80. British Museum Curator Sushma Jansari Shares Stories and Experiments of Decolonising Museums
Welcome to museum archipelago. I'm Ian Elsner. Museum archipelago guides you through the rocky landscape of museums each episode. He's never longer than fifteen minutes. So let's get started. There's a way to look at history that focuses on the events themselves. And then there's a way to look a history that focuses on the fallout in the Fourth Century. Bc. E So Lucas. Who's one of Alexander the great successors and Chandra Gupta who is the first Moyen Emperor in northern India met for the first time by the banks of the River Indus and there they had some kind of military encounter? What kind of military encounter? Well we don't really know what we do know is that following the encounter. Greek ambassador megacity was sent to the Indian Interior for the first time and he wrote an ethnographic cool the indicate and it described India for Greek Odeon based on personal observation. But also that you need this. Lots of strange storytelling as well. And this particular tax reform the foundation of Western knowledge of India for generations. And you can just imagine that. Soldiers and British soldiers in the nineteenth century took translations of this particular taxed with them to north west of India when they were exploring. So it's a very long life and it's particularly that that continues to resonate. This is Dr Shushma John. Sorry Tabor Foundation Curator of South Asia at the British Museum. I'm talk to central Michigan. Sorry on the Table Foundation Creator South Asia at the British Museum. And when I'm not at work I welcome my podcast which is very much a passion project and this is called the Wander House will get to the wonder house in a minute because it's an excellent podcast but I a doctorate at University College London. Jane sorry studied this ancient encounter of which only Greek descriptions survive. That moment of meeting in connection has been completely transformed it was transformed cleaner period by British and Indian scholars have precious scholars saying. Oh you know so. Give Woman's warned. He defeated this Indian general whereas the Indian scholars right the the complete opposite that take gender. Gupta defeated this incoming European and he became a great leader and ruler. So actually I think because of this uncertainty. I think it tells us a lot about the time we live in right now. And how may have been transformed in the past so that Doesn't it doesn't bother me in the sense that we will never have this Tonic truth because you know we're never going to get that what we can study is the fallout. How people interpret these historic events and how that reflects on the moment. They're living in now and of course what better way to see in the form of a building how people interpret historic events than a museum itself. This is why the whole idea of decolonizing museums and collections is so important. Because I think up. Till now we've all been complicit in telling partial stories under the guise of trying to be neutral and as we know that neutrality is quite problematic and it tells very very partial truth or partial version of a story. Museums are great way to see what historic events meant to the museum. Builders and I can think of no clearer example than the British Museum. We have reading credible exhibitions on. Say you know when you're thinking of ancient South Asia? They're often on Buddhism or Hinduism organism. So they have a very close religious fakers but will they don't tend to address very rarely that I've ever seen anyway is today's collections. Arrive here. What was the clinical interest in that material? How has it been interrupted? How's it been presented at also? Why why Nice particular ways? How how has that changed over the last century or so it? It's too easy to present a cycle neutral view the ancient Pau of ancient religions. But I I don't think that's particularly ethical. I think if you're going to be doing that you need to be telling that full story in episode thirty nine of this show. We examined Hand Sloan and the origins of the British Museum. Funded in large part by his marriage into the enslaving plan Takeuchi of Jamaica and aided by Britain's rising colonial power global reach. Sloan assembled an encyclopedic collection of specimens and objects from all around the world that became the basis for the world's first public museum the British Museum. A place where anyone could freely enter to see the glory of the British Empire the empire and fuses pretty much every aspect of life life in the UK. Whether we're all aware of it will not in a weather. It's the names of the streets. We walked down the the museums that were founded the collections. They hold the structures. We still all inhabit when you look around at the museum's mice museums I'd say UK. They hold the contents of empire objects collected around the world by client officials by soldiers by Salas people. Working Abroad Uber. Count disentangle the two. When you are telling a story you need to be honest. And tell the whole story or at least as much of it as you can possibly share. Because otherwise you're telling a very very partial one. That often overlooks the violence of an object's collection and the situation and circumstances it was created taken purchased and brought him to the UK to be held in a museum today. Sorry is the first curator of Indian descent of the South Asia collection at the British Museum. In the past Tracy Tell Dighton. Do you think about it very much. I think he's signing when I look at my couture practice and how I approach my role. The collections who. I want to work with and how I realized that actually there is a difference between what I do. And what's other people in a whole range of institutions? Bring Two zero and at first. I was really uncomfortable about that. I thought my goodness unit is it. Just because of who I am and what I am. What about you know? My academic side Olifants might use skills knowledge but actually. I think it's my ability to do my job. Is it somehow rich? I bring a slight different perspectives. We'll say in how I do it. The South Asia collection at the British Museum is so enormous that it can capture the sweep of history of South Asia from the Paleolithic period. To the present day. The gallery opened in two thousand seventeen before that it was last refurbished in nineteen ninety. Two it just happens to be the largest gathering the museum so hey no pressure looking say. Try Not to fail on your first go. It was it was really tricky. We started by thinking about who actually comes to the museum and seventy percent of our audience comes from outside the U. K. And if those people a huge proportion than not very well versed in the history cultures religions of South Asia. So how'd you present your collections in a way that shares this really incredible to the world with people who'd About it and so. We decided to have a chronic thematic kind of approach. We started with the Paleolithic. She's about one and a half million years ago and ended at the present day and the encyclopedic collections at the museum permits us to be able to do something like that. As part of that isolated wet on the ancient to medieval sections. Which is the collections? I cover along with the bulk of the anthropological collections. And also the textiles it. It's got a mammoth collection. The Dakota but as Powell fat I was very keen to introduce moments were slightly unexpected stories and people what presented so for example in the main oil. You walk down. One of the first sculptures you encounter is the modern line capital which takes about the first century day and it was actually excavated and request to the museum by South Asian Collector Pokharel Energy on. I put a portrait of him on that label as well as little bit attacks expanding it because I wanted people to be confronted by South Asians in South Asia Gallery. It's not enough to display their culture of their collections in their history. I think it has to be a shared enterprise and an in another section for example in the Janus in western India the Medieval section I included fate graphs of the Jane Temple from less. Which is where I'm from in the UK who wanted to show you know the sculptures on display. They are just as much positive. British culture as it was back then in the medieval period. It's not just a alien religion in Asian culture. It's our shed culture now. I think it's really important to connect the dots so you do. Share this broad sweep of history and culture but then you want to intersperse it with these other reading important moments linking in a WHO and what you might see around you as you get your everyday life in the UK linking it with with the pastas. Well I asked John. Sorry if she's noticed changes in who visits the gallery and how much time they spend there since the update very interesting. Hughes how they engaged with different displays how it can sort of tweak them to make more engaging annoy definitely notice that there are more South Asians in the gallery space the South Asia section. Anyway this is a really tricky one because I hope that a museum is for everybody. The reality is that as you say. A lot of people don't feel that the museum is for them and it's it's terrible because obviously the museum is for everybody but once again when you have very neutral displays and people aren't addressed people aren't consulted people you want working with members of the community. I think understand why they might feel somehow excluded from these spaces and we've all had moments have been chatting to people may assume that museum is not for them it somehow seen as a very different other ring space. A when you see the workforce inside the museum also predominantly white and. There are very few members of your black and minority ethnic stuff in the museum's once again. What sort of message are you trying to share with everybody else? You're saying hey come come to a museum but you can't work How how'd you change that? And I think it's not just one not tweets. I think it's a fundamental reimagining of what exactly a museum is exactly. This museum is full. I'm not sure that we have these answers. But what I think is really really important. Is that we start having these conversations. Are We start experimenting? And this is one of the reasons why John. Sorry started the wonder House podcast. The podcast which is completely independent of the British Museum is away again. Sorry to share the most innovative contemporary approaches to decolonization and so I got in touch with some people whose work I really respect and I asked them if they were willing to talk about their work what they learn what they what they thought didn't work quite so well and share their stories and experiments with decolonizing where they love about. The wonder house is being able to listen in on these conversations. That might not be happening in museums themselves but are happening at coffee houses and pubs nearby and the show explores the scale to you here. John Sorry who works at one of the largest institutions in the world in conversations with people who might be their museums only curators. I worry that the decolonizing museums incredible energy that it has right now. It's quite easy for that. To evaporate every single a movement has its moment and unless we embed this kind of knowledge and approaches it's it's going to evaporate and that that's one of the things that worries me. Most I not just the collections but also you know the the simple fact that many of us who work in museums you often one of the one or two Black Amano. She ethic people in an entire institution. That's not easy. Sorry studies the ancient world. But now she is at the forefront of modern museum interpretation printing not just the event but also how the event ripped through history remember the story about Salukis and Chandra Gupta from the beginning of the episode. The Indian interpretation of that moment has worn out. And actually if you read historical novels modern comics if you watch Indian films and in TV series. That's exactly the vision of John. Goto that we have now and you know what it's evolving over time you know days of being shaped and reshaped day by day at the moment and I think that's.