THE BENEVOLENT MUSEUM
Stephen Welsh, Independent Curator
At a time of intense reflection for our cultural organisations, Stephen Welsh challenges museums and galleries to consider what ‘benevolence’ means in the twenty-first century.
Art galleries and museums are full to bursting with acronyms and jargon; at best it is confusing, at worst alienating. For a long time, I would sit in meetings during which C2DE was used with reckless abandon. I often asked myself who or what it was? An algebraic equation? A chemical formula? Perhaps a robot from Star Wars? It was more often than not accompanied by the word deprived. Deprived sounded all very Dickensian to me. It conjured up images of gruel, pick pockets and Oliver Reed’s terrifying portrayal of Bill Sykes in the 1968 musical Oliver! After a while it dawned on me, they weren’t talking about gruel consuming robots, but working class people, people like me and my family. This was a revelation; all of a sudden I felt like Audrey Hepburn’s character Eliza Doolittle in the 1964 musical My Fair Lady. My point is, not that I like musicals (far from it), but that benevolence, a founding principal of many Victorian art galleries and museums, continues to influence how they operate and behave.
Benevolence is expressed in a number of different ways; it includes the use of emotionally detached language like that mentioned above, but it also involves the perceived need and presumed benefit of predetermined arts and culture provision. It all started back in Dickens day, elite white men – as Priyamvada Gopal describes them in her book Insurgent Empire (2020) – were convinced that the deprivation inflicted by industrialisation could be partially remedied by exposure to art and culture, a cultural herd immunity of sorts. This kick-started an art gallery and museum building boom driven ostensibly by Victorian notions of benevolence. These new collecting institutions would act as permanent monuments to the philanthropy and superiority of elite white men, and house their collections of art, ancestral human remains, cultural heritage and natural science, a vast quantity of which was extracted from colonised peoples. Unsurprisingly, this extraction was also framed as a benevolent act, either to preserve objects on behalf of colonised peoples, or as Mary Kingsley claims in her 1901 essay Life in West Africa, to better understand colonised peoples in order to govern ‘successfully’.
The idea that art galleries and museums amassed these collections because they were doing working class and colonised peoples a favour still pervades. It’s fair to say, that the sector as a whole wasn’t unanimous in its support for the unconditional repatriation of secret sacred and ceremonial objects to Australia’s First Nations peoples that I recently participated in. Beyond the usual benevolent paternalistic commentary on the need for communities of origin to replicate western conditions of care before return should be considered, one reservation regarding class and access immediately struck a chord with me. Unable to afford the cost of travel to see cultural heritage in its authentic context, there was concern that working class people would be disproportionately disadvantaged if, as it’s always assumed during any repatriation, that the vast majority of collections would inevitably be returned. To me, this anxiety seemed to stem from benevolence, the idea that working class people were not yet cultivated enough and communities of origin not yet capable enough, for the objects to be repatriated.
As a young C2DE our family would spend summer holidays in a trailer tent in the West Country or Wales, so it’s true that my exposure to the materiality of other cultures was partially mediated through art gallery and museum visits. However, it was never instilled in me that I had an inalienable right to access the art, ancestral human remains, cultural heritage and natural science that had been taken from communities of origin. Undoubtedly, I was inspired by the wonderful things I saw, enough so that it instilled a life long passion for art galleries and museums in me, but I was also encouraged to consider the needs of the people and places to whom they belonged, and carefully consider how the British Empire had facilitated their collection. At this point you’re probably thinking I was raised by ardent anti-imperialists and studied Marxism and class theory at university, nothing so radical I’m afraid. I was raised by a socially conscious plumber and nursery nurse from Liverpool in a semi-detached in Skelmersdale, and opted to study the rather sedate ancient history and classical archeology at university, the first of my family to get there.
Any art gallery or museum that’s serious about inclusion and decolonisation needs to be vigilant about attitudes and actions that continue to reinforce benevolence. During lockdown there has been a herculean effort by collecting institutions to produce masses of online content. Unfortunately, there’s been little recognition of the barriers that certain households face accessing it as a consequence of digital exclusion and poverty. Then there’s the content itself. In response to the killing of George Floyd and the global Black Lives Matter protests, collecting institutions pledged their solidarity and commitment to anti-racism. There was a surge in blogs, podcasts and social media posts exposing the colonial and racist roots of their institutions and collections. Black, Indigenous and other people of colour were inundated with these traumatic and violent histories, but the emotional impact of this appeared to be given little consideration. Albeit well intentioned, without collaboratively identifying specific concerns, needs and support from the outset, in certain instances these actions looked like an exercise in expedient benevolence.
Change is happening, as typified by the removal of the statue of Edward Colston in Bristol and the independent commission into the statue of Cecil Rhodes in Oxford, at one time considered the epitome of benevolence themselves. For art galleries and museums, they must confront the residual elements of historical benevolence which have been there since their inception, and address how it continues to manifest itself in their current practices, and relationships with staff and communities alike. It’s difficult for any institution convinced that it’s always been a force for good and been self-correcting when required, to acknowledge that this isn’t wholly accurate. This work can only be done in collaboration with those communities that have been on the receiving end of benevolence in its various guises for generations, including working class, Black, Asian, ethnically diverse, Indigenous, and LGBTQIA+ (nor are these communities mutually exclusive, they intersect in innumerable ways). A series of tweets or a single text panel is no longer going to cut it.
Stephen Welsh is an independent curator and consultant with over 15 years of experience working in museums. He was the Curator of Living Cultures, The University of Manchester, from 2007 until 2020. Previously he was Project Curator at the International Slavery Museum, National Museums Liverpool, from 2005 to 2007.