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I attended a curatorial talk at the ROM’s Africa-Asia wing as a field trip for an Anthropology course a few years ago. The talk was on an exhibit about the Berlin Conference (1884-85), its impact on museum collections, and the role museum collections played within the European colonial project. The curator was particularly passionate as this was part of her contribution to the museum, and in a small way, she felt it worked towards correcting some of the historical legacies of museum collections.
The Berlin Conference was a western diplomatic effort to renew colonization efforts particularly in Africa, around fifty years after the transatlantic slave trade ended (1834 in the British colonies), when criticisms of the slave trade made public opinion a cause for concern for the new imperialist project. According to the curator, one approach was to look for ways to dehumanize Africa. Museums exhibited artifacts constructing narratives devoid of market forces, politics, any semblance of economy, religious belief, culture or civilization. Historically, museum exhibitions of these regions focused on displays of mystical objects symbolizing faraway lands. The curator’s talk was insightful, but the Berlin Conference exhibit was less so, especially as it did not explain the curatorial intent, and was dwarfed by the wider African-Asian art wing next to it, which seemed to illustrate the issue, and to mirror the African-Asian wing of every museum I have ever visited.
While we still live with the decisions of colonial legacies embedded in our institutions, these legacies/ decisions seem to be rising in public awareness and will likely continue to rise with greater expectations of transparency and access to information. In an Archival Research course I took, we analyzed a case study, where pulling on the loose threads of a few British colonial documents in Nairobi revealed secret British colonial repositories that have (illegally) never been made public. In this particular case, the documents warrant an unfavourable rewriting of aspects of British colonial history in Kenya. Several such colonial repositories have since been revealed in the UK with potentially millions of colonial documents, some dating back to the 19th C (Cobain; Kielty & York).
I thought the Ryerson Image Centre would be a good site for screening a videoart project and a mobile app that, in part, illustrates the complexities in reconstructing histories of minority groups in former colonies, given some of the historical legacies which remain. The project is called Celestial Navigations.
Cobain, Ian. “Foreign Office hoarding 1m historic files in secret archive.” The Guardian. Oct 18, 2013. Web. Nov 18, 2018.
Keilty, Matt; York, Jamie. “Mau Mau.” Radiolab. Jul 3, 2015. Podcast. Nov 18, 2018.
Ryerson Image Centre. Website. Nov 18, 2018.