History wars on a plate: a 17th-century ceramic basin from Puebla, Mexico, borrows the Habsburg double-headed eagle motif. Is it cultural appropriation or supplication to an imperial power? © Victoria and Albert Museum, London

How museums can help end the culture wars

Extremes on right and left are attacking our museums. We need to defend them says V&A director Tristram Hunt
October 4, 2020

On the lower ground floor of the Medieval and Renaissance Galleries at the Victoria and Albert Museum in Kensington is a small, 15th-century beechwood casket, mounted with gilt copper alloy straps, and painted with four pairs of seated tawny lions. It is an object of deep beauty elucidating the history of northern European design and, as a jewellery box, reveals habits of aristocratic gift-giving.

But behind the casket stands another story. It belonged to the collection of the politician Ralph Bernal (1783-1854), part of a cadre of wealthy Jewish individuals—most famously Lionel de Rothschild—who successfully broke into the upper echelons of mid-Victorian British society. Born in Tower Hill, into a Sephardic family of Spanish descent, Bernal converted to Christianity and made his way through the law and Westminster before ending up as President of the British Archaeological Society. On his death, hundreds of items—from the casket to Sèvres porcelain to stained glass—entered the South Kensington collection, but Bernal’s Jewish heritage and his role at a crucial moment in Anglo-Jewish integration have never been properly highlighted in the museum’s interpretation.

There is an alternative path towards Bernal. His entry into politics was funded by an inheritance from his father, Jacob Israel Bernal, euphemistically described as “a merchant trading with the West Indies.” The elegant artefacts that were acquired by the V&A were, in fact, paid for by the profits of the Richmond Estate in the parish of St Ann in the colony of Jamaica. Here it was that enslaved Africans worked the sugar cane fields. “They have no half Fridays, no payment for extra labour, no salt fish, no field cooks. Invalids get no food, nor old people any support from the estate,” as two English eyewitnesses wrote, while Bernal junior opposed abolition in parliament, and happily augmented his porcelain collection. And, again, until recently, no mention was made of the hideous provenance of Bernal’s wealth and how slave profits have seeped into the V&A galleries.

Now, step across the entrance hall and into the Europe Galleries where you will find, in Room 7, a sumptuous blue ceramic basin from Puebla, Mexico made in the later 17th century. On the rim and inside wall of the basin are painted compartments in Chinese style with floral motifs, but in the centre is a crowned, double-headed eagle. While eagles were a feature of central American pottery from the Aztecs on, this tin-glaze design is clearly a Mexican interpretation of the double-headed Habsburg Eagle, the symbol of the rulers of Spain and its colonies until 1700. How best to approach this marvellous work of earthenware? Is it an act of cultural appreciation, or appropriation, or perhaps supplication in the face of imperial authority? And, if so, should such virtuoso ceramic design even be displayed at all?

Every day, in pretty much every room of the V&A, the challenges of running a “global” or “encyclopaedic” museum (the very terms feel loaded) in an era of increasingly assertive identity politics becomes apparent. In a museum of art, design and performance, what should be highlighted in a 60-word interpretative label when it comes to presenting the Bernal casket: the aesthetic lineage; the Jewish heritage; the slave wealth? Similarly, should we celebrate or lament the Pueblan inflection of the Holy Roman Empire’s double-headed eagle?

[su_pullquote]“The role of the museum is to unleash more insight and awe—and, where justified, anger”[/su_pullquote]

The conversation feels fraught. Right now we are caught between a populist right determined to defend “our history” from the pulling down of statues, the moving of busts (as the British Museum has recently done with one of its founders Hans Sloane over his own links to slavery), renaming of college buildings (goodbye William Gladstone, goodbye David Hume) and “cancelling” of various Great Britons from Darwin to Churchill—and a cultural left just as committed to reclaiming public spaces from racist monumentalism (such as Edward Colston in Bristol), decolonising the curriculum, supporting the restitution of colonial-era artefacts, and prioritising the lived experiences, emotions and cultural traditions of underprivileged groups. As the Museum of London curator Danielle Thom puts it, “If we are actually embroiled in a ‘culture war,’ even a manufactured one, then museums are battlegrounds, because they shape and reflect cultural contexts.”

Harried by chauvinism and iconoclasm, museums need to transcend identity politics and avoid joining one side of two warring factions. Activists may decry the notion of “neutrality” (does not every object mounted entail a cultural or political choice?), but amid such campus- and social media-driven sectarianism, mediation feels profoundly necessary. Our role must be to provide a civic space, in which all feel ownership, that helps both to situate contemporary concerns within broader histories and also, through the scholarly and challenging display of beauty and wonder, to move beyond the limitations of prescribed identities. But we must seek to do so with a frank understanding of the museum’s own history: both its place within Enlightenment or colonial practices (with their implicit racial assumptions) and the manner in which its collections were acquired and displayed.

My starting point is that museums have much further to go in contextualising their collections. Today, the public is rightly curious about how objects were acquired, and who they belonged to and where they came from. If the V&A has traditionally foregrounded design history—craftsmanship; materiality; creative influence—there is now a stronger focus on provenance and ownership. The museum, for instance, holds a small array of copper alloy weights formerly used in the gold trade in Asante communities in what is now Ghana, West Africa. Accompanying them are several gold and silver items—anklets and pendants—from the Asante court regalia. These were acquired at auction, but their route to South Kensington was via a “punitive raid” by Major-General Sir Garnet Wolseley on the Asante state capital, Kumasi, in 1874. As our curator Angus Patterson explains, “The gold was not taken simply for its financial value. By removing the regalia from the Asante court, Britain had stripped the Asante rulers of their symbols of government and denied them their authority to govern.” While historically, these items might have been presented primarily as a source of inspiration for design students and goldsmiths, today we explain their place within the ugly history of “imperial trophy hunting” and, inevitably, how the South Kensington Museum (as we were originally known) was enveloped in such exercises of colonial violence. In time, we hope to share these items far more equitably with museums and cultural institutions in modern Ghana.

As well as displaying differently, we also strive to make good on the ambition to be a truly “global” museum. The origins of the V&A lie partly with the East India Company Repository, which was the location for much of the “collecting” (sometimes gifts; sometimes purchases; sometimes loot or booty) which agents of British colonialism carried out in South Asia. This means that while our Fashion Department holds, for instance, superb collections of Indian fabric, the textile and fashion heritage of sub-Saharan Africa is poorly represented. This material omission of such a significant source of global creativity necessarily distorts how we are able to curate and, in turn, how the public can appreciate questions of influence, appropriation, even “civilisation.”

The historian William Dalrymple has recently called for a Museum of Colonialism to address Britain’s imperial history (much of which, in the past, he has played no little hand in romanticising). But this seems an abnegation of the responsibility of national, local and university museums to address the colonial past through their programming and interpretation. Here, of course, the battle lines are starker: many committed anti-racist campaigners are seeking to denounce all artefacts of imperial history, even though empire would have seemed the natural form of government for millions of people for thousands of years before European colonialism. The reach and longevity of empires produced myriad, important material representations. At the same time, many conservative polemicists fail to appreciate that the structures of race which underpinned the ideology of the British Empire still support inequality, prejudice and discrimination in ways that cannot be ignored. Beginning with the object, and involving as many voices as possible, the role of the museum is to unleash more insight and more context (as well as more awe and, where justified, more anger) into the discussion of this contested past.

This calling becomes all the more important when in a multicultural, diverse society, visitors rightly expect to see their identities and concerns—not least the systemic racism highlighted by the Black Lives Matter movement—reflected in the museums and galleries that their taxes help to fund. At the V&A, staff and volunteers have created highly successful Black Heritage Trails, LGBTQ+ tours, and (to return to Bernal) accounts of Jewish heritage within the museum. But in our staff composition, collections strategy and programming, we have a long way to go to speak to minority-ethnic Britons, who simply do not attend their national museums in the numbers they should. In the words of the arts educator Errol Francis, “there is a connection between questions of what to do about colonial provenance, imperialist narratives of history and civilisation, the lack of diversity of the workforce and the lack of interest from BAME and working-class audiences in what museums are doing.” The “ambient racism,” to use my colleague Gus Casely-Hayford’s phrase, which surrounds too many cultural institutions needs to be addressed from the boardroom to the guardroom on a daily basis.

At the same time, it remains paramount that museums are places where all can be present together. One of the founding fathers of the V&A, the political refugee, ally of Prince Albert and architect, Gottfried Semper, described public collections as “the true teachers of a free people.” Part of the purpose of museums was, in that improving mid-Victorian manner, to nurture the curious, educated and polite habits of citizenship essential for an evolving democracy. Museums were cast as consciously cosmopolitan, civic spaces whose ethos and collections extended beyond class, politics and gender. Even if they often embodied anachronistic understandings of hierarchy and inequality which no public institution could nowadays condone, the broader mission of sustaining civil society remains. Today that also entails challenging tradition, entrenched identities and myths of ethnic certainty. In the words of the Getty Trust President James Cuno, “Without encyclopaedic museums, one risks a hardening of views about one’s own, particular culture as being pure, essential, and organic, something into which one is born… The collective, political risk of not having encyclopaedic museums is that culture becomes fixed national culture.” Nicholas Thomas of Cambridge University Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology argues: “What is good about museums” is that “they respond to and sustain curiosity of all kinds, and that curiosity is… fertile and necessary, not only for people in general, but specifically for those of us alive in the 21st century.”

From New Delhi to Washington, Beijing to Budapest, the vogue for populist, nationalist governments makes the role of the museum—with its galleries born of exchange, adaptation and migration—more important to civil discourse than ever. Whether it is the contribution of Mughal culture to Indian civilisation, the debt of Chinese ceramics to Iranian influence, or other politically uncomfortable narratives, material culture contains the power to puncture the chauvinist myth. What is more, in this dangerously post-truth moment in which propaganda threatens to reign unchecked, museums can still hope to be trusted arbiters, disinterested distillers of history as they find it, and even—at a stretch—“neutral,” or at the very least honest, guides to the present. In a Britain divided into disgruntled factions by Brexit, and amid sustained political assault on the independent institutions of civil society—the BBC, universities, parliament, the legal system—there is more need than ever for autonomous, research-focused and public-minded museums.

But if the right think us too “woke,” a growing body of opinion on the cultural left regards museums as reactionary vestiges of the colonial past, with looted collections and an inexplicable refusal to use their privilege to promote a radical version of social justice. To them, the only real proof of virtue is to pursue this justice in a way that overrides other interpretative priorities that may arise from scholarly curiosity or aspects of the educational mission. For instance, to return to the Bernal collection, the most important element of the medieval casket would not be the design history or even its Anglo-Jewish heritage, but the slave-owning origins of the wealth that acquired it. In this school of thought, museums can never be trusted to hold the ring on our history given the way their pasts are so intertwined with previous inequalities and racist assumptions. What matters most is an urgent condemnation of the past for the good of community cohesion in the present.

At this point, the radical left and populist right effectively join forces in their hostility towards cultural bodies and any claims to be progressive components of civil society. Whether the perceived charge is the conservatism of unchecked privilege or of metropolitan elitism, museums that should aim to do something for the understanding of all of us are dismissed as one more partisan actor, pursuing a selective agenda, and entitled to no trust.

Fortunately, away from the fringes, the general public are in a completely different place. Before the lockdown, the V&A was attracting four million visitors to South Kensington annually, while the British Museum, Tate Modern and the National Gallery drew in more than six million each. Around the country, museums are more popular and admired than for a generation. That will only remain the case if we stay above the battleground and focus on our civic mission, in an era of ever more combative cultural politics. But we can, for example, explore all three of the narratives that Ralph Bernal’s casket stirs—of medieval design, of Jewish heritage as well as the story of what the profits from the exploitation of enslaved Africans ended up paying for. It is then up to our visitors to decide what that complex history might mean for the present.