Empire and the New Museum Paradigm

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Unfortunately registration for this event has closed. However,if you wish to be placed on a wait list please email postcolonial2019@gmail.com. If places should come available we will reach out. Warm wishes, Sam

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University of Sussex

University of Sussex

Falmer

BN1 9RH

United Kingdom

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Sales Have Ended

Registrations are closed
Unfortunately registration for this event has closed. However,if you wish to be placed on a wait list please email postcolonial2019@gmail.com. If places should come available we will reach out. Warm wishes, Sam
Event description
Conference exploring complex and provocative research across a number of inter-related questions pertaining to representations of empire.

About this Event

It is widely held that the chronological development of ‘universal’ museums and their collections imitate the contours of imperial history. In recent years, this claim has led many museums in Europe and across the world to reconfigure their focus, appearing as places more inclusive of cultural diversity, in an open desire to move away from their colonial roots.

In this context, collections and their interpretative methodologies are being redefined, leading to re-readings of historical narratives and to the normalisation of curatorial settings appealing to emotions, which sometimes make use of artistic methodologies. Exhibition projects thereby become sites of formation of utopian narratives in which knowledge of the past can be used to shape better presents and futures. In this, museums have become increasingly reliant on external sources – such as artists or communities – to provide the critical work necessary to redefine narratives, interpretations and methodologies.In Britain, the beginnings of this phenomenon can be traced back to the late 1980s, when, fuelled by the discourse of multiculturalism, museums began to re-engage with histories and legacies of Empire, not least because communities that had come to Britain as citizens of Empire in large numbers in the late-1940s and 1950s, and their descendants, began to make demands for better representation both politically and culturally. More recently, the commemoration of the bi-centenary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in 2007, which occurred in a milieu of memory and museum booms, marked a turning point in how museums use memory to engage and negotiate the imperial past.

Traditionally, as Susan Crane notes, the ethnographic or ‘universal’ museum which developed alongside the imperial project, used the concept of timelessness to place non-European peoples outside of memory of advanced civilisation. This not only removed them of their historical dynamism but reduced them to be representable but a few objects that summed up their ‘primitiveness’.[1] Museums in the bi-centenary took a pointedly different approach. Using public engagement and community outreach many museums developed displays on the slave trade in partnership with the groups whose heritage was linked to the history being commemorated. This introduction of multiple perspectives through a collaborative process led to museums incorporating memory and personal testimony to interpret the history and legacies of the slave trade from a subjective perspective. Leanne Munroe has described the power of this as ‘empathetic unsettlement’ where the visitor experiences emotional discomfort upon hearing the pain and suffering.[2] Ultimately, while the application of these new strategies have had mixed success, this represented an important epistemic shift away from the primacy of the curatorial voice and the object in creating visual, textual and aural representations of colonial history towards the democratisation of the museological process as marginalised groups are brought into the memory narrative making process.

Alongside these developments, public discourse around the legacies of the British Empire, and concerns about how Britain’s past is interpreted and represented has become increasingly febrile. ‘Imperial History Wars’ is defined by Dane Kennedy as ‘Contending interpretations of Britain’s imperial past and the meanings it carries for our current condition’. Museums are one arena in which these history wars are conducted, attempting to negotiate contending versions of the British colonial past.

It is with great enthusiasm that this symposium aims to explore this epistemic shift across museums and art galleries more broadly. Our first symposium will focus on the current state of affairs in the UK. We recognise that starting with the UK may seem Anglo-centric. This is not our intention, and we will broaden our geographical scope to include Europe, North American, and the Global South as our network develops.

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[1] Susan A. Crane, Introduction: of Museums and Memories, Museums and Memory, Susan A. Crane (ed), (Stanford University Press, 2000), p.3

[2] Leanne Munroe, Negotiating Memories and Silence: Museum Narratives of Transatlantic Slavery in England, Beyond Memory: Silence and the Aesthetics of Remembrance, Alexandre Dessingue and Jay Winter (eds), (Routledge, 2016), p.180

[3] The ‘post-museums’ was a concept developed by Eilean Hooper-Greenhill to distinguish between the ‘universal’ type museums and a more recent museum model characterised by new architectural forms, focusing more on concerns around power and community engagements, inclusion of multiple-epistemic communities in displays and workshops, and a democratisation of curatorial power.

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University of Sussex

University of Sussex

Falmer

BN1 9RH

United Kingdom

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