The intention of the project is not to destroy any of these unfortunate archives, but to in fact activate and mobilise them to address some of the problems that lie at the root of racialised stereotypes and other problematic systemic colonial legacies that linger in the present.
The Pitt Rivers Museum is not the only cultural institution doing this sort of work, nor is it the only place that has to deal with problems of language in its historical displays. We intend to work alongside other museums in the UK and internationally that are in the process of doing similar reviews. However, because of the Museum’s spatial layout and attitude towards learning (being a centre for research and teaching through collections) the Museum faces particular challenges that require unique answers. The project, therefore, aims to find solutions that fit with the Museum’s characteristic nature and its current mission.
“When working with ethnographic collections today, one is always aware of the shadows of colonial categories and the critiques of words (and images) long held by those we try to represent. Indeed, it is not just words that matter: the perspectives or the position from which one writes or displays also matters. In this context, it is important to interrogate our personal and institutional relationships to categories, terminologies and meanings. To whom does language belong? In what ways, can language become more inclusive to those who have been marginalized or excluded within our societies and institutions?” Wayne Modest
The typological arrangement of the Pitt Rivers Museum's displays puts the Museum in a unique position to openly engage with discussions about the echoes and implications of the colonial past that continue to shape perceptions today. But it also enables us to discuss the many ways of knowing, being, and coping of humanity and the incredible power of cultural creativity and vibrancy of makers across the globe.
Each object and display within the Museum has multi-faceted stories to tell. We feel passionately that in the future more voices should be mobilised to tell those stories and to question conventional narratives; reinterpreting the collection both as a powerful repository of memories and as a record of sometimes challenging histories that need to be acknowledged and redressed.
While attempting to correct the inaccuracies and biases of the past, how might curators of museums today deal with this legacy material in ways that teach us about the past and prepare us for a future that respects, values, and collaborates with indigenous communities around the world? These are just some of the questions raised as part of the project's collaboration with Dr Sarah Ogilvie at Oxford's Dictionary Lab, part of the University of Oxford's Faculty of Linguistics, Philology & Phonetics. This collaboration will lead to a permanent display in the Museum, with a rotating investigation into various problematic terminology.