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Friday 24 January 2020


‘Museums are terrified of telling the truth’

In this week’s ThinkIns: the debate about decolonising museums and galleries came to Bristol; we wondered what a world without work would look like; and analysed Trump’s PR mastery

By Polly Curtis

As a child growing up in the 1980s, Michelle Curtis was confused every time she went to a museum. Something didn’t add up, she told Wednesday night’s ThinkIn. If her ancestors in Africa had all been slaves, which was the impression her education had left her with, who were the artists who made the artefacts on display in front of her?

“We were taught that we were slaves and then we went to the Caribbean. So I couldn’t understand where these artefacts came from. Who made them? Because the black people were all slaves. There were holes in the story I was being told.”

Curtis, is now an artist and has founded a campaign group called Iconic Black Britons. Like many at the ThinkIn on Wednesday night in Bristol, she is in favour of repatriation of looted artefacts. But she also argued for the truth to be told about the contents of our nation’s museums.

“I grew up in Bristol, I was born here, my parents were Caribbean of the Windrush generation. My parents talked a lot about our black history – not just the Caribbean but Africa. I wanted to connect to the homeland. I remember seeing the Benin Masks and thinking is this who I am? Then reading the captions in the museum and not finding out any more information other than the British Empire ruled Benin from between whenever and whenever. There was no context. Museums still aren’t telling the truth.”

Mark Horton, emeritus professor of archaeology at the University of Bristol has worked in museums all over Africa. He was introduced as a regular Indiana Jones. He summed the debate up like this:

“On the one hand should all this colonial stuff go back? Or, on the other, should it stay to inform the multicultural community that is Britain today because actually it’s incredibly valuable to understand that multicultural heritage. That’s our heritage. I came away unsure which direction we should be going in. There’s an awful lot of stuff. I’m sure some of it should go back to Africa because that’s where it came from and it came under dubious circumstances.”

Mark was asked, to Michelle’s point, why some museums are so bad at telling the truth about their collections?

“Because they are worried about the floodgates. The fact that if you let go of one statue, then it will be our shields and spears and everything else. They are terrified of telling the truth because to do so means they would be open to activism to restore material back to where it came from and frankly most museum collections are very, very badly documented. They are worried when push comes to shove that they can’t demonstrate they have the right to these things.”

Pravanya Pillay, founder and director of Stomping Ground, had a very stark warning for museums and galleries. She turned to the young people who had attended through the Tortoise Network partner Babbasa and asked them why they didn’t go to museums. They replied they were irrelevant and unentertaining. One said it was “too painful”.

“Museums are dead. So many young people I talk to don’t go to museums. They don’t connect with them, they are not for us. The problem is that we are the future. We are the people who are going to be using museums and whose work will be displayed in the future. They need us. Diversity isn’t just about something that’s warm and cosy. It’s not just about getting a couple of brown kids into a museum. It’s their fight for survival.”

What next?

The two ThinkIns on this subject, in London and Bristol, were both sold out and full of interesting ideas. We’re now planning a story from the specific things we heard in the ThinkIns (watch this space) but also to turn this conversation into a season of ThinkIns later in the spring examining further how to decolonise heritage, but also how to decolonise education, sport and power.

At this week’s ThinkIns we also heard…

Hot on the heels of our Global AI Index, Daniel Susskind, fellow in economics at Oxford University, joined us for a ThinkIn about the tantalising idea of a world without work. The consensus in the room was that a more automated future will only extrapolate today’s inequalities. How should we share out the prosperity pie if the labour market can’t do its job? Our economic identities, currently the locus of so much of our social status and sense of purpose, will dissolve. The detail of how this all plays out is unknowable, but we can say some things with certainty. An ageing population guarantees long-term demand for care work. It’s hugely undervalued in the current labour market but is perhaps the one type of work that robots really can’t do.

At Tuesday’s open news meeting, in a room full of visiting students from North America, we talked about Trump’s mastery of media relations, “stanning” culture and whether cheerleading, currently the subject of a much-talked-about Netflix documentary series, is inherently anti-feminist.


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