Is the current anxiety for "decolonisation" of our culture and some of its institutions genuinely about "de-colonising"? Or is it in reality the replacement of a physical/historical colonialism by a new, ideological colonialism - an ideological "re-colonisation"?
In Bristol, this question has arisen around the figure of Edward Colston (this Wikepedia link includes a description of the renaming of a number of institutions in Bristol previously named after Edward Colston). Money that he made in trade at sea, which included a significant governance role in a company that traded in African slaves, was used in part to fund a wide range of philanthropic and civic projects in Bristol.
In Shoreditch, in East London, the question has arisen around the figure of Robert Geffrye. The museum that is now known as the Museum of the Home was formerly known as the Geffrye Museum, and is located on the site of almshouses that were originally endowed by Robert Geffrye. Like Edward Colston, some of the investments from which Robert Geffrye benefitted were related to the slave trade; and, also like Edward Colston, Robert Geffrye was responsible for charitable endowments.
Should figures such as Edward Colston and Robert Geffrye be excised from our contemporary cultural expression? Today we see the trade in African slaves as being akin to a mortal sin; at the times of Edward Colston and Robert Geffrye the prevailing culture did not see it in that way. Thinking philosophically rather than historically, we should recognise that, whatever the prevailing cultural acceptance at the time, participation in the slave trade represented a denial of the dignity and respect due to other human persons (African slaves). In other areas of their activity, however, we should also recognise that figures like Edward Colston and Robert Geffrye acted in a way which favoured the dignity and respect due to other human persons (the beneficiaries of their almshouses or educational institutions).
They are figures who represent a mixture of wheat and tares, to use a Biblical analogy. Until recently, our cultural expression was very willing to reflect the wheat and to disregard the tares; and now it is perhaps very willing to reflect the tares and disregard the wheat. I think that a just cultural expression needs to reflect a correct assessment of both the wheat and the tares; and that cultural re-assessment may not be a correct assessment if its only outcome is the removal of the names of Edward Colston and Robert Geffrye from institutions associated with them. If their presence is excised, the question is not concluded until we look at what replaces that presence; and a recent visit to the Museum of the Home, formerly known as the Geffrye Museum, raises exactly that question of what has replaced the former expression.
In 2021, the museum reopened after an extensive redevelopment, which added a series of exhibition spaces in what had originally been the basements of the almshouses. The museum has also undertaken a process of engagement with its local community in East London, which is reflected in some of the displays in the new exhibition "alcoves" in the basement and in the narratives associated with the long standing "Rooms through Time" along the main corridor above ground. [One might recognise, though, as was suggested by my fellow visitor, that those who have taken part in the resulting displays are of middle or professional class.]
Of the new displays, I found two to be of particular interest. One used recorded video, photos and objects to discuss the range of religious belief that might exist in the locality of the museum, basing it on the objects of religious significance that might be displayed in a person's home. I found the representation of Christianity disappointing in two ways. Firstly, it didn't express the practical act of charity and advocacy in its relation to specific belief about the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus; and secondly it did not refer to Christian churches. The person who spoke came over as if they might be a Christian without any specific denominational affiliation, which whilst it may be fair to the particular individual who contributed, may not be true of the local community as a whole.
The other display that I found interesting was one that explored what it means to speak of "home". This was represented by photographs and accounts of residents from the local area. I was struck by how many of he displays described people who had lived long term in rented accommodation that they had made "home". This, I thought, was an interesting exploration for a museum whose "charism" is that of representing the physical displays of homes through time.
The "Rooms through Time" displays show a series of full size recreations of living rooms from different times. Each display includes the decor - carpets, wall paper, windows, curtains - and furniture of the time. From visits that we made before the redevelopment of the museum, I recall these displays being tweaked to reflect the time of year. Our recent visit was in early December, so the narratives associated with the rooms and materials displayed on dining tables reflected Boxing Day or the Jewish feast of Hannukah. In one or two cases, the new narratives did not really reflect the content of the room, with a certain sense that a narrative had been imposed on a room that did not necessarily express the narrative. A room whose narrative was that of an Imperial Airways pilot contained some features of art deco style - Critall windows, an art deco style dining table, a fireplace - that I recall from an earlier visit to the museum being the real point of this particular display. Likewise, a 60s/70s open plan home with a mezannine sleeping area above a kitchen area to one side of the main living space, is now accompanied by a narrative of a lesbian friend who has been kicked out of her home staying overnight after a late night party (a mattress and bedding on the floor having been added to the previously existing display). Here in particular, the "home" being displayed - a style of open plan living - really does not justify the imposed narrative. In both of these examples, the narrative does not produce a style of home-making - furnishings, furniture, displayed objects - that one would expect in a display of a "home".
Which leads to the question raised at the beginning of this post. Has the former Geffrye Museum, in distancing itself from the person of Robert Geffrye, chosen to replace that former association with a historical colonialism with a new, ideological form of colonialisation? And, at the same time, to make itself less a Museum of the Home?