Skip to main content

Colonial museums indoors and outdoors

Stories and News No. 1301

There are various types of museums, you can say that for everything, the premise is easy but the consequences are not. Otherwise, everything would be different.
Otherwise, I'd be living in a different country.
However, for the sake of simplicity, we could say that museums are of only two types, for the use of this short story.
First there are those indoors, trivially. And among them, in the colonial – or rather anti – branch, I like to mention the exhibition From Local to Global recently set up at the Scarborough Art Gallery, in the namesake English town in North Yorkshire.
In the presentation of the event on the gallery's official website there is a fundamental note, which warns visitors to be aware that the exhibition presents a collection of objects that contain images and descriptions of racial exploitation. In the rest of the message, the organizers explain that they have taken this decision to help the public better understand British racist attitudes as a legacy of the colonial past.
We have tried to approach this material with sensitivity, it concludes, but visitors may find some elements shocking. Others, in the UK and around the world, may find them more than normal, I might add. Indeed, absolutely acceptable, more than tolerable and even just.
In other words, there are different museums, as well as memories of the past, and how to manage, face and learn from them.
When they discovered these elements about ten years ago behind a blocked door, the organizers could have left everything as it was and ignored this embarrassing discovery, but instead the choice was to bring the light of remembrance and perhaps condemnation, if the conscience requires, to that dusty and suitably obscured corner of the common memory. In order not to repeat the same mistakes in the future, we could say by repeating the usual refrain, however, I believe that the real problem does not concern tomorrow, but everything that has continued to be done undisturbed yesterday and the day before yesterday up to and including today.
The exhibition mainly contains objects from Colonel James Harrison's personal archive and recounts the ways in which the museum itself and other institutions profited from colonialism.
There are hunting trophies such as elephant tusks, as well as photographs and celebratory annotations of these alleged exploits.
The report that I find most horrific concerns Harrison's idea of kidnapping – let's use the right words – four men and two women of the Mbuti ethnic group to take them around the country in a sort of human zoo, as Dorcas Taylor the curator of the exhibition defined it.
It seems that at least a million people has witnessed and I imagine applauded this abomination. Because, I repeat, such a horrendous spectacle, a hellish nightmare for the victims sacrificed to the mockery of the colonialists, was considered normal, just as an infinity of aberrations against people considered inferior is still accepted today.
As a last tragic footnote to this infamous circus, one of the women, named Amuriape, was apparently pregnant and in 1906 she gave birth to a baby girl, who unfortunately was born dead. Her mother had been forced to perform in front of monsters disguised as spectators up to two days before.
There would be much more to say about the importance of these museums, but I would like to draw attention to the other kind, the open-air exhibitions, because they concern us all, regardless of origins. In Italy we call them cities, like Rome where I live, or historical centers of history written perhaps too hastily, without taking the necessary time to discover where the traces of blood left by one's obtuse marching on the lives of others led; of illustrious and polished roads and ornate and celebrated squares; of streets plaques and monuments to incense the presumed military valor of those who set out to conquer and plunder. And if necessary, torture and exterminate.
In my humble opinion, the aspiring curators of the exhibition are in short supply, here, with the difficult task of bringing a little light beyond the barred door of our common memory. But first of all it is necessary to jot down the latter, otherwise the effort is in vain.
In a small way I'm trying, even though I know I'm neither the first nor the only one, but we need all the help possible, because we need to remember the past in the same way, otherwise we will live in separate presents and far away, and we will be doomed to build futures that can't help but collide with each other...

Subscribe to Newsletter