BA Visual Culture student, Annie Jones, reflects on the challenges to ethical representation at play in the National Maritime Museum.
In October 2019, undergraduate students on the second year module, Museums, Material Culture and Representation, alongside MA Curating Collections and Heritage students, led by Dr Claire Wintle, journeyed to Greenwich to explore the National Maritime Museum.
We started the day by venturing through the gallery, Traders: The East India Company and Asia. Its focus was how the East India Company brought exciting new spices to Britain, how the textiles it imported shaped fashions and fuelled demand, and how tea was transformed from an expensive luxury to a national pastime. Grand portraits
of British traders such as James Lancaster, who commanded the first East India Company voyage in 1601, dominated the front half of the gallery.
The museum communicated a noticeable sense of British colonial pride with period quotes on the wall declaring “profit and power must go together”, describing the company as “the greatest corporation in the world” and observing, “whosever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world”. A box of the spicesnacquired during the period, including pepper, cloves, nutmeg and cinnamon, were available for us visitors of the gallery to smell and to appreciate.
Towards the back of the gallery the museum’s tone shifted from pride to shame, noting the exploitation, conflict and drug wars that occurred due to British trade and the company’s subsequent fall in the 1850s. Instead of magnificent conquerors, here the British were described by contemporary voices as “evil foreigners” who tempted “fools to destroy themselves [with opium] merely in order to reap a profit.” Despite the museum’s critique of the company, I found the gallery had an overpowering British imperialist voice as a whole, with the objects on display used as tools to frame history in favour of the British. The emphasis was on boasting about what the company had contributed to British society, outweighing their acknowledgement of the terrible consequences for people of China and India.
Next we had a tour of the new Pacific Encounters gallery lead by Dr. Claire Warrior, Senior Exhibitions Interpretation Officer. As we walked into the gallery we were introduced to Adi Yeta, a Fijian drua (sailing boat) built in 2014-15 by a team of Fijian men and women, along with taonga (treasures) displayed in a bookcase created by Ngati Rangiiwaho, a hapu (sub-tribe) of Ngai Tamanuhiri (a tribe) in Aotearoa (New Zealand).
Dr Warrior was incredibly passionate about the museums’ continuing effort to collaborate with the pacific people in telling theirs and their ancestor’s stories in this traditionally exclusive setting, which is a shift I was delighted to see after viewing the Traders gallery. Words such such as ‘colonisation’ and ‘exploitation’ were not shied away from on these walls. It was acknowledged on a text panel that “some people question whether they [Pacific objects in European museums] belong there or if they should be returned.”
Efforts to show the dark, destructive side of Captain Cook’s voyages were made, noting that for many people of the Pacific, he represents the negative legacy of encounter. Many Pacific artists used his portrait to highlight the injustices that came in his wake, presenting him as an invader an murderer, such as one piece by Reg Mombassa titled Jim Cook Mugshot. To see the work of Pacific artists and tribe peoples’ interpretation of the colonisation of their ancestors on these walls was enlightening and a notable positive change in the Maritime Museum’s ethics.
Our final stop of the day was at the Polar Worlds gallery. This was my first time viewing the Arctic in a museum setting and I learned a lot as a result, most notably that over 40 different groups of people live there, sharing close connection to their environment and living off its resources. A video at the beginning, with Sammy Kogvik from Gjoa Haven, Nunavut, provided a great insight into what daily life is like in the Arctic. Contemporary Inuit art was on show along with music by Tanya Tagaq, an avant-garde composer from Canada’s Arctic which was produced especially for the gallery and was available to listen to. The gallery was incredibly interactive and accessible to children, with many touchscreen games to help one’s understanding of the Arctic, its environment and people.
Altogether, it was an extremely enjoyable, educational and insightful trip. Dr. Claire Warrior’s inside knowledge of the exhibits and her transparency about the way the museum is handling contentious colonial objects and their histories today made me hopeful for the ongoing reframing of imperial histories at The National Maritime Museum.