GUEST POST: The Past is Now: Birmingham and the British Empire

Decolonisation is a process that many once considered to have been accomplished but which increasingly is being re-identified for action. Rachael Minott worked on an exhibition running at the Birmingham Museum in the UK that sets out to expose the active links between past and present. We asked her to tell us about it: 

Guest Post by Rachael Minott, Exhibition Researcher and granddaughter of UWI Pioneering Student Dr Owen Minott

‘How is it I know so much about you, but you know nothing about me?’                                                                                                                          Andrea Levy, from the novel Small Island 2004

The words of Andrea Levy are ever present in my mind as a Jamaican migrant currently living in the UK. The identities of both nations are intrinsically intertwined but you would never know that from the spaces of communal learning in Britain. The history of the British Empire has been erased from the consciousness of the British public. Aside from either a vague understanding of the British Empire representing Britain’s former strength and greatness, or as a topic of shame and disgust, none of the details have been retained and shared outside of specialist spaces and educational programmes.

The Past is Now exhibition at Birmingham Museum and Art Galley. Photo by: David Rowan, 2017 Copyright Birmingham Museums Trust

The exhibition, The Past is Now: Birmingham and the British Empire attempts to highlight the impact the British Empire has had on the world and how Birmingham’s own history can be told within the context of the British Empire and the global impact of the people and products of this UK city. In today’s global climate of suspicion and growing prejudice regarding immigrants, it is important to understand the historical and global links that have made our modern world, and so we chose to put on a display that privileged the voices of the people whose everyday lived experience was affected by the Birmingham’s links to the Empire. The ambitious aim of the display was to decolonise the museum: a large task given that the museum built in 1885, was a product of the empire and a tool used to perpetuate the understanding of social hierarchies that put British-ness and whiteness as the pinnacle of success and civilisation and African-ness and blackness as the symbol of savagery and primitiveness. The perpetuation of these structures has deep-felt consequences across the world, both in Jamaica and England. While in Jamaica we now control how our story and our culture is represented to our people, in the diaspora that power still rests elsewhere. As a result those not-white British are represented by those who are. The first tool in decolonisation was to attempt self-representation, by working with our co-curators and a diverse museum workforce.

Photograph of Aliyah Hasinah, Rachael Minott, Chandan Mahal(not on the Past is Now team), Sara Wajid, Shaheen Kasmani, Abeera Kamran. Photo by Sarah Hofstadter, 2017. Not photographed: Mariam Khan, Sara Myers and Sumaya Kassim, Katie Hall, Rebecca Bridgeman Rosie Barker and Hannah Graham

The process was difficult and challenging and beautiful; the conversations were extraordinary and the interpretations are thoughtful, hard hitting and rich. The final display discusses the birth of Eugenics through the Birmingham born and raised, Francis Galton. It discusses Joseph Chamberlain the former Mayor of Birmingham and his role as Colonial Secretary of Cape Colony during the Second Anglo Boer War, a bloody war after which Britain claimed ownership of all of South Africa. It discusses two independence movements, those  of Kenya and India, unpacking Britain’s role in the violence and the museum’s own role, implicitly, in the representation of these stories in its collections. The gun trade that led to the development of Birmingham as a city is placed within its context as a product of the Triangular Trade, and in particular that the guns made in Birmingham were largely traded for enslaved women. It discusses Capitalism in general and the devastation caused globally in the attempt to collect raw goods for manufacture and to make a profit for a few in Britain at the expense of millions globally. This is discussed further by exploring the environmental impact of these exploits. The story of mahogany harvesting in the Caribbean was extracted and the understanding that recovery in the Caribbean after a natural disaster is much slower due to the unstable soil which was a result of the massive deforestation.

These evocative stories are important to unpick in a Birmingham context and are key to understanding why members of the diaspora distrust the stories told in these spaces of communal learning. However this display is the start of a conversation, to battle the erasure of these histories, and to critically engage with the legacies of these histories in our world today. If you can make it, come visit the display, there are 60,000 Jamaicans living in Birmingham, I’m sure someone can let you cotch.

The Past is Now is a temporary display in the Story Lab galleries at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery. It is on display until March 12, the online conversation can be followed using the hashtag #ThePastIsNow or on Instagram @storylab.bm_ag

Rachael Minott was the exhibitions researcher and co-curated the display along with the main team.  Rachael grew up in Black River, Jamaica and is granddaughter to one of the members of the University of the West Indies first cohort: the late Dr.Owen Minott.


3 thoughts on “GUEST POST: The Past is Now: Birmingham and the British Empire

  1. I am relieved I am living to see the conversation started, and without confrontation or hate, but with the goal of understanding. Harking back to Andrea Levy, we want to have “them” want to know about us, the impact of the imperial project on all the peoples affected.

    • …and to recognise that it impacted them too, aside from all the benefits they drew!
      Rachael Minott visited the UWI Museum some months back, and so it was great to see her involvement at the Birmingham Museum and to be able to ask her to contribute this post.

  2. It’s good to know these things but wrong to try and show Britain’s as an evil empire. Britain won the race to build an empire and as empires go was a very successful trading empire in the context of its time. Slavery for instance has been wrong and evil since the dawn of civilisation. But the British empire was the only empire in world history to eventually make it illegal throughout all its dominions thus freeing millions of former slaves as soon as they set foot on any British dependent territory or ship. The education and communication systems in many former colonies are also a legacy of empire. While the British empire would be unacceptable by today’s standards it was arguably the best option for the territories that would otherwise have been annexed by less scrupulous and more evilly intentioned Europeans. Consider the Excesses of Spain and Portugal in South America for instance. It is also important to understand that Britain was not always taking on idyllic farming communities and dominating them . They often took on far less altruistic , if smaller, local empires such as the Zulus, who ruled ruthlessly over their subject people’s . The same could be said for China albeit it is hard to contemplate the Opium trade today without serious unease even if there was a different culture at the time.
    Overall though the British Empire was a trading empire and did more good than it did evil and in two world wars was the barrier between Europe and its colonies being taken over by first an overbearing Militaristic regime set on world domination and secondly the Nazis who, without the stand taken by the British empire, would have overrun Europe and been able to defy America and Russia.

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