Stephen Welsh (Manchester Museum)

Stephen Welsh, the Curator of Living Cultures at Manchester Museum, collaborated on the 90 Degree Citizen exhibition and curated a case of objects with critical text and maps to de-construct the colonial contexts to museum objects.  His excellent text is published below along with some images of the glass case of objects.

Firstly, he discusses museum collections and 90 Degree Citizen in the context of Victorian colonialism and ethnography in this short video:

Text from the curated glass case of objects:

We Westerners are a very bounded people. I own my house and the land it sits on. When I purchased house and land, I had to get a survey so I, and all, could know exactly what I had bought. This produced a marvellous document that sets out, by rods and feet, turning at markers and set pipes, running to the centreline of the road, just what is my property. My neigbor knows the line that divides my property from his property – he mows right up to it, carefully, and he knows some law about what to do when a limb off his tree falls on my property (though I still rake up leaves from his tree).
Donald R. Wright, The World and a Very Small Place in Africa (Armonk, NY, 1997)

From an early age we become accustomed to a particular geography of the world, one which is divided by numerous countries and borders. However, far from being ancient, the world as we know it is a relatively modern invention. In the 19th century as European powers competed for territory they began to systematically divide the world creating global empires. These divisions were based on colonial economics and politics, crucial considerations regarding the culture, religion and history of the colonised were ignored.

Within these new borders the colonised were expected, and often forced, to remain in permanent settlements. This made the apparatus of empire, such as tax collection and population control, much easier to administer. Nomadic peoples were considered particularly dangerous by European powers because they were migratory. This way of life was deemed disruptive and a threat to the stability. The British introduced the 1871 Criminal Tribes Act in an attempt to impede and intrusively monitor nomadic peoples in colonial India. Almost 200 cultural groups were criminalised, including travelling performers who were vital to the transmission of folklore and tradition.

European powers also began to engineer specific territories within which the colonised could live and work. Populations were often separated according to culture in an attempt to reduce the threat of revolt, increase stability and secure colonial rule. In the early 20th century Sudan the British divided the country based on religion and culture, Arabic speaking Muslims where settled in the north and Christians with those who practiced traditional religion in the south. This division was brought to the world’s attention recently when South Sudan became an independent country in 2011.

Many museum ethnographic collections were composed during this period of turbulent cultural upheaval. Ethnographic objects were once used to categorise people and locate them in a specific part of the world. However, through greater research and engagement cultural pluralism, human geography and diaspora studies now play an intrinsic role in ethnographic exhibitions. This year the Manchester University Centre on Dynamics of Ethnicity revealed that plural towns and cities, or places where no single cultural group dominates, are increasing across the UK. Such research combined with alternative artistic responses, such as the work of Virtual Migrants, challenge museums to think differently about nationhood, cultural boundaries and preconceived notions of migration.


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