“How unlucky is Zafar, for his burial/To not have even two yards in the land of his beloved.”
Urdu poet and the last Mughal emperor Bahadur Shah Zafar, wrote these poignant lines while he was exiled to Rangoon and jailed by the British Raj for his role in the Indian Rebellion of 1857. The ghazal was also his own epitaph. Many years later, a cap belonging to Zafar would end up on display in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery (“BMAG”), one of the many objects the museum inherited as part of the British Empire’s historical legacy.
A new exhibition at the museum, The Past is Now (October 28-June 24, 2018), tells the stories behind eighty-three objects related to the British Empire, including Zafar’s cap, reclaiming and subverting the colonial narrative that often predominates in Western museums.
If this sounds like an ambitious and unique undertaking, it is. Both in the exhibition itself, as well as the curation process, The Past is Now sheds light on the painful process by which Western museums and other institutions must reckon with their own complicity in colonialism and other systemic power structures.
It is significant that the exhibition is taking place in Birmingham, which is generally regarded as the “second city of the United Kingdom.” The history of the British Empire, and the history of Birmingham, are very much intertwined. Birmingham mayor Joseph Chamberlain, for example, played a key role in British imperialism, acting as the Secretary of State for the Colonies from 1895–1903.
The museum itself initially developed the idea for the exhibition and proposed it to a team of outside curators, including Abeera Kamran. Kamran was born and raised in Karachi, Pakistan, and was confronted with Britain’s colonial legacy at a very young age. “I’ve grown up in Karachi, and despite having an education speaking Urdu, I wasn’t allowed to speak Urdu in my school – that’s one example of how colonial trauma is generated cyclically,” she tells Muftah.
Kamran was further confronted with this colonial legacy when she moved to the UK, observing “I didn’t realize I was brown until I moved to this country and was reminded by people and institutions that I am the other.” For Kamran, museums are a space where this kind of repression is repeated.
To decolonize the BMAG, Kamran joined forces with several other women, including graphic designer, Abeera Kamran; artivist, Aliyah Hasinah; writer, Mariam Khan; cultural activist, Sara Myers; textile designer, Shaheen Kasmani; and writer and researcher Sumaya Kassim.
During their first meeting with the museum staff, the co-curators toured the museum’s permanent collection. Kamran noticed that anytime a brown or black woman was depicted, she was wearing a hijab, dancing, or in a servile role. These depictions further reinforced the importance of their project, and the need to reclaim and retell these stories.
“It’s constantly reminding you this is your place, and that you’re only occupying this one place,” Kamran says, adding that in these depictions, “we are denied our multiplicity,” and that the space further “glorifies white culture and white people,”
In an article for Media Diversified, co-curator Sumaya Kassim described how the museum presented a colonialist view on the subjects of British empire: “Many of the collections pertaining to Empire were donated by colonialists, merchants, collectors, or just ‘taken’. One of the most famous (and controversial) objects is the Buddha Sakyamuni, who greets visitors at the museum entrance.”
Kamran says that she and her co-curators thought the curation would be a seamless process, but “as meetings progressed, we realized even though the idea had come from the museum, the staff had little idea of what decolonizing is or requires, which is to be self aware of your privilege and to accede that privilege.”
For the curation team, the most critical part of the process was writing the exhibition text: “that’s where you’re able to decenter white subjectivity, and to recenter brown and black subjectivity,” Kamran says. This was also a turning point in their relationship with the museum. Although they had worked with museum staff to brainstorm the text, the curators were very disappointed by the initial draft, which according to Kamran “repeated everything we said that we didn’t want. They dehistorisized historical trauma.” The museum, however, allowed the co-curators to rewrite the copy.
Despite a flawed process, Kamran describes the final product as “moving.” Although the process felt disempowering at times, she says that being in the space is empowering. And the project has implications beyond the exhibition. Kamran says she and her colleagues plan to disseminate a decolonization toolkit widely online, adding that the BMAG has plans to continue contextualizing these narratives in the future.