Dr Claire Wintle, Principal Lecturer in Museum Studies and Art and Design History, introduces her forthcoming monograph, and the activities that she will be undertaking as part of her recently awarded University of Brighton research sabbatical.
In the first months of my lectureship at the University of Brighton, back in 2010, I benefited from a personal tour of the University of Brighton Design Archives. Archivist Sue Breakell, then also a relative newcomer to the institution, carefully opened a series of acid-free boxes to reveal the material that she thought might interest me. “I work on museums, exhibitions and empire”, I had told her. One of the larger boxes that we investigated together contained James Gardner’s original 1960s sketches for the various national displays of London’s Commonwealth Institute. The exhibition ‘courts’ were dedicated to the cultural, economic and political histories as well as contemporary agendas of each country. They included the usual clichéd visions of the ‘other’, including of “darkest Africa” and South Asia as a lush, beatific paradise. Yet, in their dynamic, highly coloured rendering, and in their very existence, the sketches themselves challenged my own stereotypes of what I had imagined mid-century British exhibitions of empire and commonwealth to look like.
James Gardner, Design for Proposed Ceylon Court, Commonwealth Institute, c. 1961. James Gardner Archive, LJG/3/3/2/18, University of Brighton Design Archives
James Gardner, Design for Proposed Zambia Court, Commonwealth Institute, c. 1961. James Gardner Archive, LJG-3-3-2-32, University of Brighton Design Archives
This was in part because my scholarship to date had focused on anthropology museums, rather than on the vibrant world of the independent exhibition designer and hypermodern exhibition spaces like the Commonwealth Institute in the 1960s. Much of the extant Museum Studies scholarship on mid-twentieth century European institutions that displayed objects from Africa, Asia and Oceania tended to assume that this was a ‘moribund phase’ of curatorial practice. Yet these images challenged that impression, and provided the catalyst for the next ten years of my interest in the Commonwealth Institute and its exhibition design. I would go on to publish several articles on the Commonwealth Institute, focusing on the relationship between political and imperial shifts in the world at large and the Institute’s collecting and display practices. The sketches also inspired a large-scale research project funded by the Paul Mellon Centre for British Art on how more traditional British museums in the mid-twentieth century period reframed their work with collections from Africa, Asia and Oceania. In this work I have been struck by the intersection of neo-colonial and early postcolonial practice, the connections between curatorial work and global political change, and how museums were often influenced by an international network of museum practitioners, makers and communities of origin, much earlier than we often imagine.
This year, a decade after I first saw the Gardner sketches, I have been awarded a University of Brighton research sabbatical to complete this project on museums at the ‘end’ of empire. I will be able to devote some dedicated writing time to completing my monograph on Curating Decolonisation: Museums in Britain, 1945-1980. In our present moment of urgent decolonisation in museums and society at large, this book explores some of the pitfalls and missed opportunities of mid-century ‘decolonisation’ in order to inform our current times. It draws on in-depth archival research from the Commonwealth Institute but also many other museums across the UK, ranging from larger, national museums, like the British Museum and Ulster Museum in Belfast, to specialist museums like Oxford’s Pitt Rivers Museum and the Horniman Museum in London. It considers regional institutions, like museums in Leeds and Bristol, as well as private museums like the Powell-Cotton Museum in Kent. It also builds on twelve new oral histories with museum curators and designers who worked with African, Asian and Oceanic collections in the UK before 1980. Working with this complex and broad-ranging material has been immensely challenging, so the sabbatical will be a very welcome opportunity to draw my ideas together for publication.
In part, the Gardner sketches at the Design Archives have also inspired the two other projects that will be supported by the sabbatical: in September, I will be convening a symposium on Museum Exhibition Design: Histories and Futures, with two of my doctoral students, Hajra Williams and Kate Guy. We intend to produce a special edition of a journal on the history of exhibition design in museums that will bring the multi-author process of exhibition making to the fore. The sabbatical will also give me some opportunity to start a new project on the complexities of caring for difficult collections like the James Gardner archive and other collections of objects and images that are grounded in a Eurocentric, racist image of the world. This new project, ‘Curating Challenging Collections’, will focus on the experiences of contemporary curators and other museum staff who have to work with and make sense of collections amassed under traumatic circumstances, including of imperialism, slavery and sexual abuse. The sabbatical will allow me to develop an interdisciplinary collaborative project, working with museum professionals, as well as scholars of cultural memory, material culture and psychology, to better understand the complexities of curating such collections. The intention is to develop practices and resources designed to support better working environments and socially just projects in the sector.
Ten years seems a long time to dedicate to a one research project, but the James Gardner material at University of Brighton Design Archives has provided ongoing inspiration for an exceptionally wide-ranging, multifaceted investigation into a subject that I am sure will provoke my interests for some time to come. Slow research in this fast-moving time (and field of practice) has its benefits too. The Commonwealth Institute sketches have taken on new significance to me after every protest, debate and example of systemic injustice that I have witnessed in museums (and beyond) over the last decade. In these Covid-19 days we cannot physically access the many archives and museums that can prompt these serendipitous finds and unforeseen avenues of research. Hopefully, soon, the Design Archives’ recently renovated stores and readings rooms will again be open for investigation, and tours will resume. I highly recommend a visit, although be warned – some stamina may be required!