Should We Continue to ‘Bring the World’ to London Through Museum Objects?

By Dalia Iskander • Teaching Fellow in Medical Anthropology

On the 29thJune 2018, the Horniman Museum and Gardens opened its World Gallery to the public. Its aim is to explore what it means to be human in different times and places through a display of over 3,000 objects including those curated with the help of UCL anthropologists Jerome Lewis and Dalia Iskander. The new exhibition continues to speak to founder Frederick Horniman’s aim of ‘bringing the world’ to the district of Forest Hill where the museum is located. However, it also provokes questions regarding the place that museums do and should have in this endeavour, the way in which objects are acquired and displayed, and the role museums have in shaping the political encounters that underlie such exhibitions.

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Horniman Museum, World Gallery. © Horniman Museum and Gardens

As you enter the upper walkway of the World Gallery, you would be hard pressed to miss the huge display of colourful kites and banners suspended from the museum ceiling (see image below). These pieces have been made for or donated to the exhibition by contributors such as Ahmadzia Bakhtyari, a London-based Afghan kite-maker, Alafuro Sikoki-Coleman, a Nigerian fashion designer, and Ed Hall, an artist from South London who made his Trade Union-inspired banner with assistance from Horniman volunteers. Intended to explore how people all over the world come together in different ways to celebrate, play or protest, they hang above a display that explains how the museum’s founder, Frederick Horniman, opened up his home – Surrey House – between 1890 and 1898 with the explicit aim of ‘bringing the world’ to London. The well-travelled tea trader and philanthropistwanted to narrow the gap between ‘us’ and ‘them’ by displaying his private collection of artefacts and natural specimens from all over the world to the public. Interestingly, the Horniman – which opened in 1901 to replace Surrey House – is the only museum in London that continues to keep ‘nature’ (through its aquarium, butterfly house and natural history collection) and ‘culture’ (through its vast array of anthropological artefacts and musical instruments) together under one roof in pursuit of this endeavour.

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Display of kites and banners made by artists and volunteers at the World Gallery. © Dalia Iskander

In this sense, the World Gallery continues to fulfil the aim of the museum’s founder as visitors are able to interact with objects from the five inhabited continents of the world. They serve to illustrate how people form connections to objects, past and present ways of life, social encounters (from trade and travel to war and pillage), and contemporary relationships of curation and anthropology that have led to objects being displayed here. Visitors are encouraged to engage all their senses as they interact with exhibits. For example, they can touch intricate metalwork made by the Tuareg living in the Sahara, smell aromatic herbs used by Bhutanese ritual healers and listen to First Nations’ oral narratives from the Pacific Northwest Coast. As such, the permanent gallery is both an informative and engaging space that certainly encourages reflection and dialogue regarding our cultural difference but more importantly, our collective heritage.

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More kites and banners made by artists and volunteers. © Dalia Iskander

Significantly, this gallery tries to move in line with calls for a museology that takes a more inclusive, participatory and politically-engaged approach to the ways in which objects are both acquired and contextualised. This is in an attempt to unveil and potentially even start to overturn many of the underlying contentious political realities and power differentials that underscore museum collections. Much criticism was and continues to be levelled at European museums in particular whose collections are largely built of huge swathes of looted and pillaged artefacts from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas during periods of Empire building, colonialism and war. Their display, often lacking any contextual information regarding the relationships around objects and the circumstances surrounding their acquisition, is said to legitimise injustices in the past and continue the legacy of domination of numerous indigenous peoples in the present. This is only exacerbated by the failure of European museums to repatriate the majority of artefacts from their collections back to their countries of origin. This is despite numerous appeals for restitution and scores of scantily filled museums in many parts of the world, which leave communities little opportunity to ‘bring the world’ to their own people. In an attempt to address this to some extent in the World Gallery, labelling of existing artefacts from the collection sometimes explicitly acknowledge instances where objects have been acquired through looting or war and point out ways in which the museum is working with communities to (at the very least) loan items back to the people that produced them (for example those from Benin in the Encounters section). For some, this will be welcome but rather insufficient to undo the injustices of the past.

However, in the way new objects were collected for the collection, the Horniman has made a concerted effort to engage more directly with communities, both in terms of the selection or creation of objects for display as well as in the construction of the narratives that accompany them. For example, a Collecting Initiative was launched with the UK Royal Anthropological Institute, awarding Anthropology PhD students and Postdoctoral Fellows small grants to collect and research objects for the gallery collaboratively with the communities that they engaged with in their fieldwork.

As a recipient of one of their awards in 2012-3, I worked in partnership with members of the indigenous Pälawan community in the Philippines, with whom I conducted my doctoral fieldwork, to provide artefacts for the Perspectives section. Owing to my focus on health, I worked with a number of Pälawan balayan (healers) for whom material culture plays a central role. Balayan were very keen to donate objects to the museum because they saw this as a way of raising international awareness regarding their indigenous practices and ways of life which they feel are under threat from numerous pressures ranging from mining and economic development to climate change and environmental degradation. As one balayan put it, “this allows us to also use you. The more people in your country know about us, the more they will understand why we want to preserve our ways of life.” I provided two balayan who were keen to donate objects to the museum – Bernas Licos and Sario Langi – digital cameras so that they could visually document their practices and the objects that they used in real-time. The pictures they took formed the basis for discussion regarding which objects the two men felt best reflected and conveyed their work and decisions about what that they would like to donate to the museum. In total, seven artefacts were admitted into the collection (see image below) as well as a set of accompanying photographs taken by Bernas and Sario illustrating how these objects are used in their everyday practice.

Display of artefacts used in Pälawan healing practices donated to the World Gallery by Bernas Licos and Sario Langi. These include a tinkop (basket) that Bernas used to carry his medicines, handed down to him from his father. A diagnostic stick (tari-tari) doll (kundu), pom poms (silad) and amulets (pananga) are also displayed which Sario uses in his healing practices.
Images © Dalia Iskander.

For Bernas and Sario, the World Gallery offered a space in which they could actively play a more inclusive part in the way they are represented to outsiders. In this way, they switched the ethnographic gaze to some extent by using the opportunity of our encounter in ways that also helped them with their own agendas. Similarly, through his long-term engagement with the Mbendjele people of the western Congo Basin, Jerome Lewis provided some of the everyday objects he collected in the field in the Encounters section of the gallery (see image below). Here, the focus is on the minimalism of material culture and how this relates to egalitarianism. In contrast to the many parents and small children that are the regular visitors to the museum, an entire Mbendjele household can be quickly packed into a single basket (bottom left of the case) carried by women as they move between forest camps. Men carry the children and their hunting weapons. A short film display shows people moving to a new part of the forest and building a camp. Another describes some of their efforts to secure recognition for their land rights.

Mbendjele case showing women’s basket, skirts, sleeping mat and cooking utensils. A men’s handbag for keeping his fire-making kit, smoking paraphernalia and magical charms, as well as an axe, knife, cross-bow and spears are also exhibited. The barbed pig-hunting spear is on direct path to strike the rather sweet young red-river hog – one of the Mbendjele’s favourite foods.
Images © Jerome Lewis

In bringing us face-to-face with the worlds of ourselves and others, the World Gallery does more than simply put forward objects for us to admire in a way that uncritically legitimises and perpetuates British colonisation, power and control, past and present. Rather, the gallery also highlights the role that museums are increasingly playing in bringing to light some of the problematic relationships that underscore encounters between people – even those that are deeply uncomfortable, destructive and exploitative. There is certainly much more that museums including the Horniman can and should do to overturn political injustices. However, by involving communities in the way artefacts are curated and displayed, museums can, and should, in my opinion, continue to play an important role in post-colonial contexts. Museums (much like anthropologists) are vehicles which can be (and are) appropriated by indigenous people who use them to tell their own stories, govern their own representation and further their own causes.

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