Examining the past in terms of black presence in British history has produced distinctive cultural interventions. Working with and through the imprint of the Imperial-Colonial replica can produce a variety of unsettling encounters that reconfigure the ways in which
the âcanonâ and the âcollectionâ can be reconsidered.
For a number of contemporary British black writers, museums, burial grounds and monuments have catalyzed a way to portray black life in bright and imaginative ways. By creatively rendering the heritages hidden in the museum space and by inscribing the black presences in landmarks, they contribute to a radical revision of commemorative cultural history.
“Historical poetics” is a term I coined to describe poems that are engraved on surfaces other than paper – especially those that have a commemorative function in sculpture and on sidewalks, buildings and gravestones. . Poets such as SuAndi (Poems on Discs, Centenary Walkway, Salford Quays, 1994), Jackie Kay (Anne, The Bronte Stones Project, 2018), Lemn Sissay (The Gilt of Cain, set in the sculpture by Michael Visocchi, Fen Court , London, 2007) and Fred D’Aguiar (At the Grave of the Unknown African, Henbury Parish Church, 1992) have all produced counter-monumental works that create their own archives of black bodies relating to British history.
Another point on this reorientation of the cultural compass is Bernardine Evaristo’s 2001 novel, The Emperor’s Babe. It features an unforgettable Nubian-Roman heroine Zuleika, whose author states: “The idea of ââa black girl in Roman Britain is a revolutionary idea because it challenges notions of Britain and his history.”
Taking place during the reign of the African-born emperor Septimius Severus, the tragicomic epic of Evaristo pushes imaginations beyond the âknown storiesâ rooted in post-Renaissance periods (slavery, colonization, migration after the WWII) in predominantly white culture.
Evaristo says, âI wanted to write about the African presence in Roman Britain because there was a legion of Moors stationed in the north 1,800 years ago. I wanted to disrupt the idea that Britain was only populated by whites until recently. ”
The Emperor’s Babe, a verse novel, delves deep into the ancient past when Britannia was just a “remote northern outpost” of the Roman Empire. Readers see the ancient Londinium through a black woman-centric lens, and they come out of the novel with a new understanding of the period.
Evaristo notes that: âI did use the term ‘literary archeology’ when I first started working on The Emperor’s Babe. I saw myself as an archaeologist, partly inspired by the fact that I was working at the Museum of London as a poet in residence and researching for the book with archaeologists and environmentalists there.
She adds: âSince the book came out, the museum has introduced a black Roman character played by an actor who guides people through the Roman part of the museum. I receive great satisfaction from this very tangible result.
As Evaristo unearths hidden “stories” to represent Londinium 211 CE, it is worth inviting comparisons to another empire, the British Empire, such as Britannia would develop centuries later, and the results of what remains in museum collections.
The exhumation of indigenous burial sites and their destruction is one of the cornerstones of British museum history generated by Imperial ideology and attitudes towards the collection. Excavations of ancient burials from the Renaissance were generally presented under the heading âantiquitiesâ.
This means that human remains have ended up in boxes, drawers, storage cabinets and display cases in British museums which are overwhelmingly linked to the violence, displacement and dispossession caused by the British Empire.
The assumptions underlying the evolution of British collections have traditionally been rationalized through a program of civilized safeguarding, a perceived right to protect cultural material from colonized territories and elsewhere. The return of the remains of the ancestors is, without question, the only moral and ethically appropriate action for the institutions which hold them, but it is far from simple.
First, there is the racist cataloging of people to whom Imperial bone collectors have not accorded their humanity. Brook artist, curator and scholar Garru Andrew, who is of Waridjuri and Celtic descent, remembers: Join ‘. ”
Alongside the iniquity of dehumanization is added the irreversible loss of the place of origin. Author and journalist Paul Daley writes of the boxes of 725 indigenous peoples’ remains held at the National Museum of Australia in Mitchell, Canberra: âThe identities of pitifully few of those held at Mitchell can be determined. The provenance of 434 cannot be established. The rest is either kept indefinitely in the museum at the request of communities, or cannot be returned for other practical reasons. The stories of most are lost.
But what about archaeological exhumations of ancient burial sites in Britain? The way ancient burial contents (bones and artifacts) are displayed has offered insights and fixes to the poorly remembered and erased presences of people of African descent in the British Isles. The exhumation of tombs dating from the Roman occupation has reconfigured the closed narratives that aided and encouraged the myths of a monoracial history.
These “remnants of the day” are approached in terms of discovering African ancestry through bioarchaeological evidence via ancient DNA and food, as evidenced by the Roman Dead exhibition at the Museum of London in 2018. The care and respect for how individuals of ancient eras were buried opens up new perspectives, not only on those times, but on how later history has shifted such facts.
The case of the Ivory Bangle Lady discovered in York in 1901, âcontradicts the assumptions which may derive from more recent historical experience, namely that immigrants are of low status and male, and that Africans are likely to ‘to have been slaves,’ according to a book on the subject, A Lady of York: Migration, Ethnicity and Identity in Roman Britain.
Writing the wrongs of the past
Crispin Paine, in the 2013 book Religious Objects in Museums: Private Lives and Public Duties, writes that “museums empty objects of their power.” But from whose point of view does such an observation come?
For many visitors, a museum presents evidence of a past in which ancestral cultures were collected, exhibited and objectified, a place where architecture, atmosphere, content and emotions come together to produce a space of traumatic experience.
They can also be places of omission, as freelance writer Yosola Olorunshola memorably describes when he encounters a single piece dedicated to the Haitian revolution at the British Museum in London. When she “wandered into the next room, desperate to know more”, she found herself “surrounded by portraits of white men”.
âThe juxtaposition was shocking,â she writes. âI realized that the exhibition was already over. That was it – one piece on a whole revolution. Instead, I walked into the museum’s expansive Gallery of Lights, brazenly titled Collecting the World.
In her article on the subject, Olorunshola quotes Sandra Shakespeare, co-founder of Museum Detox and founder of the Black British Museum Project, who expresses the urgent need for a museum dedicated to black culture in Britain.
âThere are around 2,500 museums in the UK depending on what you include. There is a Dog Collar Museum, a Marble Museum, and a Lawn Mower Museum. But surprisingly, and given the black presence in Britain dating back to Roman times, there is no permanent museum dedicated to Black British history and art.
As Brook Garru Andrew, the inaugural Indigenous director of the Sydney Biennale 2020, asserts: âWhile an exhibition may tackle world themes – and include works of art from ‘other’ creators – it does not constitute not in itself a radical activity which annuls the canon. To be hostile to the stories of imperialism, through an exhibition, implies a dismantling of the institution itself.
There is a Dog Collar Museum, a Marble Museum, and a Lawn Mower Museum. But surprisingly, and given the black presence in Britain dating back to Roman times, there is no permanent museum dedicated to Black British history and art.
The formation of two prominent organizations in the UK, Museum Detox and the Black British Museum Project, are visionary examples of conservation practices that promise to destabilize and dismantle Eurocentric (white) domination.
This work is vital to engender how the âsitesâ and âviewsâ of museum spaces are transformed by social, cultural and racial justice. However, in creating a space to “feel better”, this must be accompanied by justice. As Anglo-Australian scholar Sara Ahmed warns: “Feeling better is not a sign that justice has been served.”
It is also inevitably emotional work, as Ahmed explains: âEmotions show us how stories stay alive, even when we are not consciously remembering them; how stories of colonialism, slavery and violence shape lives in the present.
The work of the Black British Museum Project on provenances and legacies of the past promises to emancipate museum space through reinterpretation. As Shakespeare writes: âA Black British Museum must think intelligently about the objects and collections it seeks to exhibit and exhibit. What can we do differently? ”
The late American novelist, essayist, playwright, poet and activist James Baldwin provides a partial answer when he urges: truth about it. Sing or shout or testify or keep it to yourself: but know where you come from.
Dr Deirdre Osborne is Lecturer of English Literature and Drama in the Drama and Performance Department at Goldsmiths and co-organizes the Masters Degree in Black British Writing.