In Alice Procter’s new book, The Whole Picture, Sumaya Kassim finds a smart, accessible and brilliantly structured work that encourages readers to go beyond the grand architecture of cultural institutions and see the problematic colonial histories behind them.
‘You have to know your history to understand how to challenge its legacy’
Museums have become a central rallying point in our fight for our futures. They are the centre of a global conversation characterised by protest, artistic intervention and creative activism. Across the world collectives, curators, artists and activists are confronting colonial legacies, white supremacy, racism, unethical sponsorships of these public institutions. Museums remain part of the colonial machinery, facilitating a certain way of looking in the same way they facilitated colonial plunder and theft. The repatriation debates in particular show how power is guarded by institutions and gatekeepers.
However, no matter what the interpretation, the labelling or the corporate spiel, the objects remain, bearing witness to violence, to points of origin, signalling that there are other perspectives and other ways of relating to museums and the nation. Most of the debates have centred on the ethics of keeping human remains, as well as stolen and sacred objects. To tell someone that the crown jewels are stolen objects is a powerful reversal of the white, imperial gaze. Imagining the scale of colonialism, the brutality of the violence, the sheer extent of the exploitation and the unbelievable amount of money that exchanged hands – that built an Empire – is extremely difficult. It is through material objects, buildings and statues that we can begin to reckon with the material weight of colonialism.
Historian and educator Alice Procter is a central figure in this fight. She developed the Uncomfortable Art tours to combat the historical elisions she witnessed during her studies. Her ability to bring together historical expertise, an ear for storytelling, DIY magic and a much needed dose of feistiness has cemented her reputation as someone to be reckoned with in the heritage sector.
These attributes are all present in her debut. The Whole Picture (Octopus) is organised around the conceit of a tour where we visit four types of galleries which serve as sections: The Palace, The Classroom, The Memorial, and The Playground. The structuring of the book as a tour and around specific forms is a smart one, allowing Procter to weave a convincing story about the ideologies at work through architecture and objects, whilst also playing to Procter’s strengths and experience as a guide. It means complex ideas and debates are accessible without losing nuance.
Procter’s first section on Palace museums captures the ridiculous things men tell themselves and others in order to get away with nicking precious objects, selling them on or simply surrounding themselves. Reading about the likes of John Soane, William Hamilton and Thomas Pitt, I was forcibly reminded of the scenes of glittering gratuitous wealth in Baz Luhrmann’s film adaptation of The Great Gatsby. Men like these are frequently described as eccentric or hobbyists, but this downplays the way in which they weaponised ideas of taste and sensibility to develop and partake in the illegal art and artefacts trade.
We move on from collections that heavily bear the mark of their elite collectors to the museums that were meant for the public with the specific aim to instil pride in one’s national identity which, in the case of Britain and its colonies, meant defining who was and was not civilised through race science. These categories were developed by museums in a variety of ways. Most have heard of William Wilberforce. How many of us have heard of the organised uprisings and rebellions in Jamaica and other colonies? (These violent erasures have been part of the Caribbean’s oral tradition for centuries, and perhaps most famously documented by intellectual CLR James in The Black Jacobins). Britain continues to highlight the contributions of white men; it also continues to insist on a national trajectory of progress that simply does not map onto Britain’s racist postcolonial reality.
The Memorial focuses on the display of people and human remains. It is the most challenging section; who is remembered and how in the context of traumatic histories exposes the often deeply unequal and racist ways museums can operate. They are often infamously reticent about the repatriation of human remains. For instance, the mokomokai, the mummified heads of Maori people, which were traded by non-Maori people for tools and weapons, are still held onto by Museums. The Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa has led the way in making repatriation claims, where human remains are not accessioned but kept in wahi tapu – a sacred keeping space. Procter writes about the representation of trauma and how we can tell difficult histories in honouring, healing ways beautifully. Her choice not to provide pictures in this section is powerful.
The final section, The Playground, focuses on the work of contemporary artists confronting the structures on which their work depends. This includes analysis of Tania Brugera’s Tatlin’s Whisper #5, Kara Walker’s Sugar Baby, Michael Parekowhai’s The English Channel, and Michael Rakowitz’s Return. The analyses of such a diverse set of artists allows for a thought-provoking interrogation of artists’ positionalities and their power to engage with commemoration, the success and failures of such enterprises when engaging with colonial histories and structures.
By navigating colonial histories through individuals, objects and buildings simultaneously Procter captures the complex ideological aspects so often brushed over in museums. It is worth noting that many of the ideas present in The Whole Picture emerge from decades’ worth of activism done by our foremothers and forefathers in the fight over our histories and our peoples. As this is a popular book I understand the necessity of keeping academic references to a minimum, but I hope that readers will use this as a starting point to uncover this history.
For Procter, education is the key. She is hopeful that in changing how we look at museums we can empower visitors to think for themselves. I am not sure I am as hopeful; I am consistently surprised by how resistant both institutions and people are to change. Regardless, this is an excellent introduction to the key debates, central figures and objects that have defined the battle over museums in the past few years. The Whole Picture is an insightful, engaging and above all sensitively written text that will benefit everyone in understanding why museums are such ‘bad vibes’ (to use The White Pube’s terminology).
Alice Procter’s The Whole Picture: The colonial story of the art in our museums and why we need to talk about it is published by Octopus Books and is available to purchase online here. Follow Alice on Twitter @aaprocter and on Instagram @aliceaprocter. Follow Sumaya Kassim on Twitter @SFkassim
Feature image: Kara Walker’s The Subtlety or the Marvellous Sugar Baby, (2014).