View of Port Royal and Kingston Harbour in the Island of Jamaica, Etching, Illustration to the ‘European Magazine’, 1782, British Museum, Prints & Drawings. © 2020 The Trustees of the British Museum
Our project was first launched at the University of the West Indies Mona, Kingston (here on the print), in Jamaica in 2019. This campus is not just any place: It is a former plantation site and a graveyard for enslaved people. Supported by the transatlantic slave trade, it was in Kingston where in the seventeenth century Hans Sloane (1660-1753) started collecting what later became the kernel of the British Museum and the Natural History Museum. By holding the workshop in Kingston, we symbolically ‘repatriated’ some object biographies. You will find the workshop reports here.
How many stories can an object have? Neil MacGregor’s BBC Radio 4 programme and subsequent book A History of the World in 100 Objects of 2010 was a resounding success with the British public, as well as internationally. Reaching new audiences with the aim of providing a global outlook and presenting history through the lens of objects the argument, however, had its flaws.
The British Museum reinstated the idea of a ‘view from nowhere’ and everywhere at the same time. It was presented as a place to see the world; yet without any reflection on how the institution itself obtained and reframed the objects in order to create its own seemingly universal narrative. Critics particularly pointed to a failure of the museum to engage with the provenance and repatriation of objects. Many saw their view confirmed that colonialism ultimately produced not just inequalities of power but also a distorted view of history.
Ten years after the radio programme was broadcast our project 100 Histories of 100 World in one Object returns to its narrative. Focussing on voices from ‘the Global South’ and the formerly subaltern people it left out: Where are the stories of the objects presented as seen by people who once used them? How was knowledge about an object informed by colonial collecting practices; and how is this context presented in museums today? Could an entirely new History of the World in 100 Objects be told, and if so, how? Can a history of the world be told through a certain number of objects at all? How can formerly excluded voices be empowered to tell their own histories beyond these frameworks?
Our long-term publication project will take a selection of the 100 Objects as a starting point to then move beyond them in material, archival, and philosophical terms.
We start from the premise that an object’s original function and its later (colonial) appropriation are integral parts of its biography. Seeking new methods, research approaches and formats in dealing with museum object histories, we will also develop a new vocabulary and discourse for an ongoing debate. This means that we will gather new object biographies with the ultimate goal of addressing broader questions that concern the role of museums in the multicultural societies of tomorrow. Our goal is therefore to achieve more than an alternative history of the British Museum but instead work towards a multilateral fusion of object histories and present legacies in museums and their collections through and with scholars, artists and curators in the ‘Global South’ and previously excluded diaspora groups. We will also seek collaborations with museums in the West (including the British Museum) and throughout the world to implement our contributions. In doing so, we support the democratization of museum spaces, which seeks to recognize and empower diverse ethnic audiences and their material past.
Interested in contributing? Please see our Call for Action.
Read more about the context of this project:
100 Histories of 100 Worlds in one Object. An Interview with Mirjam Brusius, Subhadra Das and Alice Stevenson, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 05.12.2019, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/20851.