Books

Peeling Back the Hidden, Colonial Layers of Museum Objects

With her recent book, Alice Procter shows us the things many museums hide, the parts of objects’ histories that aren’t warm and fuzzy (or flattering for the institutions that now hold them).

From The Whole Picture: The Colonial Story of the Art in Our Museums & Why We Need to Talk about It, by Alice Procter (Cassell, May 2020) (all images courtesy Cassell Publishing)

In June of 2017, art historian Alice Procter began taking groups of people on what she called “Uncomfortable Art Tours.” These unofficial tours of British art museums and galleries discuss where items came from and focus on matters often left out of museum labels. That experience (and the positive response Procter received) led to her first book, The Whole Picture: The Colonial Story of the Art in Our Museums & Why We Need to Talk about It. As Procter herself notes, alternative art tours have been around a long time. But alternative art handbooks seem harder to find, and Procter’s book fills a real need.

The cover of The Whole Picture: The Colonial Story of the Art in Our Museums & Why We Need to Talk about It, by Alice Procter (Cassell, May 2020)

The cover sets the tone brilliantly. Readers look straight into a large painted eye, a detail of a Black face — perhaps that of Ignatius Sancho, the 18th-century British composer and writer, but we can’t be sure. This detail leaves us to wonder what the rest of the face (and the picture) looks like. All the while, the eye meets our gaze and stares back at us, as if posing a challenge.

The book is organized around a set of gallery types: the “palace,” the “classroom,” the “memorial,” and the “playground.” For each, Procter looks at a few examples of artworks and discusses their display, focusing especially on British and American museums and installations. Procter does something important in showing us the things many museums hide, the parts of the objects’ histories that aren’t warm and fuzzy (or flattering for the institutions that now hold them), pointing overtly to the fact that museums aren’t neutral. “If you can’t see the views and agendas coming through” in art and museums, Procter warns, “that doesn’t mean they aren’t there: it might just mean that they are close enough to your own for you to take them for granted.”

First published in the UK in March, Procter’s text, with its focus on the colonial history of art, is even more timely now, given the renewed Black Lives Matter protests. One section of the text is dedicated to statues and monuments commemorating racist and/or colonialist figures. Among those she highlights are statues of English slave trader Edward Colston, since thrown in and recovered from Bristol Harbor, and British imperialist Cecil Rhodes at Oxford, a focus of Rhodes Must Fall in Oxford. Procter is certainly right to point out that these statues have powerful symbolic value. But she is also right to emphasize that the statues are being targeted because, as symbols, they are ultimately just a symptom of the underlying inequality of our institutions.

From The Whole Picture: The Colonial Story of the Art in Our Museums & Why We Need to Talk about It, by Alice Procter (Cassell, May 2020)

Overall, the book reveals many of the hidden histories of museum objects and guides us to think more carefully about them. At one point, Procter praises an exhibition of Aboriginal objects at the National Museum of Australia,  contrasting it with a previous version of the exhibition, installed at the British Museum. “The overall tone is personal, emotional, rather than detached and academic,” Procter observes of the exhibition in Australia and its catalogue. “It is a style that encourages people to find their own intimate value in these objects, rather than wait to be told their significance.” Procter hits on something critical here. Typical museum displays use impersonal and abstract language, language which conveniently helps discourage both critical thinking and a personal connection with the object.

But Procter’s own text often falls into this trap as well. Sometimes we get a vivid description of a colonial encounter, or the path an object took from its place of origin to the museum it sits in today, laid out in clear and accessible language.  But at other times she offers too many abstractions — wealth, privilege, violence, complicity — and not enough explanation of what they mean practically. Like museum signage, the book’s abstract language sometimes discourages careful reflection.

From The Whole Picture: The Colonial Story of the Art in Our Museums & Why We Need to Talk about It, by Alice Procter (Cassell, May 2020)

The problem with the book’s language becomes clearer if we consider some examples. Are we “complicit as spectators” in looking at a small, stylized sculpture made 150 years ago (a carving made by the Haida people of the Pacific northwest around 1850, now in the British Museum’s collection) depicting an attack that might be imagined? Is licking a statue made of sugar (Kara Walker’s “Sugar Baby,” an installation set up in the former Domino Sugar Factory in Williamsburg, Brooklyn in 2014) “re-enact[ing] the process of erasure” of past suffering? Many readers might not use these terms and concepts as she does. If Procter wants to reach such readers, then it might help if she outlined and argued her case more clearly and thoroughly. As is, she merely preaches to the converted.

What is Procter’s ultimate goal? The introduction focuses on providing a new way of looking at museums, but in the conclusion she casually adds — and too much is casually introduced in the book — decolonizing museums as a goal, though she treats it as if it’s already a given. The idea of “power” (another abstraction) and how it works in museums is also unclear. Who has it, the museum or the museum-goer? Which one is to blame for the problems with museums? Procter’s points of emphasis change over the course of the book, and need to be clarified and brought together to form a more powerful synthesis.

From The Whole Picture: The Colonial Story of the Art in Our Museums & Why We Need to Talk about It, by Alice Procter (Cassell, May 2020)

Whatever its shortcomings in execution, the basic idea of the book is fantastic. “The questions are finally being asked: who has the right to hold objects, and to tell their stories?” Procter observes. She continues with humility, “I do not have a definitive answer for that, but I am trying to work through the questions.” At its best, the book succeeds at encouraging us to work through those questions along with her.

The Whole Picture: The Colonial Story of the Art in Our Museums & Why We Need to Talk about It (Cassell, May 2020) by Alice Procter is now available on Bookshop.

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