Action Shot- photograph courtesy of J.R Marxen.
At the end of June I attended the Challenging Histories Network’s Conference, entitled ‘Commemorating Challenging Histories.’ I delivered a paper there about the challenges when representing antislavery history in museums, and in particular discussed the many problems that were associated with the 2007 commemoration efforts for the bicentenary of the abolition of the British slave trade- more of that later. The conference, held in Cardiff at the university and National Museum of Wales, had a large audience of museum professionals and academics from across the UK and Europe. I listened to lots of fascinating presentations, ranging from examinations of different commemorative practises relating to the First World War, to histories of children in care, the challenges faced by museums telling refugee histories and discussion on the role of the museum today. Although all very different, listening to all the case studies and projects the delegates described, it seemed that there was a set of key themes that linked them all, and relate more widely to this idea of a challenging history.
A history which is deemed challenging is one that forces us, as individuals and as a society, to consider our own humanity, or inhumanity, and the processes involved in the way we remember, forget, apologise, own and repatriate these narratives (Kidd, 2014, p1). Often they are challenging by their subject matter, but it may also be due to ‘the agendas they reveal, the political debates they feed into and stem from, the emotions they engage’ (Kidd, 2014, p1). However difficult it might be though for the public to engage with these histories, they cannot simply be ignored- many of them have continuing legacies and resonate with people across different communities, cultures, classes, genders and geographic boundaries. Museums then face their own challenge in what to do with these histories, and how to do it in a time which is looking increasingly difficult regarding the future of the museum.
One of the themes which really stood out to me at the conference was this idea about what the role of a twenty-first museum is, and what it should be. This discussion is central to my own work, looking at how museums use their historic collections to facilitate visitor engagement with the ongoing antislavery campaign- is this appropriate, that museums act as a campaign space? What are the issues with doing work like this? What other stakeholders need to be involved? One panel at the conference addressed the idea of an ‘activist museum;’ an institution which is there to inform and empower visitors to make changes, driven by interpretation of social and political issues The idea that challenging histories can be directly employed in this way was shown in several papers over the course of the conference. As described previously, one of the issues associated with histories that qualify as ‘challenging’ are their lasting legacies in society, often negative, divisive and controversial issues. The use of these legacies as discussion points in interpretation, connecting the past strongly to the present, is definitely an instance where the activist museum idea can be made use of, allowing visitors to deepen their understanding of a challenging history, and also facilitating them to have their own discussions about how to deal with the associated legacies into the future. Should this become a normal part of museum practise, which I think eventually it will, I think this could lead to exciting partnerships with both community groups who may at the moment feel somewhat disenfranchised towards museums and their interpretation, and with other campaign organisations.
Another thought which struck me whilst listening to several of the papers was the extent to which commemorative efforts in museums seem to be driven by an underlying pull of commercialisation. In my own paper, I discussed how in 2007 there was the biggest nationwide commemoration across museums relating to the bicentenary of the abolition of the British slave trade that the UK had ever seen, with over 200 museums providing interpretation on the topic in the form of exhibitions or educational activities. There were, however, many other significant events that could also have been commemorated in that year, for example the three-hundred year anniversary of the anglo-scottish union, the twenty fifth anniversary of the Falkland’s War and numerous events in British imperil history, relating both to conquest and independence. Interestingly though it was the abolition bicentenary that was vastly commemorated, perhaps leading one to question the motivations for this. In one way the money made available by the government (some £20 million) and the vast media uptake of the story was a real pull. Unfortunately, what we see now is the fickle nature of these commemorations, with museums quickly dismantling the 2007 displays (except in a minority of cases where they have been added to and more emphasis turned on the local connections of the slave trade and abolition movement) in order to be ready for the next set of commemorations. Currently, and this was very evident at the conference, we are going through the same thing with efforts to commemorate the centenary of WWI. It will be interesting to see how long the interpretation both in terms of exhibitions and education programmes lasts following the conclusion of the commemorations in 2018. Surely, a question must then be raised as to the value of these commemorative efforts aside from the commercial one? If these histories are so important as to be commemorated in such a big way, then surely they should form a much bigger part of our usual narratives?
Finally, I think the most obvious thing to come out of the conference, for me, was the decision we, as museum professionals and as a society, keep making to avoid discussing/interpreting challenging histories. Commemorations, like those discussed in all of the papers, are a good example of when it has been deemed ‘okay’ to talk about these challenging histories, particularly ones with ongoing legacies still shaping today’s society. Challenging histories whatever they address, be it the British Empire, the Holocaust, war, slavery, are essential narratives in our past, as individuals, communities, nations and even globally. Because of their lasting legacies it is even more important that we continue to talk and learn about them. David Anderson (Director of National Museum Wales), in his key note speech, highlighted the privileged position that museums are in with their ability to be spaces where people can talk about these issues. With the conference taking place only shortly after the Brexit vote, he also went on to say that as a nation we need to begin to think hard about our cultural identity, and how it may change following that decision. A reassessment of our challenging histories must surely form part of this reimagination, with museums working to tackle some of the remaining difficult legacies, historical narratives will become firmly tied to our modern society resulting in a new role for the museum and a better understanding of our history for us all.