The politics of museum collections
South Africa: The Art of a Nation Exhibition at the British Museum
A few weeks ago, I went to the exhibition of South African art at the British Museum. Admittedly, I did not know a lot about South African art, and so did not have much in the way of expectations or preconceptions about what the exhibition would be like. It turned out to be inspiring and fascinating, both in the story it told about South Africa’s history and in how it defined what we think of as art.
The exhibition encompassed a huge variety of objects dating from as far back as three million years ago. This 3m year old object was a pebble, which had been eroded to resemble a face and picked up by an early human because of its unusual appearance. It was a piece of ‘found art’. Also included in the exhibition were cave paintings of antelopes, a pair of Ghandi’s sandals, anti-apartheid badges, an intricately beaded waistcoat from apartheid era South Africa, Sam Nhlengethwa’s depiction of the death of Steve Biko, and a piece of video-art by Candice Breitz that attempted to dramatize what it is like to be a white South African today. Of course, this heavily abridged list of artworks does not do justice to the great diversity of art that is on display in the exhibition. Rather than including just objects that were intended as works of art, the curators included all types of visual expression, in particular ones which exemplify and symbolise important aspects of South Africa’s history.
One of the most interesting aspects of the exhibition was how it encouraged the audience to think about the political implications of collections and exhibitions themselves. Interpretive panels pointed out how, because of the country’s colonial past, existing collections of art from these periods tend to be those created by those in power: the colonisers. These collections, therefore, are inherently problematic, in that they emphasise what colonisers saw as ‘exotic’ about the people they were colonising. This is potentially problematic in terms of the British Museum’s exhibition itself, too; is displaying stoneware and clothing that was never intended to be viewed as art playing into the racial fetishisation of South African culture? The exhibition has enough self-awareness to pose this question, therefore acknowledging its own possible flaws and making the audience aware of them too.
I think that by drawing attention to the political aspect of exhibitions and collections, the South Africa exhibition raises an important point that more museums and galleries could afford to address. A collection always comes together as the result of the interests, motivations and tastes of an individual or group. As a result, collections can, in some cases, tell you as much about the collector/s than they can about the subject of the collection itself.
It is important therefore to have an awareness of the racial, gendered, cultural and other factors that contribute to the creation of a museum collection. An awareness of these factors is something I intend to carry forward in my collections work at the British Horological Institute Museum, and in any future roles I might have in the heritage sector.
By Emma Raymond, Resilience Syndicate Intern at the British Horological Institute