, and what the after effects and the impacts of colonialism was and how it still continues today.
I mean, it's complicated, because I think some people just don't want to acknowledge where the power that this country has comes from it because it's very upsetting, really, if you think about how violent colonialism was. And I think that it's hard to deal with that. But also just on a geographical scale, you know, it happened very far away, in the Caribbean and India. So people don't have that intimate knowledge of the events that took place, the genocides that took place. I think people sort of have what one might describe as a historical amnesia or forgetfulness, essentially, I think that people still have this nostalgic view of Empire. And they think that Empire perhaps some unfortunate events, but in the whole was pretty good, because it was good for some people.
So I think that people find that threatening because it's almost sort of like saying to people, well, perhaps the reason that you that you are privileged is not because of any meritocracy, or because you're a good person, but because history has led us to this culmination point where you happened by quirk of fate to be born white and to have had some kind of generational wealth.
So if you think about museums, specifically, like my experience of museums, of walking around a museum is one you know, it's just a lot of loss and a lot of hurt, and I experience museums as quite difficult and challenging. You know, I see a particular gaze and way of thinking about history that is from a white male perspective. And I get this very deep sense as a woman of colour, and I should add as a Muslim, that people cannot even imagine me, that people find it really hard to have me in a building like a museum. And I think perhaps someone like myself or a person of colour or a black person, you know, we kind of embody a history that people would rather not remember and would rather ignore. And I think that's what it's fundamentally about. Yeah. And some people use the term white fragility, or this idea that white people might feel this sense of being offended by even the notion that colonialism happened. Like even the word racism, or colonialism, is actually quite upsetting and difficult to handle.
But to me, if you educate people, you know, especially children, and you talk about the history and kind of in an open and honest hearted way, hopefully people who are good faith actors will understand that that's only going to create a kind of open dialogue and a kind of sense of historical awareness that hopefully we can live in a society that's different than the ones that we've known previously. One that's fairer, once that is more equal, essentially. Yeah. That’s what I think.
So, for me, at least, museums are places of connection, and places where one becomes aware of a shared humanity. And there is something magical about museum objects and the way they encourage that visceral empathetic connection.
And of course, objects carry with them the history of their ownership, and that history can be dark. But it isn't always dark, because many objects were made to be traded or bought and sold. And so to me, anyway, the potential for museums to celebrate a shared humanity seems to be far more vital than their potential to divide. So I suppose my question to you is whether you can see any positive future for museums in this terrain? And speaking for the Ashmolean, of course, our colonial past is baked into our bones, of course there are aspects of the shape of our collections that are unquestionably the result of racist thinking in the past. So is there any hope for a museum with that history to present a more pluralistic view of that past in the future?
I think I would just turn the question back to you and ask you whether you think there's any hope for society to be that way. And whether you think that a museum would be able to facilitate that type of society. You know, I often hear what you've just described, which is this idea that you know, well, objects have always been traded, and then you know, they're shared - and it's not always just about being stolen. But it's interesting, because most people's idea of empire really only happens in museums. And the fundamental kind of experience for a lot of people of empire was of theft. And so you guys symbolise something.
There is a tendency to think about repatriation or rematriation as something that's just to do with objects. But it's not just to do with objects, because one of the reasons that countries of origin want those objects back is actually to do with the fact that what's been stolen is not just the object, but the ways in which we could have lived had colonialism not happened. Museums are symbols of possibilities that can never be and that includes how our society looks right now. We live in a society where we still look at other people as un-human and inhuman and we still treat each other in that way. And that is extremely sad. When we think about our larger frameworks and our collective consciousness, what property even means, what human beings even mean, even the definition of what a shared humanity is - museums represent and symbolise and feed into those definitions. And depending on who you are and what histories you bring with you, you're going to have completely different relationships, even with the term ‘shared humanity’. A lot of people would argue what shared humanity? I certainly would, because my experience, even just being in this country, is not one of shared humanity at all, which is why I have sympathy for when you have activists going ‘burn it down!’ When people say ‘burn it down’, it doesn't necessarily mean burn it down in its actuality of like fire, what people are really saying is ‘God, I wish that we were able to live in a world that wasn't the way it is’
As long as we can ethically deal with the objects that we have, and ethically deal with the communities that those objects came from, And also deal with communities has to do with migrants and refugees, and people who are interacting with these buildings and deal with them in a better way we can do, we can do that incrementally, OK sure, that's great. But at the same time, we need to think about how museums can be town halls or centres of transformation, where I think that museums can be these places where we come together to hash it out, essentially.
Sumaya’s call to action rings loud, I would say in the halls of the Ashmolean, but it's a particularly complicated problem in this museum, because it's not only about what we have in our collections here, but also about what we don't.
Let's step back once more into the museum's past. In 1683, Elias Ashmole Straps the contents of the Tradescants’ Ark together with other objects from his own collection into 26 chests, and sets off from London to Oxford on barges. For a long time, the Ashmolean was Oxford University's prime museum. But in the 19th century, the great period of museum-making, its collections were divided up. First, the natural history specimens went to form the core collection of the newly founded Museum of Natural History in the 1860s. But in 1884, the foundation of the Pitt Rivers Museum created another division in the collection, the awkward legacy of which is still felt today. I called up a colleague to tell us more.
I'm Laura van Broeckhoven. I'm the director of the Pitt Rivers Museum.
It’s very good of you to join us. We're thinking about the histories of our institutions and and what that means for our present, and I wonder maybe if you could just tell us a little bit about the founding of the Pitt Rivers Museum and what its purpose was seen to be at its foundation?
That's a very good question. And thank you for having me as part of the conversation Xa, and I think some of the things that we're dealing with almost as a daily element of our work is about sort of the legacies of that history. I would classically sort of answer that he was founded when in 1884 General Augustus Lane Fox Pitt Rivers decided to donate his connections to the University of Oxford. So the general was really well known as a 19th century collector, he had been a general in the British Army where he was really interested in technological evolution, because he sort of saw the introduction of a new kind of gun that had a very different way of loading. And he was interested in how technological evolution took place, and how that always took place in very small, gradual steps.
Inspired by this theory of evolution, he then says, ‘you know what, that Darwinian theory could that also offer a model for technological evolution, and for social evolution.’ He wanted to prove this by showing evolution through form. So he starts collecting guns, boomerangs, and then laying those out in on big sheets, and mounting them in ways that he thought you would be able to see what was the most rudimentary form and what would then be an evolutionary more advanced form. And he did the same with shields, he did the same with clubs. And that's how he would then try to prove the fact that the cultural and social world were governed by laws of science, and that there was a sort of continuum where societies were moving from savagery to barbarism to civilisation, and that could be proven through those forms of objects. And so that was 19th century social evolutionist thinking, that there was an evolution in becoming more civilised from being savage.
And one of the other big drivers for the general that’s important to mention is that he felt this whole idea around evolution and how evolution was gradual to him was really important. Because the revolutions that were happening around that time obviously had to do with who had the right to vote, women's suffrage, more social democracy that was being established in the UK, all of those things. And he felt those were all very dangerous movements. Because the general believed strongly in that evolution could only happen gradually, he felt what was necessary is that laymen and the people needed to be educated about how evolution was a way forward and not revolution, and that's what museums should be doing. My predecessor, Mike O'Hanlon, puts it really well when he describes this as a prophylactic against revolution.
So Laura, could you describe how the arrival of the Pitt Rivers collection in Oxford changed the make-up of Ashmolean?
So when the Pitt Rivers collections arrived at the university, part of the Ashmolean's collections are transferred into the Pitt Rivers collections. And it is decided, according to what the then keeper Arthur Evans said, in quite woolly ways, actually, but he decides to make a division geographically for the collections that are from ‘the European quarter of the globe in which we live, and those Mediterranean and Oriental lands that have influenced its destinies’, as he put it - plus the founding collections of the Ashmolean to be that that would continue to be in the Ashmolean. And that the other three quarters of the world, which I think he describes as the more savage and primitive parts of the world, those would be going to the Pitt Rivers Museum's collections.
So the Ashmolean became Oxford’s museum of Art and Archaeology, while the Pitt Rivers became the museum of anthropology and ethnography. Could you explain what the difference is between these two sets of categories? What was seen to be the difference between art and ethnography?
Yes, I think that's a really good question. I think we all have our problems with seeing those as two different disciplines. So how Evans (and generally across Europe this was interpreted because this is something that we see across most of Europe once ethnographic museums are being established) - it means that the Mediterranean world and some of the Asian world and the European world would have been what would have been seen as archaeology and art, and the ethnographic bit would be would have been everything else. Ethnography would be the study of ethnos of people, describing people and their customs. For the general his intentions and his interests for the Pitt Rivers were very much about objects of the every day. So that was one of the other aspects that makes the Pitt Rivers Museum, a particular kind of collection. It was not so much the aesthetically pleasing objects, or the very ritual objects that are very ceremonial objects, but it was more the objects of the everyday because that was what he felt would prove, most clearly the kind of theories that he had around this evolution in form.
So I think that this social evolutionism was clearly one of the theoretical frameworks that was really problematic in actually obstructing our understanding of human ways of being, ways of knowing, ways of coping. That sort of thinking of the division of a world and how that would then lead to a sort of hierarchy of worthiness and a hierarchy of where people were supposed to sit also in how much power they would have, was really problematic in the moments where colonialism was starting to become more and more industrialised. And around the time that the general’s collections are being formed. That was obviously the main viewpoint was that there were people who were civilised who were helping the people who are barbarians and savages to become better humans. That whole theory was so completely intertwined with how people were experiencing their position in society, and whether they were those that were going to oppress and rule or those that have to serve, and be enslaved and exploited.
That whole system of thinking is a system that is, up until today, one that we are only just starting to question and see whether there's possibilities of moving away from that. And I think why our museums are such great places to do that is because all of that thinking is materialised in objects. And that's why museums can be such a powerful tool.
So the fact is, when you walk through the doors of the Ashmolean Museum, you can be misled. It can feel as if you're walking into a museum of the world.
But that's not true.
The Ashmolean provides a very selective picture of the globe and large parts of it are not represented at all. In other words, we're still living with decisions that were made in 1884, about what counted as civilisation and what didn't. And we're still defined by the gaps that still exist in our collections today.
We clearly can't escape this past, nor would we want to, but I think we do need to acknowledge it and do something about it. And I think the first part is examining not only how we tell our stories, but also who is doing the telling. Here's Reyahn King, the chief executive of the York museums trust, and a leader in decolonizing curatorial practice in this country. We sat down to talk about why it's so important we pay attention to the makeup of our own curatorial staff.
So, for me, it links back to your theme for this whole series. If each episode follows an object, or follows the hands that it's passed through, and its history in the museum, then just let's imagine how different the history of some objects might have been, if curators had not been steeped in the Imperial mindset when they acquired those objects. Firstly, obviously, some objects might not have been acquired at all, objects that are not British might have a completely different set of information with them, and information based on respectful questioning of the people who made those objects or the people who use those objects. So it's a question of a curator’s ability to question, I suppose.
Following on from that, why do you feel that a curator’s ability to question is dependent on where they came from, what sort of person they are and their background?
I think that's a really good question, because I think it's really hard to answer it in a definitive way. I don't believe and would oppose any idea that, for example, a curator of African art has to have an African background, because I think that would close down knowledge, it will close down understanding of each other, it will close down curiosity. There's lots of reasons to oppose that. I suppose the problem facing British museums is that historically, the composition of curators has been so monocultural. And what that means is that the way that curators recycled knowledge, does it from one generation to the next doesn't change.
So the example that I'd give would be at York Museums Trust, we have an object that was accessioned as a dog collar. And curator after curator, generation after generation, just accepted that - until I came along, and asked for more research to be done into that collar, because I had a hunch that it was not a dog collar. And sure enough, it was a slave collar. But the thing that's really cogent here in response to your question, is that when I asked that question, the first time, the curators response was, there's no reason to think it might be anything to do with enslavement, because it's in York, and because the record doesn't say so. So it was accepted as a dog collar.
So I think that willingness to question and not assume is something that, for good or ill, comes with being different to the majority in your museum workforce. So I think that can really help. I absolutely don't want to say that only people with lived experience can curate their own cultures. I'm Cape Malay, I've never even seen a Cape Malay object in a museum - actually only once at the British Museum in a temporary exhibition. Otherwise, I've never even seen anything relevant, so I'm not espousing that. But I think there is that willingness to question and that willingness to not assume that your understanding of the world is the same as the understanding of the world of the maker of an object or the person who was used or forced to use an object.
I think the other really interesting thing about trying to diversify curatorial workforce, is that that may bring a better ability to really think holistically about audiences, and thinking about collections collecting and programme that would be relevant to a wider range of audiences. And I think that would really help us. Certainly I felt when I was at Birmingham that the work that we did to attract Muslim audiences, and the exhibition I did, those were all driven by my being Muslim, and I think it did make a difference. And it made it easier also for me to work with that community and for that community to have a sense of trust as well.
And so seeing yourself as different from the majority of museum curators, it sounds to me like a huge amount of responsibility might therefore feel as if it's resting on your shoulders. I just wonder how you feel about that in the role that you have played through you career within museums.
I felt mixed about that. So at the beginning of my career, I absolutely rejected that sense of responsibility. My passion was for 18th century British art, and that was what I wanted to study, and that is what I studied. However, what ended up happening was that I would see stories that were not being told, or as an art curator, I will see artists who are being overlooked. And I realised that other people were just not going to reveal those artists. And so I think as time has gone on, I've just accepted that that's part of my role. But if you were to ask me, what's my specialism, I still think of it as being 18th century British art.
So clearly, the demand that we diversify our workforce is getting louder, and is being listened to. But I just wonder from where you're sitting how well do you feel the sector is doing and what we still need to do better?
I would say that, as a sector, there's a lot of potential for a much more diverse workforce, building on the talent that's coming through now, which I didn't see when I was at a similar point in my career. But having said that, I think there is a real challenge for museums, and that actually, in some ways, we've worked quite hard to stand still. And I think that's because we haven't been that good at retaining staff from diverse backgrounds. In particular (I can only speak from from my own area of knowledge), but in particular, in terms of people of colour, we haven't retained all of the staff who have come through programmes to include them. And so I think the real question then moves away from the challenge being to diversify, but actually the challenge is to be inclusive, because the reason that people leave is because they don't feel they belong. So actually, it's not enough just to recruit the people, there needs to be a good look at internal culture, to be confident about how much we're going to be enabling people to feel like they belong, and want to stay in succeed. And I think that, you know, there's been a real shift culturally, and the seriousness with which we're thinking not just about diversity, but about what it means to behave in inclusive ways. And I think if the organisation can do that, and demonstrate that, then I can see a much better future developing.
So I wonder what you would say to those people who seem threatened by this approach, and I think are concerned that celebration is replaced by guilt, and that we're being asked to flagellate ourselves around our colonial past which we are not responsible for.
So Xa, I think there is a sense in which a culture war has to be avoided. This is about museums keeping up with history. And not whitewashing history by getting stuck in a historical narrative that new research is now showing to be not very accurate. In terms of that argument about guilt, the emotion around that - well, of course, individuals born in what, 1960 or 70, or 50, or 80, are not personally responsible for our past. But I think along with the United States, I think we are a bit unusual, in that we as a country have not been that good at really interrogating our past. And that includes absolutely celebrations, as well as some re-calibrations of how we talk about things. When I did an exhibition at the National Portrait Gallery, about Ignatius Sancho, that was an exhibition about somebody who was enslaved, who was born on a slave ship. But it was also an exhibition of celebration about what his life became, who he knew, what London was like in the 18th century. And it just brought a richer picture of London together, and a picture that that Londoners today could relate to and have not heard about, perhaps. But it also was of interest to anybody going into that exhibition, because it was just a richer understanding of our own shared past. By being more relevant, we’re better able to engage and we offer our audiences a much more interesting experience.
As Reyahn has pointed out it can be the case that a single curator may not always be equipped to tell the full story of an object. Their expertise and knowledge is, of course, invaluable, but it's just one piece of a jigsaw when we interpret objects.
For a long time museums have characteristically spoken to our visitors rather than with them. And we're coming to realise that because visitors come from all over the world with all sorts of different experiences, that they have their own perspectives which can be just as important as an academic angle when it comes to understanding our collections and how we engage with them. This can be challenging for museums because it does involve reimagining where authority can lie when we come to interpret and communicate about our collections. As Reyahn has also pointed out, the work of decolonisation is not only about facing up to the past violence and trauma, it's also about celebration and creativity.
In our recent exhibition, ‘Owning the Past from Mesopotamia to Iraq’ our curatorial teams took on a new approach to exhibition making. They worked alongside what we call Community Ambassador and workshop groups of local people of Middle Eastern heritage, who all played an active part in shaping the exhibition. Here's one of those ambassadors, Mustafa Barcho, in conversation with community engagement officer Nikola Bird, reflecting on the process.
What was your work at the Ashmolean? What was your Community Ambassador role?
My role has two parts, I mean, that equally was important - one is to communicate with the community and the other one to help the professionals on the Ashmolean to understand the point of the community.
Yes, to me, the Community Ambassador role was a paid role to make sure that the project team was much more deeply connected into a global and local network. And also, to make sure the project team had a much more inclusive approach to what it was doing. So it's based on the premise, nothing about us without us. Because of course, the history of Owning the Past represents is a history of the Middle East. But also it's the history of the UK in the Middle East. And our project team represented those different perspectives coming together. And what what do you think Mustafa, as you were going through it, how did you feel that your role changed what was happening in in the exhibition?
I think it has changed a lot. I think the community contribution has shaped a little bit of the exhibition because we managed to persuade the professionals and the Ashmolean to change the name of the exhibition, from ‘Line in the Sand’ to ‘Owning the Past: From Mesopotamia to Iraq’, so I think the local people has really played a massive role.
So 100 years ago, when French and the British when they divided this area, what used to be part of the Ottoman Empire, that time, they created political reality, part colonialism and part new nation. But it all was about oil, those arbitrary lines has really, really shaped all of us: Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, I mean, those arbitrary lines, you know, people had that colonial power when they came there, and they draw those lines, you know, those lines are not sufficient. So we are changing those lines, you know, those lines are changing every day. Look, ‘Line in the Sand’? Islamic State wiped that land that so there is no line anymore. And when Islamic State arrived in the Middle East 2014 they brought Iraq and Syria together, they said there is no such thing as Iraq and Syria, we are all they call it the country between Damascus and Iraq, and they called is Bilad al-Sham, all Iraq, you know.
At that time, my community, the group that I was working with, you know, I consulted them, and they said they I mean, it doesn't mean much, ‘Line in the Sand’ to us. So we came up with a few different alternative names.
Absolutely. So I think one of the main things that I observed wasn't just the change in of obvious tangible things like the title, from ‘Line in the Sand’ to ‘Owning the Past’, but actually, I observed a change of how you value knowledge. So we have academic knowledge, but actually, we have also knowledge which is based on experience, and knowledge which is based on identity. And how identity because of all the changes in the past and the Middle East, those changes are impacting today's identity and experiences. And I watched the museum staff, I watched that meeting in the middle of listening, and understanding and re-evaluating how you talk about these events in the past, and how you represent events in the past in today's contemporary context. Unless you listen and value all of the different knowledge and perspectives, then you you can't give that full representation. You know, it's very easy for a museum to say ‘the Middle Eastern community.’ Do you feel that that fully represents our contemporary society?
No, I mean, Middle East is so complex, it’s very complicated. It’s like a mosaic, you know. My place, Syria, I mean, Syria itself has like 20, 30 colours in it. So you can't just categorise it as a Middle East and tell this story. You know, I mean, we had a workshop, you know, we had a lady come from Israel and we had a Palestinian, we had an Iraqi woman, the Kurdish guy, I mean, between two Kurdish, you know, the Syrian Kurd and Iraqi Kurds, we still argue about things - who owned that past and who owned that history? I mean, between two Kurds, leave alone the Arab or other parts, you know. And this is great, this initiative that Ashmolean is doing you know, consulting with with the local people and people from that area, and we just don't take from the perspective of the Western country and tell this story from Western perspective because this has massive impact on all of us. The community has been a long term victim of this geopolitical, economical event. Those people are the subject of this history you know, and as Middle Eastern people, me and my friends - and Nicola, you witness that in our workshop - when we sit together instead of having a beer or a pint, we always discuss about geopolitical issues. And this is every day is always the subject will come up, you know that something will come up, it will continue until this institution like the Ashmolean do something to heal those voices.
Working on and following the project, I came to conclusion that I realised how strong the voice of the museum can be, and can change things. I mean, if it was just Mustafa doing a project in a community centre, I don't think you will get anyone to listen to the event. The sense that I got museum has really, really dark past, but that it can fix it. And they can do things differently. And they can really challenge authorities. I think museum can really plant seeds of hope, and can really bring people to it. And it's all about people. And we as a humans, we are the people who are responsible. We are the people who suffer or struggle. This is all about us, us as a people. Not just from the Middle East, you Nicola, and all of us as a people. It's all about us. So we're talking about decolonisation. I mean, the word of decolonisation, I mean, I just, I mean, it's massive. And this is the beginning. I mean, the museum has made a big effort to consult us, and that's great and I appreciate it. But my advice will be in future if they want to do something, they should really advise the people if they want to go forward.
As Mustafa has said, the words to describe our collections really, really matter. They can get to the heart of human experience, or they can get in the way of it.
And of course, you will find words all over the museum on our text panels are on our labels. And museum labels are really important, but they're also really tricky. They have to be brief, they can appear to be objective, but of course are always presenting a point of view.
No one knows this better than Marenka Thompson-Odlum, Research Associate at the Pitt Rivers Museum. Her work focuses on how we can reimagine museum labels.
Colonialism is embedded in labels from the way that we often send the white European male figure, such as anthropologists and archaeologists, instead of the objects and the makers of those objects in the narrative to our use of Eurocentric and colonial place names. Interpretation has the power to include an exclude the power to make a space feel welcoming and unwelcoming. interpretational labelling is not simply the means of passing on information. It's a point where the process of reconciliation and redress can begin. And where we not only learn but where we can question what and how we learn, and challenge our assumptions.
However, colonialism can be extremely hard to see, as it means being aware of all the structures that have shaped how you think, the knowledge you possess, and how you inhabit the world. So even when attempts are made at producing a more truthful narrative that takes into account the colonial past, we often fall short because we don't even realise the multitude of ways that coloniality plays out.
For example, the Ashmolean has taken a decolonial step by drafting a design for a new label for an 18th century French tapestry that was looted from the Chinese Imperial Summer Palace during the Opium Wars. The label acknowledges that this is a work in progress and asks visitors for ideas of how they want to change the dated language from the old 2009 label. While acknowledgement of clear looting, and the collaborative process is a step in the right direction, it only focuses on the generally perceived form of colonial violence, which is war and looting.
However, the insidiousness of coloniality is that its violence was cloaked in forms that weren't necessarily seen as violent. So the new label mentions that the tapestry shows wild animals from South America, but doesn't problematise this imagery, which is also part of the colonial process. You know, those tapestry designs were based on drawings from Natural History expeditions, and a menagerie of exotic animals, which were part of the Eurocentric taxonomic classification, and the colonial trade at that fed into the idea of wealth based on exoticism and othering, respectively. Furthermore, the classification and othering of coloniality weren't only applied to animals and landscapes, but people as well. So both of these concepts illustrate a perceived kind of superiority and ownership over not just the territory, but also over knowledge. So the way forward is to de-centre ourselves and our practice and to listen. Coloniality is essentially about power and control, and to move forward in an equitable manner we need to begin divesting ourselves of those two things.
The Ashmolean has begun to take those steps by asking the audiences and stakeholder communities about appropriate terminology and making certain decisions based on consensus. But it's also realising that the way of in that way of interpretation, you know, a small white square with 75 to 150 of words of black text can be limiting and doesn't always have the capacity to fully activate the objects within the collection. And so we need to start re-imagining all the ways that stories have been and can be shared, because it is not decolonial to ask for diverse narratives to only then package them within a very Eurocentric framework. We have to embrace not just the knowledge, but the way of knowing as well.
So we've identified all sorts of areas in which we can improve our work from our labels to our staffing and our engagement with communities. But there's one other challenge we have to face up to. And that's the call for the restitution of some of our objects.
The strength of museums is in our collections. And it should be said quite loudly that most of these collections are entirely unproblematic in terms of how they arrived here. Most of our Chinese and Japanese objects, for example, were made to be traded on a global market and have been bought and sold and given to the museum entirely uncontroversially.
That said, of course, the forces of wealth and consumerism which brought them here are often the result of power and economic imbalances. And that's nothing new or nothing unfamiliar. The Art Fund, for example, a national charity that supports museums in this country to acquire works of art, was established early in the 20th century inn response to the growing financial muscle of American oil barons who, it was feared, were buying up the contents of English country houses. And even today, they often still ask their supporters to save this or that work for the nation, lest it fly off to Los Angeles, Abu Dhabi or Beijing.
But there is a different category of objects in some museum collections, including the Ashmolean. And that is objects that were stolen or looted. In an upcoming episode, you're going to hear about three such objects, violently taken from the West African city of Benin.
There are objects in our collections which should not be here. To state our position clearly, we do not want to keep objects we shouldn't hold. If the Ashmolean is going to live up to its hope to do things better in the future than it has in the past, we cannot set our face against restitution.
So why don't we send things back the instant we discovered they were stolen? Well, it's not so simple. Every single object requires its own process and has its own complicated story. For example, we're currently in discussion with the Indian High Commission in London about the possible return of two objects, which new evidence suggests may have been stolen, but each of which has very particular questions about their provenance and ownerships, which we simply have to untangle.
Often, one of the most complicated questions is to whom any such objects should be returned to. And the answer is not always obvious. It is our responsibility to identify looted objects, to be transparent about how they got here, and to remove barriers to their return. But then we also have a duty to stop and listen to what different communities and governments might want from us.
Above all, this takes time. But it is time worth taking. This is something Laura van Broeckhoven at the Pitt River is all too aware of.
Sometimes it feels a bit like in the conversations when they're being put very simplistically, it's as if I could just call DHL, pack it all up and send it to respective nation states. Nothing is less true. Most indigenous communities are not waiting for us to talk to the nation states to resolve some of these issues. In fact, in for example, let’s take the Masai as an example, who we've been working with since 2017. Now, to identify some objects that are in our collections, we have a collection of about 188 Masai objects, five of those have been identified by the Masai as really problematic. And for those objects, they would like for us to have conversations around how we could do reconciliation, and return some of those objects to the families they were taken from.
However, none of that we would have been able to identify those objects. We can only do that when we're working with Masai representatives. Clearly the Masai are not just one culture who all speak with one voice. So they all need to talk amongst each other how they want to resolve these situations, they're very different opinions about it. Some think that should all go through litigation. Other think we should all leave it here, and we should not be digging, you know, ripping open old wounds.
And so there's there's a whole range of approaches that are going to be necessary for any form of redress to happen. But the first approach is always going to be, let's be open, let's be transparent. Let's start listening, let's start trying to understand instead of shutting the door and saying, ‘these are our policies, and you'll just have to deal with our policies’. Because I think that is where if we are trying to decolonise and start turning the tables around the power bounds and listening to each other, we need to really start taking this case by case making the time for these processes. And what I've learned is that in the doing the returns, in the conversations that we're having about possibly returning objects, we're learning so much more than we've ever done.
Many of these objects, zero research has been done, they've often not even being put on display, ever. No one was learning anything by that process. And it's while we are doing the conversations, when we are starting to generate new knowledge when we're bringing together these different epistemologies, different ways of knowing, and we're bringing together different historical record is when knowledge is being created, and when understanding is being created. And I think that is what is crucial to what be our for our institutions. And I think that is where to me, finally, we are starting to approach these objects, with a curiosity to understand deeper, and to actually start communicating that to our audiences, seems like a logical next step. It's often frustrating because there's so little information to that we can find historical documents are often very, you know, sort of biased and tainted or limited in what they're actually describing, for example, for some of the Masai objects that to them, when they came out on the table, they were shocked. They couldn't continue any more. They said it's like seeing as if you're putting dead bodies on the table here. And the only information that was attached to them were little cards with a big question mark on them. That was it. To me that sort of showcases how crucial it is and how it brings us closer together as people. I'm very hopeful for the future, but I do realise that we should actually have, you know, a lot more resources to do the work that needs doing.
So as I stand here, at the heart of the museum, looking down at Powhatan’s Mantle, I see a very long road ahead. There’s a long way for us to go, and there obviously isn't any endpoint. Over the next five episodes, you're going to encounter five sets of objects from across the globe, whose paths into our collections and into this museum reveal the often uncomfortable dynamics of power that were involved in creating the Ashmolean. And although some of these stories can be uncomfortable, they're also vital. They are stories which connect us to a vast global web of human experiences, that allow the objects to speak to us in different ways, and with different voices, and encourage that sense of connection. And empathy is, after all, what museums are for.
So as we look towards a more positive future for the museum, I'm going to leave you with the words of our guests today, and their hopes for what museums can be in the future.
I'm really keen to see us not whitewash history by continuing to tell narratives written from a narrow perspective. So it's obviously about engagement, actively encouraging and enabling the participation of audiences and communities into how we present the past how we talk about the past and what we say about the past. So that by being more relevant, and frankly, more interesting, we can work with a wider range of people, but think definitely is going to lead us to a way of working that is much more empowering, much more respectful, a hope, much better able to be meaningful to our audiences.
You can just plant the seed in the museum, and then one day it will grow. And people will see it. So the museum can plant something.
It’s like what you said, you said, you know, objects are magical. But that's the thing is, I really feel that people are very magical. And that we when we come together, we can, you know, we can do a great deal. And and I think that’s again, very symbolically powerful to do it within a museum setting. And for them to be spaces where instead of people feel that they have to occupy museums they are places where we can organise. And as the only way that they can be hopeful places, in my opinion.
Part of me can see all the possibilities. But I also know that currently, it is weighed down by the embedded colonialism, which we will never truly escape. But we can start the process to you know, as I said, have these various ways of knowing within the same place, so that no matter who walks through those doors they can at least have something that one thing that kind of they can identify with and feel a strong connection to. I want it to be a place of joy, you know, a place of joy and a place of questioning, because we always need to question ourselves. That’s the only way that we can not repeat the mistakes of the past.
Thank you for listening to the first episode of Fingerprints from the Ashmolean Museum, and thanks to all our speakers, Xa Sturgis, Sumaya Kassim, Laura van Broekhoven, Reyahn King, Mustafa Barcho, Nicola Bird, and Marenka Thompson-Odlum. You can find links in the podcast notes if you want to find out more about all their work, as well as an image of Powhatan’s Mantle, and more information about Oxford University’s procedures around the return of Cultural Objects. Join me next Friday for our first story, about three masks from Benin City. It’s all about looting, restitution, and the troubling history of who gets to define what counts as ‘art’.