This symposium will mark the launch of a new postgraduate research network 'Postcolonial Heritage Research Group' which aims to put perspectives from researchers working on related questions in dialogue, by providing a common platform to share writings and ideas, propose events, while promoting complex and provocative research across a number of inter-related questions relating to representations of empire, colonialism, and slavery at museums and art galleries.

Adiva Lawrence (University of Hull), Matthew Jones (University of Sussex) & Samuel Aylett (The Open University)

Event Information:

  • Location: University of Sussex
  • Please E-mail abstracts to [email protected] 
  • Abstract deadline: 21st June 2019 
  • Abstracts should be no longer than 300 words. Please include a short bio of no more than 150 words, along with your university affiliation. 


It is widely held that the chronological development of ‘universal’ museums and their collections imitate the contours of imperial history. In recent years, this claim has led many museums in Europe and across the world to reconfigure their focus, appearing as places more inclusive of cultural diversity, in an open desire to move away from their colonial roots. 

In this context, collections and their interpretative methodologies are being redefined, leading to re-readings of historical narratives and to the normalisation of curatorial settings appealing to emotions, which sometimes make use of artistic methodologies. Exhibition projects thereby become sites of formation of utopian narratives in which knowledge of the past can be used to shape better presents and futures. In this, museums have become increasingly reliant on external sources - such as artists or communities - to provide the critical work necessary to redefine narratives, interpretations and methodologies. 

In Britain, the beginnings of this phenomenon can be traced back to the late 1980s, when, fuelled by the discourse of multiculturalism, museums began to re-engage with histories and legacies of Empire, not least because communities that had come to Britain as citizens of Empire in large numbers in the late-1940s and 1950s, and their descendants, began to make demands for better representation both politically and culturally. More recently, the commemoration of the bi-centenary of the abolition of the transatlantic slave trade in 2007, which occurred in a milieu of memory and museum booms, marked a turning point in how museums use memory to engage and negotiate the imperial past. 

Traditionally, as Susan Crane notes, the ethnographic or ‘universal’ museum which developed alongside the imperial project, used the concept of timelessness to place non-European peoples outside of memory of advanced civilisation. This not only removed them of their historical dynamism but reduced them to be representable but a few objects that summed up their ‘primitiveness’.(1) Museums in the bi-centenary took a pointedly different approach. Using public engagement and community outreach many museums developed displays on the slave trade in partnership with the groups whose heritage was linked to the history being commemorated. This introduction of multiple perspectives through a collaborative process led to museums incorporating memory and personal testimony to interpret the history and legacies of the slave trade from a subjective perspective. Leanne Munroe has described the power of this as ‘empathetic unsettlement’ where the visitor experiences emotional discomfort upon hearing the pain and suffering.(2) Ultimately, while the application of these new strategies have had mixed success, this represented an important epistemic shift away from the primacy of the curatorial voice and the object in creating visual, textual and aural representations of colonial history towards the democratisation of the museological process as marginalised groups are brought into the memory narrative making process.

Alongside these developments, public discourse around the legacies of the British Empire, and concerns about how Britain’s past is interpreted and represented has become increasingly febrile. ‘Imperial History Wars’ is defined by Dane Kennedy as ‘Contending interpretations of Britain’s imperial past and the meanings it carries for our current condition’. Museums are one arena in which these history wars are conducted, attempting to negotiate contending versions of the British colonial past. 

It is with great enthusiasm that this symposium aims to explore this epistemic shift across museums and art galleries more broadly. Our first symposium will focus on the current state of affairs in the UK. We recognise that starting with the UK may seem Anglo-centric. This is not our intention, and we will broaden our geographical scope to include Europe, North American, and the Global South as our network develops. 

For our inaugural symposium, we are concerned with a number of inter-related questions pertaining to this new museum paradigm as it relates to representations of empire, colonialism, and slavery; principally, when, how, and why have these shifts taken places across museums and art galleries in the UK? We welcome papers which address these questions. We do not want to limit participants, and below are a number of suggested questions and themes to which you can respond.

What new practices have been developed as a result of this shift? In what ways have these new practices engendered more serious and accurate representations of empire, colonialism, and slavery? To what extent has the ‘post-museum’(3) model allowed for more critical engagements with histories of empire and slavery? In what ways have different types of museums engaged differently with legacies of empire and slavery (e.g. city museums, provincial museums, local history museums, port city museums etc.)? 

Suggested themes, but not limited to: 

  • Exhibition and collection histories 
  • Museums, art and politics
  • The role of art in memory-oriented exhibitions
  • Decolonizing collections
  • City/local museums and representations of Empire & colonialism
  • Politics of display and repatriation
  • Museums and migration in a postcolonial age
  • Innovative museum practices towards decolonial futures
  • Museums and public ‘postcolonial’ discourse
  • Visitors and the postcolonial museum
  • OUTSOURCING CRITICALITY – Re-visiting working with source communities

Our symposium is not limited to PGR students. We welcome papers from postgraduate students, postgraduate research students, and museum professionals (We aim to have a session dedicated to museum professionals on day-two) Also, we welcome papers that take a particularly critical stance. The conference will take place in September (date TBC) and will held over two days.

Provisional agenda (TBC): September 20-21st 2019

Friday 20th September Day 1:
09:45 Welcome
10:00 – 11:30 Panel 1
11:30 – 11:45 Coffee/Tea Break
11:45 – 13:15 Panel 2
14:00 – 15:30 Panel 3
15:30 – 16: 30 Workshops
17:00 – 19:00 Keynote & Wine Reception

Saturday 21st September Day 1:
10:00 – 11:30 Panel 1
11:30 – 11:45 Coffee/Tea Break
11:45 – 13:15 Panel 2
14:00 – 15:30 Panel 3
15:30 Walk to Brighton and Hove Pavilions Museum for Tour and CLOSE (TBC)

  1. Susan A. Crane, Introduction: of Museums and Memories, Museums and Memory, Susan A. Crane (ed), (Stanford University Press, 2000), p.3
  2. Leanne Munroe, Negotiating Memories and Silence: Museum Narratives of Transatlantic Slavery in England, Beyond Memory: Silence and the Aesthetics of Remembrance, Alexandre Dessingue and Jay Winter (eds), (Routledge, 2016), p.180
  3. The ‘post-museums’ was a concept developed by Eilean Hooper-Greenhill to distinguish between the ‘universal’ type museums and a more recent museum model characterised by new architectural forms, focusing more on concerns around power and community engagements, inclusion of multiple-epistemic communities in displays and workshops, and a democratisation of curatorial power.