The Museums team and I have been busy working on the Re-collecting Empire project for nearly a year now. This preparatory work is often under-visualised within the final, public-facing outputs of any project, and decisions can feel quite tentative without much outside input. So it was exciting to have the opportunity recently to share our ideas with two external groups.
We held our first advisory panel, made up of University staff and students, external museum professionals and academics; and we hosted a workshop with an invited group of St Andrews academics who hold research expertise in histories of slavery, empire and colonialism. Both were incredibly inspiring.
Our advisory panel challenged us on our use of language and our definitions of key terms such as decolonization. They emphasized to us the importance of working with communities of origin and diaspora communities in Scotland, and they advised us on the support that may be needed to manage any negative responses to the project. Interestingly, one panel member questioned which empire we were referencing to, and whether there were implicit assumptions present in the working title to the project. But the academic workshop helped to show us that any focus on a singular empire may be counterproductive, since imperial histories are always entangled and often interdependent. Traces of multiple empires are present in our University collections, and affective histories of empire and slavery connect these multiple pasts to the contemporary experiences of different members of our St Andrews community of staff and students. From Mexican coins to magic lantern slides via fish specimens, our academic workshop helped to broaden out our scope of enquiry and filled us all with a sense of excitement for the next stages of the project.
The Recollecting Empire project is an important part of our strategic objective to tackle institutional legacies and work for a more inclusive and equitable future. With a specific focus on Scotland, Re-Collecting Empire will explore present-day entanglements of cultures resulting from colonial encounters in the past, and how creative responses can add new dimensions to heritage objects through examining, re-telling their narratives with a diverse set of audiences.
Written by Dr Emma Bond, Reader in Modern Languages, University of St Andrews