Black Lives Matter: The Role of Museums

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The next in our continuing series of blogs inspired by the BLM movement from students and staff is from Catriona, who has just completed her second year of study with us. 

As another middle aged, middle class white person, I also wondered what contribution I could make to the quest for change, the need for diversity, the end of racism and BLM.

Studying the Empires Through History (HIS2009) module this year has shed more light for me on some of the historical factors, views and agendas driving today’s issues. Of particular note was a documentary recorded in the 1980s recording the views of white English women who had either lived or been brought up in India during the age of the Empire.

It was shocking on two levels – firstly, their unquestioning support of apartheid, privilege and secular community. But more that I recognised those views from my own childhood attending secondary school in the 1980s. There has absolutely been progress in my lifetime, which has seen the end to apartheid in Africa amongst many other positives. But it’s too slow, too eager to celebrate success and still too dominated by middle class white people like me!

The current focus on the tragic implications of racism in today’s society and the resultant focus on statues celebrating key figures from the Empire or success built on the slave trade has raised the issue of how history and contemporary culture can sit comfortably together. It has been mooted that statues considered inappropriate for display are relegated to Museums, rather than vandalising, removing for protection or ditching in the sea.

As a Trustee of the RAF Museum, one thing I am able to do, is ensure that this issue is firmly on the agenda. A Trustee’s role is to use their skills and experience to ensure that the Museum is governed responsibly and as an individual, I want to be comfortable that I am representing an organisation that represents my values and beliefs. As a result, I wrote to the CEO and Chair yesterday to ask whether the Museum has any controversial artefacts, whether we wanted any donated by other organisations and what our position on racism, diversity and Black Lives Matter is.

One question we could ask academic historians in the making is where we draw the line? Public history often remembers those that did what we see as extraordinary – challenged frontiers or fought other nations for land or wealth, Including the subjugation and killing of others.

Do we need to judge whether they were morally right or wrong with the benefit of further civilisation? Many tombs, effigies, statues, portraits, artefacts related to the monarchy, government, education, technology, art, literature, media and most other areas of our culture would need to be destroyed and erased from history.

This raises questions for me about the role of history in modern society and where it sits versus current issues we are struggling with. But also, how we give a voice to the oppressed in history, those people who suffered at the hands of violence, subjugation, oppression, injustice, inequality, decimation of their cultures, history and way of life.

Surely Museums must record the reality of history, what is perceived to be right or wrong, whilst also considering it from the benefit of further enlightenment in modern times? For me, this includes broad representation of collection content and storytelling to reflect the variety in society past and present, which may mean being more innovative and creative in giving a voice to those who were disregarded at the time.

In response to the issues I raised, I was both professionally and personally comforted by the response from the RAF Museum CEO, who is also President of the Museum Association which represents many of the nation’s museums. Acquisition and disposal of museum collections is strictly governed, but items are have historically been donated without provenance or relevance to display themes.

For example, the RAF Museum has a store of over 20,000 documented items which are not on display – they may be too fragile, require attention, be lacking in data, provenance or cohesion with key display collections. Amongst these is just one object that could be considered contentious, and I’m pleased to say that the museum are working on how they dispose of it appropriately. The Museums Association also made a statement on the Black Lives Matter movement, which the RAF Museum is aligned to stated:

The MA stands with all people of colour in the fight against racial injustice and inequality. The recent killing of George Floyd highlights the need for real change in how we address racism and diversity as a society and in our museums.  

We acknowledge that museums have an important role to play in recognising and challenging historic oppression and that our collections, knowledge, independence and ethics can be used to highlight the issues that matter to our communities and wider audiences. 

The MA’s vision is for inclusive, participatory and sustainable museums at the heart of our communities. We believe that museums can make a significant contribution to public conversations on contemporary issues such as decolonisation, inequality and racism. We also believe that museums have a responsibility to support the workforce within our organisations and creating space for the lived experience of our colleagues. 

Museums have a critical role to play in building a society that is diverse, inclusive, tolerant and respectful and the MA will continue to support them to do that.  SMT 

Read in full here: https://www.museumsassociation.org/museums-journal/news/01062020-call-for-collective-anti-racist-action-black-lives-matter-protests

I agree with these objectives and sentiments, but it needs more pressure to ensure that this is not just rhetoric, but happens in a way that has real authenticity, not just a view from those white, middle class people. To the young Historians amongst us, I would really encourage you to engage with museums as volunteers, supporters or Trustees and make your voices heard to guide the future of the role Museums have in preserving and conserving history in a way that reflects our contemporary culture.

Catriona, BA History second year, University of Northampton 

 

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