Confronting Britain’s past, including its heritage of colonialism and slavery, is a necessary but uncomfortable national reckoning that needs to take place. A post-Brexit Britain needs to understand its place in a world shaped by colonial pillage, murder, enslavement, and environmental destruction. But is a nation that burned and concealed colonial archives ready to come to terms with its shameful history?
To respond to this question, the Museum of British Colonialism was created by activists in Kenya and the UK in 2018. Our work to date has focused primarily on the Mau Mau insurgency in 1950s Kenya, one of the many brutal conflicts that Britain fought to cling to the remains of Empire in the years after World War Two. This very insurgency was one of the events that Britain tried to bury through the aptly named ‘Operation Legacy’.
For the past two years, we have been gathering oral histories, making films, carrying out archaeological fieldwork and creating digital exhibitions about Britain’s colonial past, and figuring out ways of working with this uncomfortable heritage.
Laying the foundation stones of a Museum of British Colonialism is a daunting task. How do you tell a story four centuries long, that touches upon nearly every modern nation on earth? This is a story that shaped seafaring, industrial capitalism, art, food, drugs, religion, music, war, sex, gardening and the English language.
This history is almost impossible to contain in one space and as the Museum of British Colonialism we aim to demonstrate an alternative approach. As the perpetrator nation, Britain should carry the weight of imperial history and pay the costs, but it is not primarily a British story to tell.
The story of British colonialism belongs to its victims and those who fought for freedom. It belongs to their descendants, in nations that Britain robbed and actively impoverished – from India and Kenya to Nigeria and Jamaica.
It belongs to those still under colonial occupation from Australia to Canada to Northern Ireland. We need to ask and to listen, to work with historians and storytellers in these nations, and we must prepare ourselves for the discomfort these stories will bring.
Museums have been suggested as storage places for recently toppled statues. But museums are not repositories for a nation’s unwanted junk, nor are they analgesic spaces where controversial histories can be rendered safe and printed on souvenirs. Museums should be spaces for learning, discovery, and the bringing together not only of objects, but also of people and stories.
The very idea of museums, from Renaissance cabinets of curiosity to the genocide-minded skull-collectors of the 19th century, is rooted in colonialism.
Today, too many museums are dusty relics of empire itself, from their vapid architecture to their blood-stained collections. Those that lament the pulling down of statues as ‘destroying history’ have a similarly outdated understanding of heritage.
To build a Museum of British Colonialism we need to discard all of this heritage and imagine a museum without walls, curators, collections or gift shops.
To date, much of our work has focused on the infamous network of internment camps where hundreds of thousands of Mau Mau suspects were held without trial by British colonial forces in Kenya. To share our work with new audiences we have held exhibitions and public events in both Kenya and the UK. Colonialism was not a one-way process, and a truly honest Museum of British Colonialism cannot solely be located in Britain.
Britain is a nation that powerfully denies its history, clinging stubbornly to a fantasy of a benevolent colonial power beloved by native peoples and bestowing only benefits. Meanwhile, successive governments and an acquiescent media have embedded this fraudulent history into school curricula and popular culture.
We need to have uncomfortable conversations about the British Empire. We need to educate, to protect, to unearth and to hold accountable.
As we celebrate falling statues and the growing awareness of Britain’s slave heritage, we are taking the first step on a long road to the acknowledgement of the British Empire as one of the most diabolical enterprises in human history.
This essay was first published in New African magazine’s
“Return of African Icons 2020” special report in their August/September 2020 edition.
Gabriel Moshenska is Associate Professor in Public Archaeology at UCL and a member of the Museum of British Colonialism team.
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