University of St Andrews: New exhibition tackles legacies of empire

A new exhibition exploring the legacies of the British empire has opened at the University of St Andrews’ Wardlaw Museum.

Re-collecting Empire presents objects from the University’s collections alongside perspectives from individuals and partner groups that help improve understanding of the countries and cultures from which the items came.

Exhibits include a copy of the Qur’an which once belonged to the Sultan of Mysore, a Tibetan stone, a Chinese bell used in sacred ceremonies and a statue of a Buddhist monk. The contributions alongside them include personal reflections, annotations and quotes, as well as creative responses such as poetry or art, seeking to foreground voices and perspectives that have often been excluded.

Re-collecting Empire is funded by Museums Galleries Scotland and is a collaboration with Dr Emma Bond of the University’s School of Modern Languages, who has extensive experience working with Scottish museums to re-assess their colonial legacies and sits on the Decolonizing Advisory Board of V&A Dundee.

Dr Bond said: “The Re-collecting Empire exhibition opens at a time when museums and galleries across the UK and beyond are rethinking how best to care for objects in their collections that were acquired during periods of colonial rule. Multiple voices must be involved in these important conversations in order for museums to be able to move forward in more equitable ways.”

Dr Catherine Eagleton, Director of Libraries and Museums at the University of St Andrews, said: “This exhibition is the result of a lot of careful thinking and consultation about how we tackle the colonial legacies in our collection. It’s an attempt to explore these stories publicly and trial new ways of telling them, with the voices of those who have often been excluded at the forefront.”

Among those contributing important cultural and personal perspectives to the exhibition is Dr Anindya Raychaudhuri, Senior Lecturer in the University’s School of English. Dr Raychaudhuri provides commentary on an exhibit of Tenualosa Ilisha, a fish that is popular in parts of the Indian subcontinent, eaten on special days. Up until now, the fish had been recorded in museum records only by its scientific classification, its cultural significance overlooked.

Dr Raychaudhuri said: “For me, it is a strange experience to see this fish represented simply and uncomplicatedly as a zoological sample. The exhibition highlights the cultural importance of the fish and the emotional investment that people may have with it – from memories of the sensory experience of a loud and messy Bengali fish market, to the pain of partition, which resulted in millions of people being forced to move away from their homes and, therefore, from the senses and flavours with which they had been familiar. Objects like this mean many things all at once, and the exhibition is attempting to include as many of these alternative perspectives as possible.”

With Dr Bond, the Museums team secured funding from the Boswell Committee, the National Fund for Acquisitions and the Art Fund to invite Turner Prize-winning artist Alberta Whittle to be the resident artist for Re-collecting Empire. Alberta worked with objects and volumes from across the University’s Museum holdings to produce a brand-new series of commissioned prints which feature in the exhibition and complement her work representing Scotland at the 59th Venice Biennale international art exhibition.

Dr Bond also worked closely with Alberta Whittle to provide St Andrews students with the opportunity to take part in the Scotland+Venice Learning Programme at the Biennale for the first time. Three St Andrews students will complete placements as invigilators in Venice before the close of the Biennale in November 2022.

The Re-collecting Empire project began in early 2020. Supported by an advisory board of academics and museum professionals from across Scotland, Dr Bond and the Museums team held a series of ‘critical conversations’ with students and staff from St Andrews, ran academic workshops exploring the histories of specific objects in the collections, and co-produced a learning programme with the BAME Students’ Network.

Dr Bond said: “It was a privilege to work closely with such a wide range of people with expertise in so many related areas. I hope that Re-collecting Empire signals the start of a productive and transparent conversation with these groups about how to reckon with the legacies of empire that are present in the University’s collections.”

Visitors to the exhibition are encouraged to participate in the discussion by creating their own object labels, commenting on the labels in the exhibition and sharing their feedback.

Dr Eagleton said: “We have been experimental in the way we have put together this exhibition and we know we will not get everything right, but we hope to open a conversation with visitors to better understand and help improve the legacies of empire today.”

The exhibition is an important part of the University Museums’ strategic objective to tackle institutional legacies and one of several University projects currently under way, including St Andrews and the Legacies of Empire, which seeks to understand the institution’s complex connections to the ideas and practice of empire. This programme is led by academics from the School of History and the Vice-Principal for Collections, with expertise and guidance from an interdisciplinary steering group drawn from across the whole University. Recommendations for future research and actions will be published in a report later this year.

Re-collecting Empire at the Wardlaw Museum runs until Saturday 22 October 2022. The Wardlaw Museum is open Monday to Friday, 11am to 7pm, and on Saturdays and Sundays from 10am to 5pm.

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