In Plain Sight: Decolonising the Museum

Detail from Joy Gregory’s The Sweetest Thing (2021)

Anabelle Howorth, Alex Jones, and Tim Robertson

As students on the British World module at Exeter we recently discussed why the place of the colonial past has become so contentious over the last thirty years. In doing so, we considered the concerns of the ‘new museology’ in seeking to make museums fora for public engagement and discussion of this past. We also considered recent attempts to raise awareness of the region’s connections with colonialism, such as the ‘In Plain Sight’ exhibition at the RAMM in Exeter, which traces Devon’s connections with the Atlantic slave trade. The exhibition does an excellent job of providing a new understanding of the overlooked connections between places we see everyday and one of the darkest episodes in history. In particular, Joy Gregory’s commissioned work, ‘The Sweetest Thing’ highlights the connections between local wealthy families and slavery in the Caribbean. The tapestry includes compensation figures, which were awarded to claimants by the British government following the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833. Knowledge of the huge sums awarded to former slave owners has become more widespread over recent years through the digitisation of records by the Legacies of British Slave Ownership project but it is still rare for a regional museum to feature this history prominently.

As part of the module we were asked to develop a plan for an exhibition focused on the history and legacies of settler colonialism, taking account of recent museum practices. Building on the approaches of the ‘Unsettling the Australian Landscape’ exhibition, which recently visited Plymouth, we decided to develop a plan for an exhibition focused on Maori history in New Zealand. Our plan would be to spotlight perspectives which British audiences would be unfamiliar with. The exhibition would consider questions of how and why settlers collected ‘knowledge’ about Maori culture and how this continues to shape understandings of indigenous New Zealand. Settler fascination with ‘Maoriland’ was one of the main factors which initially developed the country as a tourist destination and we would explore how these legacies continue to shape New Zealand tourism today. The exhibition would also focus on forms of representation which seek to offer indigenous perspectives on the past such as videos where visitors could learn about Maori oral traditions. We would also seek to enable visitors to interact with Maori art and material culture, building on the RAMM’s Tonga exhibition in 2015. We are keen to avoid offering a straightforward story of change over time, which might suggest a relatively smooth transition from colonialism to ‘decolonisation’. In doing so, we considered recent practice in the National Museum of Australia’s ‘Talking Blak to History’ exhibition, which avoids ordering exhibits chronologically and focuses on presenting decolonisation as an ongoing and contested process.

Ihumātao land protest, New Zealand, c.2019

Our plan would be to present Maori history from an environmental perspective. The recent controversy over land use at Ihumātao, in Auckland, in particular, would be used to think about how debates over the landscape are still very much entangled with the settler colonial past (the land was seized by the government during the New Zealand Wars of the 1860s). The Ihumatao issue speaks to a larger debate about what is classed as ‘heritage’ in modern day New Zealand and the relative value which is given to colonial and indigenous sights. Such debates have a broader significance for Britain too, as we are living through a time in which the place of the colonial past in public heritage is being constantly reappraised.