Everyday Decolonisation: the local museum in 2020

PIPPA LE GRAND

A few Monday mornings ago, I stood outside Weston Park Museum, Sheffield, enjoying my job and welcoming visitors. There were few enough around that I was able to gaze at the frieze over the door and even discuss it at length with a colleague. The frieze, according to Sheffield Hallam’s Public Art Research Archive, features the Shrine of Knowledge, with four evolutionary layers topped by an oil lamp, and surrounded by visitors with gifts. There is a great deal more to this frieze, deserving of its own research. My point is that for someone – like myself – keen to interpret this imagery both academically, and in a visitor-facing role, it presents an interesting challenge. How are these two, often very different, points of view compatible? Are they, in light of discussions about the pervasive legacy of colonialism in our museums, even possible to reconcile? And after a turbulent and stressful year, especially for the UK’s black community, what is the responsibility of the museum to address that legacy? 

Carved frieze discussed in text. Above the door of the Weston Park Museum. Light stone, flanked by two columns and above a dark, heavy wooden door.
Figure 1. Frieze depicting the Shrine of Knowledge, Weston Park Museum

My MA dissertation examined the ways in which Sheffield’s collections and exhibitions in the late Victorian period (1850-1910), and its engagement as a city with international exhibitions at this time, shaped and were shaped by imperial identity. I found a complex network of people with a close relationship to empire: William Bragge, well-known Master Cutler, who donated his Egyptian collection to the Museum and who advocated for a specialist cutlery museum for Sheffield throughout his career, sticks in my mind. Bragge also collected objects from India, much of it metalwork, and created what might be the first exhibition toured between municipal museums (Sheffield and Birmingham) in Britain. He appears to be the archetypal Victorian man – elite, yet hyper-involved in the industry that had created his wealth; loyal to his industry and thus locally significant figure; but also deeply connected with Britain’s empire, extracting from it resources, inspiration, competitive drive, and wealth. His life and work formed just one part of my research, but they represent my conclusions perfectly: Bragge was rooted in Sheffield but defined, in identity and cultural behaviour, by empire. He was the centre of a local network, and part of a national and international one. Bragge’s story shows that we must regard municipal museums, in these crucial decades of their establishment and development, as just as imperial as the British Museum, the Victoria and Albert, and the Natural History Museum. They are thus just as important to scrutinise when we seek ways to decolonise our museums. 

Portrait. A white man with a greying beard and hair wears a dark suit. He sits a desk, looking pensively at the viewer.
Figure 2. Portrait of William Bragge

The task of decolonising presents an interesting challenge to me, as I straddle the academic and the practical elements of museums. I spent most of my MA year alternating between the library, where I wrote about the ways in which national and local museums had intimate, longstanding connections to empire, and Weston Park Museum, where I mostly directed people to the toilets and reunited lost children with parents. But visitor experience is also about explanation, clarification, interpretation. I now find this somehow harder, armed with my new knowledge about the museum. Do our visitors, Sheffielders looking for relaxation outside of work, entertainment for their kids, or a break from the stress of the neighbouring hospital, want to know about the dark history of empire? Many people think this is unlikely – and yet I believe they deserve to know, and that many would like to – if it were offered. If I can access this history, why shouldn’t they? 

Weston Park Museum isn’t packed with human remains, nor is it a secret repository of Benin Bronzes. The back-of-house team are keen to open up this ‘hidden’ history, it seems, and yet it is a slow and difficult process. When I consider how much time I spend front-of-house not explaining this past, not discussing how many of local archaeologist Thomas Bateman’s skulls were sold to phrenologists for their racist ‘scientific’ investigations, I understand more why the process is arduous. Instinctively, I don’t want to disrupt anyone, or spoil their day. Whilst at work, I silently absorb how people respond to our collections, what they love, what they walk by with a rare glance, and what they recoil from – knowledge that any curator would, and should, value highly. Their job is to reconcile that information with what must be said. The frieze that welcomes visitors to Sheffield’s family museum is a product of empire; many objects on display and in storage came here because of empire. With curatorial support, front-of-house teams can begin to facilitate conversations with visitors, making the museum once again a laboratory of ideas, this time for a new kind of British identity, less soaked in imperial prowess. As places where communities are made and reinforced, and shared histories are talked about proudly and fondly, museums owe their visitors the truth, even if it is uncomfortable. 

Shieffled's Weston Park Museum. A large stone building, fronted by column and accessed via raised steps. The scene is autumnal.
Figure 3. Weston Park Museum, Sheffield

Pippa Le Grand is an Arts and Heritage Professional and Digital Marketer. In 2020, Pippa completed an MA at the University of Sheffield with a dissertation titled: ‘National Narratives on Local Display: Representations of Empire in British Museums after 1845’. You can find them on Twitter as @pippalegrand.

Banner image and image 1. Photograph of the frieze above Weston Park museum front door. Taken and supplied by the author.

Image 2. Unknown artist, ‘William Bragge (1823-1884)‘. Photograph supplied by the author.

Image 3. Weston Park Museum, Sheffield. Photograph taken and supplied by the author.

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