The Museum is the Master’s House: An Open Letter to Tristram Hunt

As I enter a new role as a public servant, I will be leaving partisan politics behind me and will work impartially as a museum director. — Tristram Hunt’s resignation letter from the Labour Party, 2017

The sad truth is that most evil is done by people who never make up their minds to be good or evil. ― Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind

This is a response to the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum (V&A) Tristram Hunt’s article ‘Should museums return colonial artefacts?’ in The Guardian, 29th June 2019.

Photo by Brett Jordan on Unsplash

What you imagine when walking through the museum is intimately tied not only to who you are, but also what you desire for yourself and your community. In a 2017 interview with The Times, director of the V&A and former Labour MP Tristram Hunt, was clearly very happy to have been given the keys to the V&A. Hunt is described as having a smile wider than ‘Tipu’s Tiger as it plunges its teeth into a British soldier in a statue’ near the entrance of the museum. His passion is urban life in the Victorian era. It is his dream to pedestrianise Exhibition Road so that museum visitors ‘can walk easily from the Science Museum to the Natural History Museum and the Royal Albert Hall’, an uninterrupted promenade of progress, culture, and higher learning. One gets the sense that Hunt has found a role in which he can go back in time. In a way, the V&A allows Hunt to play house, as master of a sprawling estate that not only symbolises power and wealth of a bygone era, but also as an active repository of national memory. Interestingly, when asked if he would like to return to the Victorian era because ‘he might have been more suited to it’ he demurs with the caveat: ‘But I do want to take the ideals and purposefulness of that century and recreate them. After Brexit, everyone feels rather forlorn and Britain could slide backwards. We need to be more like the Victorians. We absolutely have to make sure we go forward, not as another empire, but as a success admired around the world.’

One might ask how we can ‘be more like the Victorians’ without Empire, without colonialism? The ideals of the Victorian era were largely formed by the exploitation and violence towards working class people, enslaved people in the colonies, and complex cultural structures that justified colonial violence. Museums are part of this system of justification. As director of the V&A, Hunt continues the great tradition of white men espousing great ideals whilst disappearing inconvenient, structural realities. He has written several thought pieces that reveal a set of troubling, if predictable, ideals and values. Hunt is intent on protecting this colonial estate; he is intent on protecting an idealised version of a colonial past, a white past, that is unsullied by the presence of undesirables. Like so many white people, he wants our art, our culture, our food. But he does not want us.

This brings us to Hunt’s recent article ‘Should museums return colonial artefacts?’. In this, he summarises the repatriation debate raging across Europe. He uses the Ethiopian collection as an example. Famous for the Maqdala crown, these precious objects were plundered by the British army in the mid-19th century. It was exhibited at the V&A to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the British invasion of Abyssinia. The Ethiopian government has requested the return of their treasures. Hunt does not agree. To summarise, his article is part academic exercise, showing an awareness of key debates (the Savoy report) and certain players (educator Alice Proctor, Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’s ‘The Past is Now’ exhibition, Edward Said, and so on), whilst also making three interweaving arguments to service his viewpoint. He argues that ‘decolonising is decontextualising’, that decolonising activism has an ‘agenda’, and that museums have ‘the ability to position objects beyond particular cultural or ethnic identities’. (As a side note, there has been a critical response to Hunt’s article. I must refer to the fact checking undertaken by Professor Dan Hicks of Pitts Rivers Museum and this article which delves into the controversy surrounding the Ethiopian collection held by the V&A.)

Hunt portrays his arguments as neutral and objective. This lends an aesthetic quality to his words and work, which indicates Hunt’s agenda. Indeed, what is peculiar about his article is that, though it appears to say a lot, it is surprisingly sparse in terms of an argument. For instance, Hunt states that decoloniality has an ‘agenda’, implying that he, the V&A, and Britain’s colonial history and present do not have an agenda. It is troubling that a former history lecturer can believe this; all history has an agenda. Behind the benign, genial tones lies a curious emptiness, a banality that gestures towards modes of modern belonging — phrases like ‘cosmopolitanism’ and ‘civic space’ — but that is devoid of any real experience or understanding of what it means to live with difference in present day Britain. This aesthetic quality is intriguing because it reveals how his arguments are a set of repetitious placeholders presented to us as the smooth, untroubled waters of an ‘objective’ reality. The texture of colonial violence is often smooth, bureaucratic and impartial. Previously, he has contrasted his approach with the ‘highly emotional focus on gender, sexuality, ethnicity and nationhood as the drivers of political and personal identity’. Indeed, many of Hunt’s articles can be summarised into the ‘facts, not feelings’, a style of argumentation popular amongst politicians and commentators nowadays. Most of Hunt’s articles mirrors the centrist politics that typifies post-Brexit Britain and the general rise of the right across the ‘developed’ world. His articles are designed to address a particular demographic: white, middle class, someone who thinks this PC culture has gone too far, that we need to be ‘even keeled’ or ‘objective’ about Empire, et cetera. (For instance, he subtly mischaracterises Decolonize This Place’s activities which includes challenging hiring practices and funding sources. He signals to a white, liberal audience that the collective should be perceived as anti-Semitic and that we should see their call for Brooklyn Museum to reverse their decision to hire a white curator as outrageous. The fact is, Brooklyn Museum should have hired a person of African descent and we all know it.)

‘Decolonising is decontextualising’

As many colonial apologists are apt to, Hunt frequently argues that we must contextualise, apparently unlike decolonial activists. But Hunt’s argument ‘decolonising is decontextualising’ is a case of projection. He would like us to stick to a script that continues to be rehearsed despite being resisted, debunked and complicated even as it is first documented. It is in Hunt’s best interests to repeat this script, partly because it would not benefit him for anyone to examine the recent past too closely and ask how he found himself as director of the V&A. Though the story of Empire is complex, we’ve had a one-sided story told for generations in this country. An example of this decontextualizing is Hunt’s selective rewriting of Prime Minister William Gladstone as an admirable politician who objected to the plundering of the Ethiopian artefacts. Hunt neglects to mention Gladstone’s father ‘owned’ enslaved people and was amongst the wealthiest plantation magnates in Britain. Gladstone was against abolition and, when his father was forced to give up his plantations, Gladstone ensured his family were amply compensated, as David Olusoga writes: ‘He was paid £106,769 in compensation for the 2,508 slaves he owned across nine plantations, the modern equivalent of about £80m’. In his rewriting of Gladstone’s legacy, Hunt continues the British tradition of championing individuals for the selective things they said whilst conveniently ignoring deeply racist actions and words. For Hunt to openly admire Gladstone in 2019 is not a neutral act. It is strange and unethical to invoke the name of any racist colonialist as someone you admire, especially in our current climate. We cannot accept Gladstone’s words at face value any more than we can accept Hunt’s. They are politicians who say what is necessary to protect their interests.

The Banality of Empire

In search of Hunt’s true intentions, I listened to a podcast interview with writer Tiffany Jenkins where he is a little more forthcoming. On Empire, Hunt argues that ‘there are great crimes of Empire but [it] is also this place of adaptation, interaction and exchange as well’. This obfuscates the violence, inequality and the ways that colonialism still continues. No one is denying that, for Britain, Empire was financially beneficial. A one sided exchange can only be seen as neutral or positive if you believe you are entitled, superior, and deserving of taking without giving.

Another tactic is that of false comparison and minimisation. Both Hunt and Jenkins conflate ‘Empire’ to ‘Empires’, choosing to minimise the violence of British colonialism and the way it continues to structure the modern world. They maintain an ironic distance from the proceedings, glibly acknowledging the brutalities of Empire in order to get on with defending it. They show little empathy for the descendants of peoples of who may have lost their language, connection to their homeland through the greed and inhumanity of their ancestors. And they certainly do not contend with the fact that British imperialism has not ended. If they did, perhaps they would understand the desire to eradicate genocide, famine, and concentration camps and recognise how these technologies are bound up in museum structures in the past and present. As the decolonial archivist Nathan “Mudyi” Sentance states, ‘Museums and archives should not just work to document bad history, but work to prevent bad history from happening’. But Hunt does not care about what is at stake. In fact, he is actively invested in not caring. Not caring, acting blasé, and projecting emotion and ‘passion’ unto decolonial activists is central to today’s colonial project. Hunt goes on to say that activists who demand the repatriation of objects are ‘building walls’ and being ‘chauvinistic’ because sending back objects sounds ‘a lot like sending back people’. It is scandalous that in a time when people are actually being deported by this government, that he would project this bigoted impulse onto activists.

On the podcast, he purposefully mischaracterises decolonising to mean that activists want to ‘roll back’ time. Most activists and scholars don’t think that time can be rolled back with the repatriation of objects. In fact, most are in agreement that one cannot right the wrongs of the past. That is an unrepayable debt. The debates around the repatriation of treasured objects and loot is not that the past is fixed. It is not about righting wrongs, it is about writing (and righting) the future. It is about the power for former colonies to tell stories with their objects. It is about what these objects symbolise. Until you can divest from the notion that those arguing about history are only talking about the past, you run the risk of not partaking in the act of living right here, right now, engaging with scholars, activists and members of the public who understand what is at stake. There is an urgent need for historians and curators who understand the stakes, people who are willing to learn, to speak out and to educate how the present is connected to the past.

Museums and the rhetoric of people like Hunt and Jenkins represent the everydayness of Empire that continues through the disinterested measured tones of the white British elite protected by wealth, prestige and the myths of imperial greatness. In Jenkins and Hunt’s conversation, we hear tropes that are repeated ad nauseum. We hear the modes of domination, that emphasise rationalism, objectivity and neutrality of whiteness and of Empire, where the decolonisers, the natives, are characterised as unruly, emotional and needing of constant reprimand. We are the passionate brutal vandals destroying civilisation, whereas they are intent on maintaining civilisation, knowing fully well it spells destruction for non-white people. This reflects the everyday acts of curation and exhibition making, which continue to maintain that museums can be neutral, that history can be objective, and that these debates have no right to be emotional or transformative. Their conversation is banal. Except this banality is brutal — it is designed to exhaust and gaslight us, to conceal the ardent desire for control and power.

Muslims in the Museum?

So far I have considered the emotions bubbling beneath the ostensibly smooth and objective surface of Hunt’s words. Let us now turn to a material account of how such views manifest and how these physically impact our communities. During the Q and A of a panel at the Wellcome Collection, artist and researcher Hassan Vawda asked the panel ‘what is the consideration of faith audiences or religion in programming, curatorial and strategy?’ The chair of the panel chose to interpret this as a question regarding prayer rooms in museums and art spaces. Only Hunt would answer Vawda’s question. It is important to note that the new site of the V&A is in Stratford. East London has a large Muslim population, comprised mostly of Somali and Bengali people. Indeed, a colleague of Vawda, Khaled Sofian, was also in the audience and he highlighted the demographics of Stratford and East London, saying that perhaps ‘prayer space is what being open looks like too’. A delegate on the panel assured the questioner that space would be made available if anyone asked to pray.

At this point, Hunt had the opportunity to assure Vawda, Sofian and any other Muslim in the audience that there would be quiet rooms provided. He could have said nothing. Instead he decided to say this:

‘I think yes and no on the faith question. Because you also want a space which is consciously civic… Because we live in a discourse where notions of being offended by culture and being offended by imagery is so prevalent, you want to hold the ring quite firmly about the civic function of an organisation…. Within a museum like the V&A, we hold collections which are embedded in religious culture and traditions, and it is only those cultures and traditions which have produced the acts of such beauty. Whether it’s our Jameel gallery of Islamic art or our Raphael gallery of the cartoons of the acts of the apostles Peter and Paul, we could not have that without that religious understanding. But would I be then interested in providing space for the act of prayer within the museum? Probably not.’

Many of my Muslim friends love the beautiful prayer mats and ceramics defined as ‘Islamic’ in the V&A. I too have been inspired by the artistry of objects, as much as I am repelled by some of the framing. How are we to take these comments? How does it impact our experience of the V&A? What kind of civic belonging can we find here? I find the use of the word ‘offended’ fascinating in that it subtly invokes the stereotype of Muslims being easily offended. Hunt goes out of his way to ensure everyone is aware that his version of a civic space does not include Muslims. This is despite the fact that most hospitals, universities, and many cultural institutions have contemplation rooms and dedicated prayer rooms. Hunt makes it clear he wants our art, but not us as people. His comments are all the more hypocritical if we understand the context: the building of another branch of the V&A in East London with its large Muslim population, continues the whitewashing and gentrification process. Not providing an allocated prayer room is unwelcoming to a community setting you are already intruding upon and changing forever. It is a show of power: who controls history making? This process is not simply gentrifying an area, white washing it, destabilising its communities, but also framing the story so that it appears neutral, inoffensive and inevitable.

It is important to note that the British government has recently thrown out a definition of racism that includes religion. A lot of people, including many on the left, are prejudiced against Muslims because people think that being Muslim is a choice whilst race is not. One could note that most Muslims are de facto not white, but regardless there is a belief that racism towards Muslims is more justified. But Islamophobia is racism. Islamophobia is today’s acceptable racism, normalised as to be unnoticeable or at least understandable to most people. Hunt operates on the incorrect assumption that racism is based on prejudice against phenotype (visible markers of race like skin and facial features) rather than pervasive and structural racism, such as the school to prison pipeline, gentrification, and institutional racism. It is not in Hunt’s interest to draw attention to the structural reality of racism because it challenges the myth of social mobility and meritocracy, undermining how an upper class white man, the son of a baron no less, recently became the director of the V&A.

When challenged with the fact this was not considerate of the large Muslim population living in East London, he gave this non-sequitur response: “Absolutely, it’s a large Muslim population at the moment. It was a large Jewish population earlier. And it might be a large Black Christian population in the coming decades. We’re there for the next 200 years. So [it is] how we then think about our space within that time. The great thing about east [London] is the flux of populations there.” Okay then.

We see there is tension between the everyday life of Londoners who need a place to pray and the abstract (but, really, culturally specific and unequivocally ideological) ideals that Hunt would like to impose on East London. Hunt uses phrases like ‘civic space’ and ‘secular’ and ‘universal’ when what he means is ‘white’. Appeals to universalist categories, like reason and secularism, are often euphemisms for whiteness. Hunt continuously refers to museums providing ’cosmopolitanism’, ‘hybridity’ and ‘multiculturism’ and other vaguely good sounding words without explaining what these abstract concepts mean or, crucially, what the benefits are for Londoners or the V&A. Appeals to universalism, especially without clear, material accounts of what you are doing to include people and how you are giving back are usually just generic, positive sounding words that are effectively meaningless. Hunt’s ‘cosmopolitanism’ means he can openly express that he’s sceptical about Muslim’s practicing their beliefs in a museum, but the moment I say I am sceptical about Hunt’s ability to direct the V&A in a way that is respectful to the diverse communities of Britain and East London especially, undoubtedly he would dismiss me as being easily ‘offended’. This is the way whiteness works in museums, universities, and corporate boardrooms, to stifle Black, indigenous, and people of colour’s voices. One might say I am offended at how predictable Hunt’s comments are, politicking to efface the reality of who is really in control. But, because of centuries of dehumanising ‘others’, it is generally easier to identify more with the privately educated son of a baron than with me, an undecorated state school educated woman, by virtue of my hijab, race, and origin.

As far as I am aware, Hunt has no experience of working with Muslim communities and has never lived amongst Muslims. Why does he have an opinion on this? Where does it come from? Does this mean Hunt is also sceptical about the work in museums in settler colonial societies which work with indigenous beliefs? Why not refer to Paul Gilroy’s concept of conviviality or having manners and a sense of hospitality? Or, better yet, talk to Muslims, visit a mosque, get to know the people who live on your doorstep. Indeed, the treatment of guests is a huge part of Islamic etiquette. Perhaps if Hunt took an interest he could learn something. As usual, we are forced to contend with a British elite who know nothing of what it means to live amongst difference, who have never lived amongst Black people or people of colour, but who (by virtue of their class and race) have been given the keys to an institution that actively shapes Britain’s national identity. Here is a man who walks through the V&A’s galleries filled as they are with the loot of former colonies, our homelands, but does not actually want to contend with racial and cultural difference in any meaningful way. His version of cultural exchange is a one way street.

Staying with the trouble

No amount of diversity training can fix this. We need systemic change to ensure people like Hunt do not get positions of power when they are not fit for the job. Why does it feel like we spend so much time attempting to sensitise (white) people to issues that affect us, all the while the real work goes undone? Why must so much emotional labour be extended on people who are given national platforms to actively undermine and sabotage our political realities and our survival? At the same time, how we proceed depends on maintaining the complexity and nuance of ‘decolonising’. Otherwise, we risk succumbing to ideologues whose aim is to distract and divide us by making us forget that solidarity means work, not just nice words. We must resist the impulse to keep responding to white people clearly disinterested in a meaningful exchange. Further, we must resist the temptation to elide our differences when confronting purposeful bigotry and ignorance. This is complicated because it is rarely a simple case of ‘them versus us’. The call to decolonise is hugely contested. The real challenge is it to hold on to our differences whilst challenging dehumanising structures and people. Whatever your perspective, it is undeniable that what has emerged is a richly textured and varied worldwide discussion on what decolonising can mean, what it looks like in practice and, crucially, whether it is possible. For me, this means holding onto the impossibility of decolonising, not in the name of ideological purity, but because we are trying to love each other and live with one another in the aftermath of violences that remain unacknowledged in the minds of so many.

Our lives together are more precious than any object the V&A holds. We need museums that are led by directors who understand that. We need museum directors who are passionately anti-racist, willing to embrace a variety of perspectives, and welcoming of everyone, including refugees, migrants and Muslims. We desperately need clarity, intellectual honesty and above all humility as we repatriate objects, include accurate historical perspectives, and champion social justice. If museums are to be sites of societal transformation, we need poets in the director’s role, not politicians. We need people who are sensitive to the power of language, with the ability to imagine different presents and futures, who are open to the possibility of transformation, and, crucially, have the ability to communicate and inspire the desire for transformation in others. We need people willing to move past the barely concealed aggression and hollow rhetoric that characterises so much of our current political arena. We need openness, a willingness to change, a belief that museums can in fact operate independently of the government’s racism and xenophobia.

People to follow: Victoria Adukwei Bulley, LaTanya S. Autry, Nathan “Mudyi” Sentance, Puawai Cairns, Nathaniel Coleman, Sadiah Qureshi

Sumaya Kassim (@SFKassim) is a freelance writer and independent researcher.