Until October 22nd, 2022, the Wardlaw Museum is hosting a temporary exhibition ‘Re-collecting Empire’ to explore the legacies of colonialism and the British Empire primarily in the fine arts community. Open since July 2022, the exhibit asks visitors a series of questions; it requests the reconsideration of knowledge passed down through the British Empire’s narrative on art.
The exhibit opens with a large-print Winston Churchill quote: “If the British Empire is fated to pass from life into history, we must hope it will not be by the slow process of dispersion and decay, but in some supreme exertion for freedom, for right and for truth” and transitions the viewer directly to the question of whose identity does the legacy of empire and colonialism carry and curate. Immediately, there’s an understanding of power, how the imperial powers depicted the colonised areas as underdeveloped and ‘primitive’.
The museum digs especially into St Andrews’ colonial legacy. It acknowledges Thomas Chalmers, who lived from 1780-1847, and how his establishment of the Free Church of Scotland benefited from the donations of slave traders in the United States. Similarly, the museum displays a bell, which it cites was made in China during the 1700 or 1800s, and notes St Andrews Literary and Philosophical Society’s mislabelling of the object as a ‘handbell’. The exhibit quotes St Andrews student Shenxue to identify the object’s actual function: “The bell comes from a set of musical instruments, used mostly by the royal court in important ceremonies. The size of the bell decides the note. They can match almost every note on the piano. Most of them are hanging bells and the musician uses a stick to strike them; they are not bells”. This mislabelling, the exhibit explains, is a direct effect of the imperial exposition of non-Western objects and their removal from the informative context.
The exhibit consists not only of objects inadequately explained through the lens of imperialist powers but also of art with a post-colonial narrative. Barbadian-Scottish artist Alberta Whittle hangs prints adapted from the works of artists like Théodore de Bry and Jan van der Straet. The prints boast bold colours and violent imagery to sufficiently represent colonial conquests. Her print Secreting Myths: Jade shows a “group of indigenous people being attacked by gods while the European colonisers watch”. These eye-catching works underscore the importance of re-contextualising existing objects and pieces of art, but also lead to the exhibition’s next question: “whose voices?”
The exhibit closes with a Margaret Thatcher quote: “The British Empire took freedom and the rule of law to countries that would never have known it otherwise”, as a push for Wardlaw’s responsibility in shifting perspective away from the imperialist lens to a more nuanced outlook from those colonised. The exhibit closed by questioning museum content across the United Kingdom and whether they have historically curated content for those in power or for those whose identity is seemingly misrepresented in displays. The curators of ‘Re-collecting Empire’ clearly understood the power of the museum, as a vehicle for amusement but really for information. Museums are where those curious often seek out information, and the Wardlaw Museum recognises the responsibility of these institutions to re-collect empire for the sake of honest perspective. Efficient, clear, and memorable, ‘Re-collecting Empire’ is one of St Andrews’ current must-sees.
Photo by Helen Lipsky