Race or ethnicity
The Department of Archaeological Collections and Archive has a veritable number of collections and projects mindful of diversity issues, particularly as they pertain to race/ethnicity in the last few decades. Whereas earlier this issue commanded sporadic attention, now it has filtered throughout virtually all museum practice in terms of collections, planning, access, display and so forth. There are excellent examples of good work done but more is required in the consideration of London’s earlier periods of history.
Pioneering cross-departmental work began with an enquiry into the 15,000 years of migrant settlement in London for The Peopling of London project and exhibition in 1993. Beginning with the prehistoric era, 15,000 BC, the exhibition charted a broad range of migration streams into the city of London – Roman London (AD50-410), a period described as ‘The Age of Migrations’ (410-1066), Medieval Europeans (1066-1500), the age of navigation encapsulated in ‘London and the Wider World’ (1500-1837), the time of high imperialism ‘The Heart of Empire’ (1837-1945), ‘After the Empire’ (1945-present), ending with a composite installation ‘The World in a City’ mapping out the character of London since 1945.
Effectively, the exhibition demonstrated a planetary consciousness, combined the local with the global, revealed hidden histories and demonstrated the dynamic and diverse vibrancy of contemporary London. The island race is rapidly dispelled as the myth that it always was.
Three objectives were successfully achieved:
- Challenging the notion that migration was an exclusively post-World War II phenomenon;
- Extending the museum’s audience, particularly with a view to attracting BME populations; and
- Changing the way the Museum of London represents London’s histories with a broad, inclusivist view.
One of the key ways in which this exhibition reached out to new audiences was through the ingenious use of a mobile museum which visited ten multiracial locations in Greater London. Leaflets in nine different languages were used to promote the exhibition. It also worked on a cross-cultural level as people from different ethnicities learnt about each other’s histories. Also communities were actively involved in presentations and the organisation of events. Internally, the project represented good practice in that it brought cross-departmental teams together to work on the theme of migration throughout the ages.
The event was not without its problems, however, but these may be cited as lessons to be learned from. In a large and ambitious project such as this, there were issues of tokenism (if items were placed in isolation and not in context), marginalisation and there was not enough integration of the lives of BME communities in the mainstream. Contradictory views also emerged – some people felt that there was not enough text/information, others decried too much text. Finally, the exhibition was also seen as more about roots rather than routes:
‘a bolder approach to uncovering the mythical dimensions of ethnicity may have revealed the cosmetic, contingent, inventive dimensions of ‘who “we” are’?’
wrote Bill Schwarz. (11)
Despite the problems, the exhibition ignited much debate which has informed subsequent work at the museum. Not only did it inform some of the thinking behind permanent galleries, such as the ‘World City’ gallery but it also informed projects such as Collecting 2000 which was conducted to mark the millennium by inviting 200 London-based groups (clubs, societies and voluntary organisations) to donate something significant about their identity as well as a group statement. Their donations communicated to the public that everyday items are valuable.
This project included a diverse array of groups – from the hijaab donated by the Asian Women’s Advisory Service to a ring offered by Kenric group for lesbians in Kensington and Richmond. However, the project also raises the question of what is diversity – is it just another term for different and varied, or is it about an acknowledgement of marginalized minority groups? Would, for instance, an Arsenal Football Club signed shirt constitute a diverse group? This is an important issue - for once diversity loses its moorings in a project to redress marginalisation, then it becomes another word for a ‘Quality Street’ version of difference.
The ‘World City’ gallery recalls the spirit of The Peopling of London in its integrative approach to cultures around the world meeting in the city of London. It is a treasure trove of global paraphernalia placing London, not simply as the unchallenged capital of the nation, but at the heart of a global network of movements of capital, commodities, technologies and people. It is as the cultural theorist, Stuart Hall, once suggested, realising the theorem of the ‘outside history’ that is ‘inside the history of the English’. However, it could expand further in terms of:
- Making imaginative trails available for the general public (not just schools) through print and audio. Even though very informative Black History Activity Sheets have already been produced, for instance, on Street Sellers and Sporting Life, and Black Pioneers and Politics, it is important to have them made widely available in the main foyer all year round.
- Making global connections more vivid in terms of a greater focus on the journeys of people, currency, cultural fusions, and commodities. For instance, tea is one of the most quintessentially English drinks. Yet it contains the essence of dark leaves from tea plantations in South Asia and the sweet residue of dissolved sugar from plantations on the other side of the world, accidentally termed the West Indies in one of those classic moments of misrecognition when Columbus thought he had arrived in India. For cotton, it is not enough to just link the former colonies of the Caribbean plantations with Britain, but also in terms of Britain’s other colonies such as English mills which took over the production of those mills in South Asia, the outcome being that cloth produced in England was sold back to Indians at exorbitant prices.
- A re-design of the exhibition areas so that it is not just about a mass of information, but rather contains carefully selected imagery, artefacts and text which illustrate a significant point about the diverse nature of society in that period in an integrated manner. This area could well be the result of the interpretation of collections with the help of selected communities from diverse backgrounds.
The projected Modern London galleries at the Museum of London takes these points on board in their focus on the peopling of London since the Great Fire (1666). London as an attractor for refugees will be a prominent theme in this gallery. It will include recent refugee arrivals, which have been the focus of current oral history projects conducted with fifteen refugee groups in the London area.
Links with the Empire/Commonwealth and London as a centre of an empire and a global city will be another major theme. So is the fact that the wealth of the city was built on the trade in people, such as slavery, and the movement and migration of peoples to the city. The Museum is also keen to reflect not only the diversity of the city yesterday and today, but also what it might be in the future by using GLA projections and the Mayor's Commission's report, Delivering Shared Heritage, as a guide.
Perhaps the greatest challenge for diversity is in earlier periods for which we are more dependent on surviving objects. Until recently, interest in making such collections relevant to diversity was lacking. Still, a lack of material does not mean to say that the issues cannot be raised now. Graphics and texts can be used as well as audio-visual reconstructions and accompanying online resources which can play a significant part in the effort to complete the jigsaw of past societies.
In the new Medieval London gallery, the theme of migration has prominent placing. The focus allows a study into the nature of cultural contact, questions assimilation of migrants of the past, and their cultural legacy, and raises points of comparison for migrants in London today.
The gallery includes material culture and exhibition text focusing on the arrival and settlement of Scandinavians (not just Vikings, as is the popular assumption) of Scandinavian presence, and later other European residents who were primarily merchants, reflects the increasing trade links between western Europe and London and the appearance of everyday and specialist European objects in homes and religious and public institutions. The soundscape about the Black Death also highlights Londoners’ awareness of other countries and the advance of the plague towards London from Asia and Europe.
Other galleries still to be redeveloped require further thought along the lines of diversity. We are reminded of the cosmopolitan nature of Roman London with ‘immigrants from all corners of the Roman Empire’ stretching from what is now the Middle East to Africa, yet we do not get a sense of this throughout the displays in the gallery.
The text describes Roman London as the first instance of cosmopolitanism in the city. Foreign merchants, traders and land speculators moved into the area once London was conquered by the Romans. Dress, language, public bathing, entertainment, and the taste for foreign foods also played a role in uniting peoples of many cultures as part of the Romanisation process.
Interestingly, the presence of Britons as slaves provides another fillip to conceptions of slavery, although admittedly this was a very different system to the one that emerged under the wheels of capitalism and scientific racism in modern times or indeed the character of international (sexual) slavery today. In fact, a comparative focus on slavery throughout the ages and cultures could be a stimulating project to investigate, particularly with the bicentenary of the Abolition of Slavery in 2007.
Julius Caesar noted in c 52 BC that ‘The Britons wear their hair long. They shave every other part of the body, except for the upper lip’. The gallery as a whole prompts us into thinking: When did London become London as we know it today? Who are the English? The British? What is local? What characterises ideas about the other/the different/the uncivilised/the demonic? What are old and new traditions? What are examples of hybrid traditions? All these questions inform an enquiry across cultures and time-periods for comparative projects.
There seems to be a discrepancy between textual proclamations and display in the Roman gallery, which even if collections do not fill the role, could be negotiated in other ways. The simple addition of occasional faces of different ethnicities in the market scene could provide a very subtle but powerful corrective here without labouring the point. And even though the black Roman leader, Septimus Severus, was stationed in York, his sovereignty did extend farther south.
Artefacts to do with Severus’ rule could be further highlighted in not just the text but also made more prominent in exhibition design. He is a key figure to remind audiences of the integrity of racial others in Roman London and research could be done here to find more exemplars of racial/ethnic diversity.
Coins and the transaction of precious items may look small and insignificant but they played a prominent part in the global movement of people and goods. More could be done to highlight their significance by way of a magnification of images and (hi)stories which demonstrate their part in global journeys and cultural encounters. Connections between other parts of the Roman empire, particularly with what is now described as the Middle East and North Africa, could also be made more vivid and prominent.
On the other hand, the recently curated ‘London before London’ gallery has benefited from fresh approaches to making collections remote in time and place relevant to diverse cultures today. It has been evoked through the poetry of Bernadine Evaristo, where prehistoric migration is given the refreshing tonic of contemporary relevance. It is commendable for the kinds of stories it evokes, for suggesting parallels between prehistoric migrations and modern-day migrations, for imagining London as a foreign place in terms of time, and equally for recognising similarities in place and ideas amongst the alienness of the communities represented.
Tracing the emergence of London from 450,000 BC, we are informed by the gallery text that ‘The Thames is nothing less than an ecological superhighway’ (Steve Colclough, 1998). There is much focus on movement, migration, and technology. This is fundamentally political, connoting free borders, and migration often to better lifestyles which is not an unusual idea, in fact, it is a human reality. This re-thinking implies that it is not migrants who are ‘selfish’, but nation-state boundaries and the ideologies they exact on ‘their’ people to believe that territories are theirs since time immemorial.
Nonetheless, we are still left wondering who are the archaeologists? They, like the curators, remain invisible in the wall of seeming neutrality that is presented to the audience. What are their identities, ambitions and agendas? Providing such glimpses into behind-the-scenes work goes to humanise the museum context as well as encouraging audiences to question how interpretations about the past are made.
There is more required on costumes and decorative arts in the museum on the theme of cultural diversity. Promising projects have been initiated by museum staff, but not yet realised due to lack of resources. They include Dressed for the Occasion, a project which aimed to collect clothing, along with related stories, from BME populations. It was to include approaching celebrities from different cultural backgrounds with a long-term view to incorporating costumes into permanent collection.
A focus on costume could be used to embrace the cultural, social and political uses of headwraps, such as the burqa and turban offically banned from public institutions in France. It could also be useful to consider the transformation of BME dress in the London context. For instance, the journey of the shalwar kameez outfit from its Pakistani Muslim provenance to its general Indian usage, to its fashionable development in London, to its adoption by non-Indians is a stimulating journey which takes in materials, histories, cultures and politics in one sweeping stroke.
Such initiatives are intricately wrapped up in contemporary news and views about multiracial and multifaith societies. The more connections are made between private/family lives and public lives, ‘hidden histories’ and ‘known histories’, the more resonance the project will have outside of the museum context.
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