Liquid history and planetary consciousness
We still live with ideologies and classifications that are heavily Victorian in orientation. Despite latter-day challenges, ideas about nation, race and racism remain stubbornly resistant. The Victorian era was also one of massive collection building, when the ethos of museums in the spirit of enlightenment and education was born. The taxonomic way of looking at the world, implicitly or explicitly suggesting racial, social and cultural hierarchies, also informed early museum practice.
Thankfully, this has begun to unravel in recent decades. It has been recognised that the order of things and interpretations are a matter of history, not of nature – they are products of both insights and blindness. Therefore, we need to work at the limits, to read between the lines, to take alternative perspectives, and to build upon the evidence using the wide range of research and analytical tools available to us.
It is in pre-Victorian periods that we see the potential for some very powerful ways of considering people and culture – where the idea of the ‘normal’ citizen had not been ‘concretised’ through modern institutions, media and legislation. One way is to consider the inevitability and naturalness of migration, cultural fusions, and fluid identifications that lie beyond racial and nationalist boundaries.
Just as the MP John Burns talked about the River Thames as ‘liquid history’ in 1929, highlighted in the ‘London before London’ gallery at the Museum of London, we can apply this metaphor to time itself – breaking it down in terms of national, racial and cultural essences to consider a global flow of people, ideas, commerce and commodities, technologies and medias. A conception of time as liquid history enables us to uncover glimpses of hidden and eclipsed histories of marginal and oppressed peoples, histories which are otherwise airbrushed out of the dominant narrative.
This re-thinking enables us to see other possibilities and interpret the objects and chains of stories surrounding the objects. Through an act of alchemy, we can imagine other plausible scenarios from the material evidence provided for us by the museum’s collections. The Great Fire of London in 1666 was a period when four-fifths of London’s population was made homeless, settling in camps on the south side of the river. Rather than envisaging refugees as coming to the city of London, we can begin to appreciate how Londoners themselves can become refugees in their own city, how the hand of destruction and mayhem could mar our lives at any time.
Such a change in focus enables, for instance, structural disasters and their consequences to be viewed as part of the fabric of London and not just as something happening out ‘there’, far away, whether it be an Asian tsunami, an Iranian earthquake, or an African famine. This in turn could foster a more culturally mature environment wherein diversity issues are viewed as part of the fabric of ‘here’, rather than a foreign import from ‘there’. This empathetic approach could enable a means of breaking down the thick wall of prejudice heaped against refugees and asylum-seekers in contemporary times.
We cannot afford to focus on the detail of the local, to the neglect of seeing its tie-up with the global and with other interlinked cultural histories in the city. There is a strong need to develop a planetary consciousness with regards to objects and the material cultures they invoke and evoke outside of the dominant streams of globalisation and international commerce.
We need to establish new relationships between places; to think across times and spaces; to not shy away from the evocative if it lends another channel of imagining and relating to artefacts placed in front of spectators; to take risks in order to explore new initiatives and audiences; to become relevant and function at the heart of the lives of London’s communities.
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