Last month I visited the British Museum’s new ‘Collecting and Empire’ trail, which ‘shows the different, complex and sometimes controversial journeys of objects that would become part of the Museum collection’. I wrote up some of my thoughts for this month’s issue of Apollo Magazine, which you can read either in print or online here.
In 2017, while working as an Assistant Curator in the V&A’s Metalwork section, I was asked to curate a temporary display of the museum’s Ethiopian collections to coincide with the 150th anniversary of the battle at Maqdala in April 1868.
This battle between British and Ethiopian forces was the culmination of the 1867-8 British Expedition to Abyssinia (as Ethiopia was then known in Britain), which was followed by widespread looting of churches, libraries and the royal treasury. Many sacred and valuable objects were brought back to Britain as a result of the expedition and there have been calls for their return to Ethiopia ever since. I was asked to develop a display which would tell the story of Maqdala while highlighting some of the most important Ethiopian objects in the V&A collection, and which would begin to address the controversy surrounding their presence in the museum’s collection.
This was my first experience of curating a museum display, and prior to being given this project I was not at all familiar with the V&A’s Ethiopian collections or with the events that took place in 1868. However, working on the display sparked my great interest in the art, history and culture of Ethiopia, as well as broader issues with museums and their attitudes to objects that represent violent histories of looting, colonialism and racism. This work eventually led me to pursue my current PhD studies on the Ethiopian Collections at National Museums Scotland.
The display, which opened on 5 April 2018 and closed on 30 June 2019, was not the first time the museum had explored its Ethiopian collections. The 2010 display Ethiopian Sacred Art, curated by Louise Hofman, and the major 2012-13 display Exploring Hidden Histories by Zoe Whitley and Nicola Stylianou, had featured many of the same objects and made mention of the same events. Both of these displays followed on from the 2005 Heritage Lottery Funded project Capacity Building and Cultural Ownership led by Helen Mears, which prompted a renewed focus on African objects in the V&A collections. Maqdala 1868 was an opportunity to once again present these collections to the public while bringing the Maqdala story even more prominently to the forefront.
From the very beginning, I felt strongly that it should not be solely my voice speaking on behalf of ‘the museum’ to interpret these objects for the public. I therefore worked closely with the museum’s Interpretation team to incorporate a broad range of voices in the display, both to tell the story itself and to highlight how important and meaningful these objects are to so many people in Ethiopia, in London, and beyond.
Janet Browne, the V&A’s Programme Manager for African Heritage and Culture, has been doing incredible work at the museum for over a decade, including producing its regular African Heritage Tours and programming important museum events for London’s African and Caribbean communities. Janet had organised several projects with members of the Ethiopian and Rastafarian communities before, and so she was able to bring together a focus group in January 2018 comprising historians, community leaders and activists to give their thoughts on the upcoming display. At this focus group we discussed the story that the display would tell, and the key messages that would be most important to include in the interpretation. The biggest takeaway from this focus group was that it would be extremely disappointing if the museum was seen to be shying away from the topic of looting, or the repeated calls for the repatriation of the objects.
I later invited members of this group, along with other contacts I had made while researching the display, to contribute labels giving their own thoughts and personal responses to the objects. Historic quotes from primary sources – both British and Ethiopian – were also included alongside, to show a range of contemporary responses to the events at Maqdala.
There are, of course, many problematic implications of incorporating external voices in a display of this nature, particularly those from communities who are otherwise very much absent amongst the museum workforce. These labels allowed the display to push certain boundaries and say much more than would have been possible with just my own researched and heavily-edited texts. For example, while the museum was reluctant to allow me to use the word ‘loot’ in the labels that I had written, one of the external contributors was able to use this word in his own response to the objects.
The input of these individuals was a major part of what ultimately made the display noteworthy, and allowed it to make a powerful statement which I believe still resonates in the museum today. However, this also exemplifies one of the major criticisms of such approaches to ‘co-curation’ or ‘community curation’: museums often to turn to members of marginalised communities to do the difficult work for them, when so few members of those communities are on its permanent payroll.
This approach to labelling resulted in much more text than is typical for a small temporary display, and the V&A’s Design team worked hard to ensure that this complex narrative was presented as clearly as possible. A distinct colour scheme helped to differentiate between the three types of label, and to avoid the suggestion of any kind of hierarchy, all labels were printed at the same size, in the same font, and placed side-by-side in the case.
The interpretation was generally well received. The Museum of Marco Polo on Twitter described the display as ‘a showcase full of voices’, but artist and curator Shaheen Kasmani questioned the language used in the some of the labels and the avoidance of words such as ‘stolen’ or ‘looted’. While at the time of curating this display the museum was reluctant for me to use those words in the labelling, I believe that the thinking around this has since moved on, and the museum is gradually becoming more accepting of using such terminology.
Overall, I believe that the display was a great exercise in tackling some of the challenges that museums face when confronting their colonial and imperial histories, but it was only a first step, and over the two years since the display first opened the conversation has been moving on very quickly. Before leaving the museum in late 2019, I took steps to ensure the labels from the display, including those written by external contributors, were recorded in the museum’s Collections Management system and on its Search the Collections pages.
I also published an article in African Research and Documentation (135, 2019) summarising the history of the V&A’s Ethiopian collections and charting the different ways that they have been displayed over the years, including the earlier displays of the past decade as well as my own efforts. I am all too aware of how quickly these projects can become forgotten within institutions, and I am keen that the next curator or assistant curator who is asked to work on these collections does not have to start all over again from the beginning.
The 2019 display of Ashante Goldweights was the museum’s next project to address the subject of looting and colonial violence in the context of its collections. This display went even further than ‘Maqdala 1868’ in openly confronting and discussing these issues in its interpretation. However, two temporary displays cannot tackle such huge topics single-handedly, and my hope is that the lessons learned from such displays will eventually be folded into the museum’s permanent galleries.