A “winner’s” window on history?
Our own Museum is the final link in a chain of ownership. We see our role today as custodians — as much as owners — of the objects in our collections.
That's why we should ask the same questions of ourselves as we do of past owners, starting with: why does the History of Science Museum have these objects?
In uncovering the answer, we have to confront the role that Museums — including ours — have played in the last 250 years of world history.
Pencil Drawing (Framed) of the Middle Gallery of the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, by W. A. Delamotte, c.1836
History of Science Museum (Old Ashmolean building) Top gallery c. 1951
Most European museums founded in the 1800s were — implicitly or explicitly — products and tools of colonial violence.
In many of these museums, ‘World history’ galleries displayed the cultural heritage of societies oppressed by European colonisers.
In some of the galleries, precious pieces of cultural heritage were framed as evidence of ‘uncivilized’ people; in others, they were displayed as models of craftsmanship that could stimulate European innovation. The idea was that European industrial production would take inspiration from — and then surpass — these models.
By exhibiting the spoils of colonialism in various different forms, 19th-century European museums functioned as powerful apologists for colonial regimes, justifying the aggressive extraction — and dehumanisation — of cultural artefacts from societies around the globe.
So how have museums founded in the 1800s started to break the cycles of violence in which they themselves have taken part?
A first step has been to critically interrogate their own origin stories.