Re-Collecting Empire: An Immersive Wardlaw Exhibition
Anisha discusses the importance of exhibitions like the Wardlaw Museum’s Re-Collecting Empire in rewriting histories of colonialism and imperialism.
For the past few months, the Wardlaw Museum in St Andrews has been home to the Re-Collecting Empire exhibition. Whilst managing to capture vivid visuals from the past and having interactive displays to engage with participants as much as possible, the exhibition also encourages viewers to think about how we interact with historical pieces.
Re-Collecting Empire changed my perspective on how exhibitions, museums and displays are conventionally created. Instead of artifacts being presented for simple observation with a label or short explanation, Re-Collecting Empire invited viewers to engage with the exhibit’s cultural heritage in relation to personal and national narratives. The replica of a fish, for example, was placed within the framework of it being from the Indian subcontinent, as well as being identified as of the species ‘Tunualosa Ilisha’ and noted by its cultural and personal importance, rather than being placed out of context as an objective and impersonal artifact.
The relevance of the exhibition was very much prominent: it highlighted the connection that St Andrews, both as a town and as a university institution, has to imperial conquests and legacies. Displays pointed specifically and directly to case studies that depict how the institution was involved in profiting from the donations of slave traders, and thus, the exploitation of the enslaved.
The BAME society hosted a social called ‘The Late Takeover’, which encompassed all parts of the Wardlaw Museum, with attendees being invited to engage with exhibitions beyond the specific empire-focused one. What struck me most was the way in which the exhibited items were situated in dialogue with questions of authority, power and colonialism. Post-it notes were handed out on which guests could vocalise their thoughts and opinions on different displays, feeding into the question of “which narratives do we value?”.
Some of the spaces for creative interactions held anonymous comments. These comments drew on how the exhibition has helped them think about their previous views, their families and subsequently their own identities in relation to such a potent force. The pressing relevance for spaces like this is signified in a statement such as Putra’s, seen below: “Empire expands and lives on… the gold and oil is still bled from our earth”.
The setup of scrawled, bright writing on walls that also photographed official documents and papers indicated the extent to which questioning and interacting with the past was so crucial. Indeed, one of the notes invited “your own point of view to help consider ways to respond to the ideas and legacies of empire”.
The room was laid out to vaguely resemble a chronological order, spanning from quotes involving the opinions surrounding empire, to Gandhi and even present-day students. Each display made an attempt to connect its viewers with history and valued the opinions each attendee had concerning the personal impacts and nation-wide atrocities of the empire. Surrounding quotes from the likes of Churchill and Thatcher regarding empire were comments which challenged them, questioning narratives through short, sharp and thought-provoking rhetoric; “whose voices?”, “who profits?”, “whose culture?”, “whose benefits?”. These displays certainly didn’t shy away from encouraging engagement with these dialogues.
It is projects like these, which elevate underrepresented and often overlooked voices, that have significantly impacted outlooks on power dynamics, how we view others and our own identity. It has greatly inspired me to delve into unravelling and uncovering histories in a less Eurocentric way, taking this into my discussion group ‘Anything but the West’. The lively social event gave students an open and creative space to discuss topics such as these, reaffirming the relevance a so-called “history” has on present lives for students.
Speaking with Eilidh Laurence, who is part of the exhibition team at the Wardlaw Museum, she loved how these projects allowed for a springboard towards intersectional discussions, as well as the broad interactions individuals and groups had with it.
Her favourite part were the comment cards, whereby she noted that she’d “never seen so much engagement” with displays before. And I can certainly agree: hearing the different stories about why this project was so impactful, from visitors to students and staff, they truly made all the difference.
The realisation of the Re-Collecting Empire exhibition took a number of years, persevering from the proposal stage through a global pandemic. The variety of people and groups involved behind the scenes truly showed just how much the exhibition valued the input of different individuals. Eilidh revealed that Dr Emma Bond, from the School of Modern Languages, initially had the idea for the exhibition. It then progressed to consultation stages under the title of ‘Critical Conversations’ with the BAME Students’ Network.
I got to hear some insider details about some of the pieces, including ‘The Conjurer’, a project from the artist-in-residence, Alberta Whittle. Whittle used a book of colonial laws as inspiration to tell her own story on how indigenous peoples are portrayed in art. Through reworking old engravings, with – fun fact – snail trails over the faces of colonisers, she attempted to retell and refocus history.
Re-Collecting Empire was undoubtedly one of the most interactive and immersive exhibitions I’ve ever been to, a space where oppressive words, ideologies and actions were not only uncovered but questioned. Details of future exhibitions can be found on the Wardlaw Museum webpage, and Re-Collecting Empire is on display until October 22nd 2022.
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