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Why are we Re-collecting Empire?

Re-collecting Empire exhibition logo ©University of St Andrews Libraries and Museums

Empire has some tangled legacies. For some people colonial expansion brought glory, power and a great deal of wealth. For others it spelled disaster. And there were many people who occupied positions in between these two extremes.

These legacies are also still with us today, in street names, memorials, statues, and the buildings that surround us. If you look in your kitchen cupboards you’ll probably find products that became popular as a result of the British Empire’s expansion, like tea, chocolate and sugar. You’ll get a hint of it through who has power and influence today, and the power structures that usually dictate this.

You’ll also see these legacies in museums. In many museums some of the objects on display or in storage came to the collection from imperial or colonial contexts, legitimately or otherwise. These objects embody stories of peoples, countries and cultures who were subsumed into one empire or another. Some museums were specifically established to tell stories of empire, or to demonstrate the power of colonialists over the colonised.

Museums still perpetuate these legacies, and this can still cause hurt. The stories we tell about objects from colonial contexts can ignore or marginalise the voices of those who used or made them; the way objects are stored might be disrespectful to the originating culture. We might misunderstand an object completely.

Chinese Bell used in sacred and royal ceremonies, Courtesy of the University of St Andrews Libraries and Museums, ID: ET1977.110

Some of these things are a result of how these objects were acquired, and how they have been studied and catalogued since then. In St Andrews the first University museum was established by members of the Literary and Philosophical Society in 1838, who filled it with objects from around the world. Some of the people who gave things to the collection had lived and worked in colonised countries, but the information they recorded about an object was often scant, saying little of what it was or how it was acquired. A bell acquired at this time, for example, is recorded in the Society’s minutes simply as “hand bell” from China; nothing else is said about how it was obtained, which part of China it comes from, or what its original use was. The truth is that it’s not a hand bell at all, but part of a much larger set played with hammers, and in sacred and royal ceremonies. Described as a “hand bell”, this object was reduced to being a curiosity, its cultural importance removed.

This lack of information makes responding to the legacies of empire that we find in our collections difficult. Nevertheless, we believe that it’s important to tackle those legacies. That’s why we have written into our strategic plan that one of our goals at the Museums of the University of St Andrews is to “tackle institutional legacies and work for a more inclusive and equitable future”. Re-collecting Empire is a central part of this. However, the exhibition is not the end of this process; rather, it’s a statement of progress and of intention, as well as a starting point for conversations that we need to have.

The Re-collecting Empire exhibition at the Wardlaw Museum is the result of a lot of careful thinking and consultation about how we tackle the colonial legacies in our collection. It’s one of our first attempts to explore these stories publicly and trial new ways of telling them, with the voices of those who have often been excluded at the forefront.

Behind the scenes the Museums team have been doing provenance research to better understand when, how and in what circumstances objects came into the collection – a painstaking but important step in tackling those legacies. We’ve been talking to different communities to know how we should store and display the collections, and what the stories we should be telling about them should be.

The exhibition is a part of the process. We will probably get things wrong, but we will learn from it, listen to our visitors, and improve so that we really can work for a more inclusive and equitable future. It is part of a wider programme of work within the University, and one that will continue after the exhibition closes, building on the conversations we hope to have in the coming months.

Written by Dr Catherine Eagleton, Director of Libraries and Museums, University of St Andrews