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Decolonisation Strategies: Portico Library Curators at Sheffield University

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Radha Kapuria with Helen Idle and James Moss

A chance visit to Manchester’s historic Portico Library in September 2020 revealed a fascinating exhibition on the colonisation of Australia. Titled ‘What it is to be here: Colonisation and Resistance’, this exhibition marks 250 years since the Gweagal people in Kamay (Botany Bay) first encountered strangers, led by Lieutenant James Cook, or ‘Captain Cook’, approaching their shores. 

The exhibition launched in April, and chimed well with the renewed debates around decolonisation and ‘Black Lives Matter’ that followed the killing of George Floyd in May 2020 in the US. In step with these current movements, an exhibition panel also covered poignant photographs from the ongoing ‘Aboriginal Lives Matter’ campaign across Australia. 

As an instructor on Sheffield’s sector-leading undergraduate module, ‘Conflict, Cultures and (De)Colonisation’, I was also struck by how the exhibition’s layout and content were so relevant to our classroom discussions. Our module considers the growth and governance of empires, and the role of decolonisation struggles, in shaping our contemporary world. On approaching Portico Library staff, I was delighted to find a Sheffield History alumnus in the Librarian, Dr Thom Keep. Thom introduced me to the library’s Exhibitions Curator, James Moss, and the force behind the exhibition, Dr Helen Idle, a researcher based at the Menzies Australia Institute at King’s College London. 

My colleagues Prof Siobhan Lambert-Hurley and Dr Esme Cleall, who lead the teaching team on the module, were similarly enthused at the remarkable synergies between the exhibition and especially our rubric for Week 6, on ‘Materiality and Ownership’. During this week we examine the representations of objects–some stolen from indigenous populations across the world–in museums in the West and how they are bound up in histories of colonialism. Slowly, a plan emerged, where the Portico curators would deliver a guest lecture to our students on ‘Decolonising a Museum/Library Exhibition’. This lecture would provide students a window into the curators’ experience of putting together an exhibition that consciously tackled the challenges of decolonising knowledge, narratives and artefacts, through creative and self-reflexive methodologies. 

Western Australian timber samples from Manchester Museum, displayed in The Portico Library’s exhibition. Photograph: Apapat Jai-in Glynn. 

The session with Helen, James, and Apapat Jai-in Glynn (art curator and collaborator on the exhibition) on Thursday 29 October was a massive hit with students. Students were especially interested since their seminar activities for the coming week required them to design their own ‘decolonised’ museum galleries on the British Empire. A series of inventive questions from students ranged from repatriation and the curators’ partnership with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, the impact of the exhibition on other museums, to efforts toward genuine reconciliation in Australia, the ethics of representation in museum displays, and the difficulties of knowledge production through colonial archives. We will now turn to the experiences of Helen and James, as independent researcher and library curator respectively, in assembling this remarkable exhibition at Manchester.

Portico Library curators answer questions (in text form on the right) from students during the Google Meets session at the University of Sheffield on Thursday 29 October. Image Courtesy: Radha Kapuria.

Helen Idle:

When you glance around the open space of the Portico Library your eyes will alight on a black and white photograph. A woman stands tall, wrapped in a blanket with her head bowed. She is covered but for her face, and her voice. Here Rene Kulitja, artist and Traditional Owner of Uluru (the monolithic rock formation in central Australia), performs a story of the colonisation of her people through the very stillness of a photograph. She shows how the English language of the British tries to smother her language, law and culture: ‘But we are not English. We are Pitjantatjara!’

Pulangkita pitjangu (When the blanket came), displayed at the Portico Library, talks back to an official account of James Cook’s 1770 voyage that arrived in Australia. The account, compiled by Hawkesworth (1773) and held in the Portico Library, records the ‘possession’ of Australia for King Geroge III under the assumption of terra nullius – land belonging to no-one. The photograph counters this claim showing that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples continue to survive and thrive in their country. 

Two young children in The Portico Library watching a video of artist Rene Kultja addressing audience members at Lowitja Institute. Above them hangs Rene’s artwork Pulangkita pitjangu.

For Rene Kulitja:

‘The blanket represents an important story with the significance of Captain Cook’s story, it’s on the same level. This is our side of the story.’

Putting these together affords a close re-reading of the account to reveal that Cook and his companions (eg. Joseph Banks) had seen people living along the east coast of Australia.

Shortlisted for the Australian National Photographic Portrait Prize in 2020, the edition on display was made by special arrangement with Rene Kulitja and photographer Rhett Hammerton. It journeyed from Melbourne to Brisbane to Alice Springs to Docker River via Uluru and Kata Tjuta before arriving in Manchester. In the collective effort to bring the photograph to Manchester we see a commitment to a principle of exhibition, ‘nothing about us without us’, and support the work of the artwork, ‘to get the story straight.’

In the words of Rene Kulitja:

‘It’s crucial we make one story out of our shared history, to get the story straight. At the moment, it’s too one-sided, the Cook side is bigger than the Blanket story. Finding a balance is really important for the wellbeing of our children

James Moss:

The Portico Library’s mission is to make its building, history and collection work for all the people of Manchester and beyond, and especially to share experiences and perspectives with and from those excluded by its early membership. Established at the height of British empire-building in 1806, the Library initially served only wealthy, white, male users (albeit including radical progressives, abolitionists and feminists) and overwhelmingly represents their voices among its books and manuscripts. It was central to Manchester’s Industrial Revolution, since it provided 400 of the leading industrialists, inventors and politicians with daily access to news, books and information, plus a space in which they met, networked and did deals, in the years during which Manchester grew from a town of about 60,000 to the biggest industrial city in the world. For the current team, who are committed to nurturing a socially responsible organisation, this unrepresentative nineteenth-century collection creates a challenge, but also an opportunity. By exposing the inequities upon which Britain’s prosperity was built, and those original texts that cultivated the white supremacist systems we inhabit, we can stimulate productive conversations among our visitors and users. 

The Portico Library, exterior and interior. Photographs: James Moss.

Port Jackson/Sydney in 1801. David Collins, An Account of the English Colony in New South Wales from its first settlement in January 1788 to August 1801, 1802. The Portico Library collection.

A view of the exhibition inside the Library. Photograph: Apapat Jai-in Glynn.

To achieve this, we have introduced increasingly collaborative and self-reflexive methods, working with experts-by-experience like Rene Kulitja and directly quoting campaigners such as Mangubadijarri Yanner to offset the obscurantism of the Library’s historic texts and our own inevitable biases. Rene’s photograph Pulangkita pitjangu, collaborative painting and text (Uluru Statement from the Heart) and performance at the Lowitja Institute are all intended to reach across lands and waters, time and place, to call each viewer and reader to action. In a Library whose books contain thousands of words about Aboriginal Australian and Torres Strait Islander people, the very least we can do today is to share words and intentions from artists and speakers like Rene. But this is of course just the start of what is needed. 

Anangu artists with the Uluru Statement from the Heart. From left: Christine Brumby, Charmaine Kulitja, Rene Kulitja, Happy Reid. Photograph: Clive Scollaly.

    A copy of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, as displayed in the Portico exhibition.

As a small charity, our budgets are often stretched, but we have committed to always paying artists and contributors, and covering the additional costs of ensuring legitimate voices are heard. 

The necessity to work with people with first-hand lived experience of exclusion and marginalisation is directly relevant to decolonisation, and translates into institutions ensuring that their work and contributions are well-paid for. To exhibit with Rene, who speaks a Pitjantjatjara language and based more than 1,500km from the nearest city, and in a time zone 9.5 hours distant from Manchester—and whose priorities are distinct from those of exhibition producers in England —factoring in significant extra time between communications was essential. Colleagues like Helen and Apapat who are conscientious and patient but also responsive and adaptable are also vital. 

The process of addressing the enormous imbalances of the history we have inherited does not have an end point. However, the direction we choose can either help perpetuate the privileges that benefit a few while disadvantaging others–especially marginalised communities–or generate new ideas and an enthusiasm for change.

***

The exhibition ‘What it is to be here: Colonisation and Resistance’ is available online to view here.

Radha Kapuria is Leverhulme Early Career Fellow at the Department of History in Sheffield. She researches and teaches cultural histories of South Asia and the Global South, with a specific interest in music and gender history, migration, displacement and borderlands, and conflict, decolonisation and culture. She tweets @RadhaKapuria .

Helen Idle is a Research Associate with the Menzies Australia institute at King’s College London. Her research considers how visual cultures, art, and artefacts work as agents of knowledge production in museums, galleries and libraries. She also produced the exhibition ‘Entwined: knowledge and power in the age of Captain Cook’ at the Portico Library. She uses creative narrative and self-reflexive methodologies to work towards decolonisation within these domains. She tweets @Helen1i .

James Moss is an artist and curator who uses artworks, events and collaborations to interpret collections’ significance with new audiences. He is currently the Exhibitions Curator at The Portico Library in Manchester. He has curated a series of site-responsive co-produced projects to promote and contextualise the Portico’s 19th-century collection, including Made In Translation, and Cut Cloth: Contemporary Textiles & Feminism. The Portico Library tweets @ThePortico .

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Can a single piece of material culture represent the American experience of the Great Depression?

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Exhibitions as a genre rely on representational history; they rely on an object or a constrained collection to represent a much larger set of ideas. Following my study of exhibitions on the Great Depression, I have at times been asked if there is a single object, person, image or event that might best represent the American experience of the Great Depression. The 90th anniversary of the Wall Street Crash, a key event in the onset of the Depression, seems a fitting occasion to once again reflect on this question. My answer is yes, but the object is not one that anyone expects and it is not one that I’ve ever actually found in an exhibition on the Great Depression.

When the National Museum of American History was being renovated (2006-2008) the Smithsonian Institution staged a ‘Treasures’ exhibition. Within that exhibition, the case on the Great Depression held Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother, the radio mic from Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s ‘Fireside Chats’, and substitute currency made of shells. Certainly a strong argument could be made for either of the first two iconic objects taking on the mantle of THE Depression-era material/visual culture.

Radios have been a regular, almost omnipresent inclusion in the exhibitions on the Depression that I’ve analysed, and with good reason. Radios can be used to interpret a range of narratives for museum audiences.  For example, during the Great Depression, radio was the conduit for reassurances sought and offered through the ‘Fireside Chats’ and the soap operas alike. The popularity of shows such as Amos’n’Andy, in which stereotypical black characters were played by white actors in a form of audio blackface, provides insight into the racism inherent in American society at the time.  But within an exhibition a radio must be turned on or explained to fully convey its power. It lacks the silent gravitas of the FSA photographs.

So perhaps Lange’s Migrant Mother is a better choice. Certainly it is a recognizable, emotional Depression moment captured by a skilled artist, who, at the time, was employed by one of the largest federal relief efforts in history. Yet even Migrant Mother and the other FSA images come laden with the weight of decades of being repurposed, reframed, recut.

There is a strong argument that rather than adopting a single iconic object, it is better to embrace the juxtaposition found in the best exhibitions and the dialectic between objects: a photograph, a radio broadcast, a soup-kitchen kettle, plans from a New Deal housing project, a union badge, a Federal Theatre playbill, a copy of the Grapes of Wrath or Tobacco Road. All of these have been used in combination to great effect in various exhibitions on the era.  Yet, despite the fact that it is yet to appear in any exhibition I have visited, I believe there remains one potential object that more fully captures America during the Great Depression.

Conducting the research on museum exhibitions involved travelling from California to Michigan, to New York, to Washington D.C., to Seattle.  All these flights, bus rides and train trips in turn spawned numerous brief conversations with temporary travelling companions. The exchanges usually began with “What brings you to…?” Upon hearing mention of the Great Depression, a surprising number related that their grandmother, or uncle, or next-door-neighbor had lived through the Depression, and for years afterward kept an ever-growing ball of string. Small pieces were collected and preserved, with little concern to color or weave, as insurance against some ill-defined, ill-articulated future disaster.

As bad a crisis as the Great Depression proved to be, for the majority of Americans, it did not result homelessness, or breadlines, or a job with WPA. But it did entail a pervasive sense  of uncertainty and vulnerability and a fear that one could be next. Even as the crisis seemed to ebb, there was a fear that the effects could spread further and devour those homes, those workplaces, as yet untouched. These balls of twine, hidden in kitchen pantries and workbench drawers are the material culture of the lasting effects of uncertainly, of fear, of exposure to risk and of attempts, however small, to mitigate that exposure.  As such, even more than the radio, or the FSA images or a hundred other powerful objects, these are quintessential objects of the American experience of the Great Depression.

Dr Meighen Katz’s research interests include urban history, architectural conservation, built heritage, transgressive women & visual culture.  Currently a Heritage Assessments Advisor for Heritage New Zealand Pouhere Taonga, she formerly served as the Ian Potter Museum of Art Grimwade Curator, and lectured at several universities in Melbourne, Australia. Her book, Narratives of Vulnerability in Museums (Routledge) was published in 2019.

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Are museums really ‘hiding’ the imperial past?

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In 1903, this postcard was delivered to the engineer’s office in Paddington railway station, sent by a former colleague from Cape Town. The engineers stuck it into their office scrapbook, nicknamed Enginorum, which currently lives in the archives of the National Railway Museum (NRM), where I discovered it whilst on placement planning a fictitious exhibition.

As a student interested in women’s experiences of imperialism, I have long believed that museums should be doing more to engage with the British Empire and I was drawn to the picture immediately. It completely encapsulates the way imperialists interacted with and viewed colonised women.

In writing “The prospective Wives of” the engineers, the sender eroticises these women and assumes their ownership. As this was a prevalent attitude across the Empire, I desperately wanted to include the image in my exhibition.

Given the critiques that museums are ‘hiding’ the imperial past, I was pleasantly surprised to find that all NRM staff I spoke to actively encouraged me to include it in my exhibition. Like me, they all seemed to believe that museums should be more engaged with the British Empire.

Why then had they failed to do so?

In my exhibition planning I was to discover a few possible reasons why. Coming across questions – practical, intellectual, and ethical – that my academic work had rarely forced upon me, issues that left me constantly switching between including the postcard and discarding it.

When presenting my exhibition plan, a colleague asked me ‘What would you do if your funding was halved?’. The main floor of the NRM is open plan, which means it can become quite loud and chaotic when the museum is busy. I decided to build cladded walls around my exhibition so that I could provide a closed-off, quiet space in the museum.

This, I hoped, would give visitors a private area to seriously reflect upon the history of the British Empire. The cladding would likely have been the most expensive part of the exhibit. Meaning that I would have had to remove it if funding was cut. Given its intended function, to provide a quiet space for reflection, this would likely have led me to forgo the display of imperial objects.

This conflict between what staff thought should be displayed and what funding would allow played out repeatedly. I frequently heard of wonderful objects, both imperial and non-imperial, which had truly amazing stories but could not be displayed as they did not fulfil the objectives of a grant.

An advisor to the former British Empire and Commonwealth Museum once said that ‘nobody wins plaudits for funding exhibitions on empire’. Perhaps, then, the charges made against museum staff of ‘hiding’ the imperial past are over-simplistic, unfair even, and should also be directed at funding bodies.

Visitor reactions to the postcard also concerned me. Not because I was afraid of criticism for discussing the Empire. I would have openly embraced the debate. Instead, I was worried about how people would look at the bodies of the women depicted.

In a museum visited primarily by school children, I was fearful that the naked breasts would turn my exhibition into a joke. This would recreate the power imbalance in the original image by reducing the women and their bodies to the source of amusement for a second time.

Initially, I thought that I could use this to my advantage. I could teach the public about how the very act of looking is inherently marred by our own prejudices. However, object labels, I was advised, are best kept to around fifty words to retain a visitor’s attention. A word count which includes the object’s name, reference number, and date. There was no way I could have discussed such a complex issue in such a short space.

Also, the women of the image look uncomfortable and their stances appear forced. To me, it looks like they were coerced into being photographed, so had little power in the production of the image. Was I further stripping them of agency by exhibiting them for a second time?

Plus, in thinking that I had a right to decide whether to display their bodies, wasn’t I just assuming the same level of ownership over them as its original sender? This was an ethical dilemma that resurfaced when deciding whether I should even include the image here.

I still passionately believe that museums should be doing more to discuss the British Empire. But museums are complex institutions facing countless financial, political and moral pressures. It is this multifaceted nature that I believe is largely responsible for their imperial silence.

Not once at the NRM did I feel discouraged from talking about Empire, nor did I witness any deliberate attempt to hide the past.  Instead, I found like-minded people frustratingly trapped between the history they wanted to tell and the history they could tell.

Hannah Silvester is a MA student at the University of Sheffield. Her interests lie in gender history in late colonial and postcolonial South Asia. Hannah’s current work focuses on using Muslim women’s literature as a historical archive of nationalist and feminist thought in the years prior to and immediately after the partition of 1947.

Feature Image: National Railway Museum, Enginorum, p. 79. © Science Museum Group

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