What if a museum object were turned upside down? Our departure point is Neil MacGregor’s BBC radio programme and book A History of the World in 100 Objects of 2010. It was narrated by the then director of the British Museum who later became one of the founding directors of the Humboldt Forum. It presented a global history of the world through the lens of objects. But the argument had its flaws. It reinstated the idea of a ‘view from nowhere’ and everywhere at the same time: The museum as a place to see the world; yet without any reflection on how it obtained and reframed the objects in order to create its own seemingly universal narrative.
Ten years after the programme we brought together a collective of researchers, curators, activists, and artists to show that one object contains 100 histories of 100 worlds. Almost all of us have family roots in the ‘Global South’. We are both outside to protest, but at the same time inside the museum to create a dialogue that will lead to a greater multitude of stories in museum spaces themselves. For museums to have greater validity their stories cannot be told by a single monolithic and privileged voice. Nor can this be remedied by just adding views within just one frame. Objects stories cannot be static but must be open for others to converse with, in their own terms, in the future.
We believe that museums in Europe can only be credible if their display is generated through a reciprocal dialogue prioritizing first and foremost the multivocality of source communities. So how can conflicting or parallel ways of seeing, knowing and feeling things find a space around these objects?
Last year we returned to the subaltern voices that the British Museum had left out. We also ‘returned’ to Jamaica, where its collection has its origin. Many museums built their wealth on the transatlantic slave trade. We presented our own object histories on a former Jamaican plantation, and thus returned to a site of brutality, violence, oppression and subjugation. But trauma is also inscribed in the façade of the Berlin Stadtschloss. As it was erected, Brandenburg established Fort Gross Friedrichsburg on the coast of present-day Ghana. Germany purchased captive Africans, trafficked and then sold them into enslavement in the Caribbean. This trauma proliferates in the present through material representations and celebrations of the past. What if important aspects of history are eradicated? What if these legacies persist in ongoing global injustice and do not just lie in the past? What if countries and communities want some objects to be returned?
There is a fundamental need to consider where museum narratives come from. Display has a profound impact on how audiences perceive not just artefacts and history but also people. Erasure continues to whitewash the histories of colonized subjects in ways that reinforce contemporary social injustice, which undermines the idea that museums belong to everyone. So when will museums put more care into people, rather than objects?
As calls for repatriation often continue to be unheard, we need to redress the balance of power—and to create spaces for subalterns to speak and be listened to: to heal historic wounds, and build new relationships through apology, dialogue and reciprocity. If decolonisation is not a metaphor, we cannot fast forward to a more equitable society. We need to do this work together first.
Rather than set the terms of the conversation, we intend to centre what different communities need from decolonisation: What, for instance, if talking about colonialism is too painful, and communities prefer positive representations of their worldviews? We want to be a dynamic platform that centres how different communities benefit from decolonisation efforts, not Western museums. But they cannot support this conversation unless they are willing to open their doors properly. We urge museums to seek lasting multi-directional curatorial approaches, where communities of association and local diasporic communities can speak back to these representations and bring in alternative frames of reference of meaning and relevance to them. As one of the participants, Golda Ha-Eiros, a curator from Namibia whose work is visible inside the Humboldt Forum, movingly put it: in a German museum storage the object is just a number, in Namibia it has meaning to people. It is these stories that can turn museums upside down.
Find out more about us and our stories here: https://100histories100worlds.org/