Exhibiting Embarrassment | Grav

Exhibiting Embarrassment: Museums, Public Culture and Consequentialist Aesthetics

a two-day online symposium co-convened by:

Dr. David Dibosa
(University of the Arts, London)

Dr. Deirdre Osborne
(Goldsmiths, University of London)

3—4 June 2021

This symposium gathered together scholars, arts activists and curatorial specialists, in order to explore the ways in which the legacies of imperial-colonial acquisition ecologies have become barometers of change in (re)thinking about Britain’s cultural institutions as spaces that house cultural artefacts acquired historically during the British Empire.

How do we navigate the arc of cultural valuing of such materials from being cherished and revered items to being the source of excruciating embarrassment, even leading to shame?

Intrinsic value

Taking its lead from Sara Ahmed’s The Cultural Politics of Emotion [2004] (2014) and Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s Decolonising Methodologies [1999] (2012), we aim to establish a space for struggle (bearing in mind that ‘Struggle is a tool of both social activism and theory’ (Smith:199) in order to think through the ways in which relations and attachments between subjects and objects can be moved into working relationships that do not activate a blockage of defensiveness against such exposure. By not denying the injury as evidence, what Ahmed terms ‘the good scar’, what do we do with our prestige art objects that are offensive to many, which were and are sometimes still proudly displayed in our public galleries? For whose posterity are these hidden hoards retained?

Ahmed advocates a method contingent upon acknowledging the role of emotions to ‘work with and on rather than over the wounds that surface as traces of past injuries in the present’. She argues that

Emotions show us how histories stay alive, even when they are not consciously remembered; how histories of colonialism, slavery, and violence shape lives and worlds in the present. The time of emotion is not always about the past, and how it sticks. Emotions can also open up futures, in the ways they involve different orientations to others […] The objects of emotions slide and stick and they join the intimate histories of bodies, with the public domain of justice and injustice. (2014:202)

How do we find ways of living with the results of injustice and the material evidence: for those whose heritages have been debased through violence and dispossession; and those who have been political and cultural beneficiaries of processes of domination that have rationalized and sustained such acts of dispossession? What are the shifts in maximising the satisfaction of interests through an institution’s self-consciousness that leads towards the projected ‘equal considerations of interests’ (Peter Singer) — where the shifting terrain of people’s rational preferences are counted in with the effects produced by their irrational ones? Kamm notes that in Singer’s Practical Ethics,

it is more important that the most important interests be satisfied first, even if satisfying the aggregate of many more less important interests would produce greater overall satisfaction (2007:408).

How can we develop models of critical accountability, and a constructive conceptual terrain that acknowledges the past, while ensuring that the lines of continuity through to reformulated power relations do not reproduce oppressive hegemony?

Ahmed has written of the need for creating space for ‘feeling better’ — in all its possible variations — that must accompany justice, even as ‘Feeling better is not a sign that justice has been done’ (2014:201).

While the discipline of History has opened conduits for counter-factual discourses through imperial apologia (Ferguson 1997,2003,2011, Roberts 2006) or in Literature, literary canonical fortification where minoritised writers comprise a ‘“countercanon” that is merely the hypercanon’s shadow’ (Sell, 2012:203), the material presences of artefacts in British art galleries has not enabled cultural ‘recidivism’ to the same degree, even as nostalgia, or ephemera is frequently the narrative by which ‘defenders of the realm’ attempt to forgive or soften the edges of toxic holdings.

A meta-narrative of socio-historical circumstances still contours prospects for intercultural communication. Intercultural communication theories imply that a dialogical space can be formed where the non-dominant speaking position makes its resistance felt so that the dominantly positioned listener or reader can understand the insurgency. However, it is an illusory coalition for complex understanding is unachievable if ‘there is no way out of coloniality from within modern categories of thought’ (Veronelli, 2016:405).

One method is to rewrite the assumed relations between who teaches and informs and who learns. It becomes relational (as Glissant’s 1983 model theorises), to desystematise, destabilise and decentre fixed origins and structures, denying the exact reproduction or absolutes that coloniality imposes, and open up multi-perceptual opportunities for engaging in complex communication and reorientation. Recognisably tactical, relationality creates disturbances to the holding zones sustaining institutional security. It moves the work to what Linda Tuhiwai Smith terms the ‘messy intersections’ (2012:199) of border and ever-enlarging margin, where both are set in survival mode.

Overview of Space and Place

Consider, for instance, the Minstrel Marionettes, collected by the Victoria & Albert Museum, London or its Golliwog Collection (previously housed in a glass case at Chequers). Despite the fact that they unmistakably lampoon black people they are retained by the museum. Such ‘Embarrassing Objects’ highlight the changing cultural mores that determine whether things should be openly displayed, left in plain view, partially obscured or completely hidden. What do we do with national institutions’ holdings when changing cultural values tell us that what we previously exhibited should now be the source of our deepest inhibitions?

From golliwogs in childhood museums (Edinburgh, the V&A), to blackamoor paintings throughout Britain’s historic art collections, Exhibiting Embarrassment will look at the history of these contentious objects, which can never be benevolent examples of ‘mere antiquarianism’(Paine, 2010) but a means of tracing and understanding social history. In concentrating on the ‘turning-points’ that take cultural artefacts from being prized possessions to being the focus of intense debate and re-evaluation, the approach will address race, empire and class - each object will signify major changes in cultural attitudes on a range of issues.

Against the background of emerging concerns and new urgencies provoked by ‘decolonising’ awarenesses, the project will investigate possible ways forward: should the objects in question remain on display? If so, what should be done to them? What action needs to be taken now to safeguard the integrity of our museums?

Crispin Paine (2013) states that ‘Museums drain objects of their power’ and yet from whose perspective does such an observation emanate? To explore the ‘eye of the beholder’ in all its multiplicity, the project will take in a range of perspectives from inaction (object drained of power) to dramatic interventions (object exposed for its toxic power). Radical solutions will be proposed and tested within museum settings. The conclusions to be reached will revolve around the ethics of display, reparative understanding and what might be the position and power in this process of a consequentialist aesthetic.

As such, each site will present a ‘test case’ with its own particular range of ethical issues and solutions. Oriented towards practical proposals for action, the project will use the museum setting as a location for a set of ‘dilemmas for the director’ combining both provocations for pro-action and as ally to developing a probing and fearless face-off with the past. The symposium will provide a manageable meeting point for accessing expertise drawn from transnational contexts.