Postcolonialism, multiculturalism and museums in Europe

Since the 1970s, museums in Europe have been responding in various ways to social and cultural policies aimed at delivering greater inclusivity and better representing cultural diversity. Such initiatives have been most frequently framed by the discourse of ‘multiculturalism.’ But what assumptions are inherent in this term about the ways in which cultures function and relate to individual and group identities? Most importantly, how is multicultural thinking positioned in relation to the colonial past and how does this play out through museum culture?

The Management of Multiculturalism: A failed project?

 ‘Multiculturalism’ is a highly contested term that since its emergence in Canadian social policy in the late 1960s has been invoked to address both the hopes and anxieties of various Western nations. During the course of the PhotoCLEC project, from June 2010 to March 2012, politicians across Europe declared an end to state-sponsored multiculturalism in their respective nations, drawing attention to its perceived failures and seeming to mark its demise. In October 2010, Angela Merkel stated that multiculturalism in Germany had “utterly failed”; in February 2011, British Prime Minister, David Cameron, declared that “[u]nder the doctrine of state multiculturalism, we have encouraged different cultures to live separate lives” and have “tolerated […] segregated communities behaving in ways that run counter to our values”; while in his Memorandum: Integration, Bonding, Citizenship of 16 June 2011, the Dutch Minister of Interior Affairs, P. H. Donner, pointed up the failures of Dutch multiculturalism and remarked that, contrary to expectations,  the diverse ethnic and cultural groups of the Netherlands have not integrated.

However, while this might seem to signal the demise of ‘official’ multiculturalism, the term should not be too hastily associated with either deliberate attempts to manage processes of inclusion or the  simple ‘fact’ of diversity. Rather, ‘multiculturalism’ is better viewed as “a key site where the politics and culture of the nation are embattled”;[i] a term onto which contingent desires and anxieties are projected. But if ‘multiculturalism’ has no fixed coordinates as such, there is nevertheless a dominant mode of multiculturalism that has played through museum culture since the 1970s. In this section then, we outline this mode of multiculturalism, its unstated assumptions, possibilities and limitations.

Multiculturalism in Established Museums

In October 2000 in Britain, the Runnymede Trust published The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain, better known as the ‘Parekh Report.’ The report remains a key text for understanding the dynamics of multiculturalism both in its content and in the public debate it provoked.  The authors noted how in the British heritage culture of the post-1945 period, “[t]he lives, artefacts, houses, workplaces, tools, customs and oral memories of ordinary people have begun to take their rightful place in the national heritage”. However, this progressive integration into the nation’s culture of ‘histories from below’ now needed to be extended “to embrace Britain’s diverse communities and the lifestyles, experiences, identities and creative work of its newer citizens”; in other words, it needed to take account of the nations ‘multicultural’ present. To achieve this, it was also seen as imperative that the nation’s heritage culture should address “the issue of racism” and confront “Britain’s selective amnesia about its former empire”.[ii] The authors suggested then that a recognition of the colonial past is required to realise a fully multicultural present. However, the way in which ‘multiculturalism’ is most often formulated in heritage culture works against an open engagement with the colonial past. Precisely by embracing cultural diversity through playful and celebratory performances, openings into raw colonial narratives are shut down.

Since the late 1970s, exhibition work in museums in the UK, the Netherlands and Norway has increasingly addressed multicultural audiences, representing cultural diversity on gallery walls and thereby expanding the territories of national belonging. These multicultural initiatives have not been responsive to the colonial past primarily, but focused instead on the processes of integration and assimilation of immigrants arriving either in the wake of decolonisation or as labour migrants.  For example, in 1976, the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam commissioned two photographers, Koen Wessing and Hans van den Boogaard, to document the life of migrants in the Netherlands. The agenda of the project was neither to overtly explore issues of discrimination, nor to represent folklore; rather, its aim was documentary in nature. The project resulted in an exhibition entitled Andere culturen in Nederland/Other cultures in the Netherlands that was featured in the Amsterdam Rijksmuseum from September 1979 to January 1980. The groups depicted in the exhibition included postcolonial migrants from Suriname and Indonesia.

Brassa dé (Day of the embrace) a festive gathering of Dutch Surinamese people

The photograph shown here, by Koen Wessing, is entitled “Brassa dé” (day of the embrace) and depicts the commemoration of the third anniversary of Surinamese independence in Utrecht on 25 November 1978. The title of the exhibition and its aim could be considered as indicative of the general public and political atmosphere of the mid-1970s, in which multiculturalism was considered to be a feature of Dutch society. As has been noted by Lucassen and Lucassen, this did not automatically mean that multiculturalism was celebrated or considered to be a cornerstone of official cultural policy.[iii] Rather, a certain amount of multiculturalism and room for group identity was seen as necessary for the inclusion of minority groups within Dutch society. Improved chances for employment and education were considered to be essential for a successful outcome of this process.

Unlike the Netherlands and Britain, where the post-Second World War period was marked by the processes of decolonisation, Norway did not experience waves of immigration. However, labour immigration and the presence of political refugees have increased since the 1970s. Consequently, the issue of multiculturalism has been increasingly addressed in the Norwegian museum context, particularly in local museums in communities with large concentrations of immigrants. One example is Oslo City Museum, where multiculturalism in recent years has represented a major topic in many exhibitions.

In the UK, major museums have engaged with the diversity of the communities they serve in part through exhibitions which target specific cultural groups as well as more general celebrations of multiculturalism. In 1991, Birmingham Museum’s Gallery 33 opened. Often seen as a landmark and continuing model in British socially-engaged museum practice, the exhibition integrated contemporary artefacts from Birmingham’s minority and majority cultures with the museum’s historic collection in order to deliver a vision of consensual multiculturalism. The V&A’s Grooming and Identity: Hairstyles of the African Diaspora explored the culturally and politically salient subject of black hairstyles through 36 photographs made in Britain, North America and Africa from the late 1890s to the late 1990s. This, and its follow-up show in Brixton, Tools of the Trade, which further explored the cultural identities of black Britons through a number of stories attached to hairdressing tools, worked to combat negative stereotypes and “redeem black Britons from the sense of being ‘heritage-less’”.[iv] Likewise, the 2008 Imperial War Museum exhibition, From War to Windrush, mobilised dignified photographic portraits of black servicemen and -women to commemorate “the contribution of Black men and women from the Caribbean and Britain during the First and Second World Wars” and thus expand the possibilities in the national imagination for black British belonging.  Nevertheless, as a rule, exhibitions that work with a multicultural agenda tend to be temporary in nature, spatially marginalised within institutions and safely celebratory in tone; they generally do not work to shift fundamentally the often exclusionary narratives of institutions’ permanent galleries and do not engage critically with the institutions that produce them. In this sense, exhibitions that might be understood as ‘multicultural’ in some way often represent an extension of what Martin Matuštík describes as “ludic multiculturalism”.[v] Always celebratory in tone, the strategy of this style of multiculturalism is “to show people clothed in various ‘ethnic’ garb, serving ‘ethnic’ food to the tune of ‘ethnic’ or ‘world’ music with dancers showcasing ‘ethnic’ steps in the background”.[vi] One heritage professional at a British institution, critical of such an approach, referred to this type of work as a product of the “saris, steel drums and samosas” school of exhibitions.[vii] While exhibitions that employ a celebratory tone to generate new narratives of belonging might be able to respond to demands for greater inclusivity, they are incommensurable with the need to address the colonial past which prefigures multicultural societies. Indeed, as a kind of socio-political coping strategy aimed at the present, and often devoid of historical consciousness, ‘multiculturalism’ can function as a diversion from the colonial past, obstructing our view.

The Role of Community Museums

In parallel to these developments in major institutions, community museums and heritage centres have developed, in the main from the 1990s onwards. Driven by a desire to represent histories and cultures from the specificities of different communities’ memories and experiences, these initiatives often address absences in existing representations of colonial history or offer alternative perspectives from those of more established institutions. In the Netherlands, the more successful community museums have been those which have represented  the history and culture of postcolonial migrant groups as part of a common history and culture, rather than privileging a specific community’s experience and relation to ‘home’ as incommensurable with other narratives of belonging. Examples of new institutions established by postcolonial migrants in the Netherlands include Museum Maluku (1990) (formerly the Moluks Historisch Museum), the Indisch Herinneringscentrum Bronbeek (1996) (formerly Indisch Huis) and the Netherlands Institute on Slave History and Heritage (2002) (Ninsee). In the UK, institutions such as the New Art Exchange in Nottingham, which opened in 2003, and Rivington Place in East London, which opened in 2007, reflect on issues of diversity and human rights through the work of contemporary Black artists. The Black Cultural Archives, the Heritage Centre of which was under construction in the heart of Brixton, London, during the course of the PhotoCLEC project, has a longer history, having been founded in 1981, and a different remit, approaching Black Britain, like some of its Dutch equivalents, through its social and cultural history.

Multiculturalism and ‘Race’ in the Museum

Stratified across both major and marginal institutions remains the question of whether some multicultural representations reproduce assumptions about race and culture typical of the late 19th and early 20th centuries. As Annie E. Coombes writes, “multicultural educational initiatives from within the western metropolitan centres have heralded a new and possibly more self-reflexive conception for the ethnographic museum, despite debate on the relative merits of an initiative which may well be multicultural without necessarily being anti-racist”.[viii]

The notion that there might be something inherently racist about some political conceptions and museum articulations of multiculturalism might appear obscure to a generation for whom the term has come to represent the zero-sum of tolerant thinking. Such an analysis rests on a distinction we can make between multicultural-ism on the one hand and multi-culturalism on the other. The former is concordant with the notion that we are separated by culture, not by race; that cultures are in any case fluid things not easily isolated; and, that while racism has real effects, ‘race’ is itself a myth, despite various efforts to secure the concept within scientific discourse. The latter understanding of multiculturalism, and the one generally subject to public celebration or condemnation, while tending towards an attitude of tolerance and a degree of cultural relativism, imagines cultures as discrete, bounded entities, often assuming the same dimensions as ethnic groups.  Put succinctly, implicit in this brand of multiculturalism is the belief that “‘[w]e’ have culture, ‘they’ are culture”.[ix]

In terms of museum culture then, the risk is that, as Littler and Naidoo write, “[m]ulticultural heritage can […] be used to embed essentialised ideas of cultural difference, whether through exoticising ‘other’ cultures or homogenising and sentimentalising ‘local’ white English heritages”.[x] As many of the museum curators that we spoke to recognised, a narrow, essentialising conception of multiculturalism which assumes close connections between ethnicity and culture is of limited value. One curator in a local museum in the UK told us, “museum visitors choose to visit a museum for a multitude of reasons and so I think that yes it is sometimes important to have an exhibition that celebrates one aspect of a diverse community but [...] it’s a blunt instrument. [...] You can’t assume that just because you’ve put an exhibition on about Sikh religious objects you’re going to get more Sikh people coming through the front door of the museum.”[xi]

[i] Fortier, Anne-Marie. Multicultural Horizons: Diversity and the limits of the civil nation. London: Routledge, 2008. 2.

[ii] Runnymede Trust (The). The Future of Multi-Ethnic Britain. London: Profile Books, 2000. 162-63.

[iii] Lucassen, Jan and Leo Lucassen. “The Netherlands.” In Bade, Klaus J., Pieter C. Emmer, Leo Lucassen and Jochen Oltmer (eds). Migration in Europe since the 17th Century. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2011. 34-43.

[iv] Tulloch, Carol. “Picture This: The ‘Black’ Curator.” In Littler, Jo and Roshi Naidoo (eds). The Politics of Heritage: The Legacies of ‘Race’. London: Routledge, 2005. 169-82. 171.

[v] Quoted in Fortier 16.

[vi] Fortier 16.

[vii] Interview, 6 April 2011.

[viii] Coombes, Annie E. “Inventing the ‘Postcolonial’: Hybridity and Constituency in Contemporary Curating.” New Formations 18 (1992): 39-52. 42.

[ix] Fortier 5.

[x] Littler, Jo and Roshi Naidoo (eds). “Introduction.” The Politics of Heritage: The Legacies of ‘Race’. London: Routledge, 2005. 10.

[xi] Interview, 13 July 2011.