Colonialism: “Display it like you stole it.”

This article was first published in March 2020.

Alice is a big fan of museums and our country’s past. She is aware there is a complicated side to British history, and that it is connected to colonialism.

Alice understands that people feel uncomfortable about colonialism - and has decided to take action by running what she calls 'uncomfortable art tours' which give a potted history of British imperialism alongside the artworks. She hopes this will make having these difficult conversations easier in future.

What is colonialism?

Colonialism is when one country has part or total control over another country.

Britain used to have an empire. The British Empire ruled over ‘colonies’ - the many countries under its control.

It was in charge of different countries during different periods in history. For example, in the 17th and 18th centuries, Britain ruled over parts of North America. In the 19th century most of India and large parts of Africa were British colonies.

Why can colonialism make us feel uncomfortable?

People can find the history of the British Empire hard to deal with for different reasons, including:

  • Colonialism in places like Africa meant the use of a slave trade. People from those countries were captured, transported and sold to other countries. Between 1532 and 1832 British ships took at least four million Africans to the Americas to work as enslaved labour.

  • Britain has also been criticised for the way it used violence to control its colonies. For example, in India in 1919, the British ordered their soldiers to shoot at people protesting peacefully against colonialism. Between 379 and 1,000 Indians died.

  • It is uncomfortable to learn how the Empire used to believe in the superiority of white people. This difficult past has led some teenagers to campaign for a change to the way British colonial history is taught in secondary schools.

  • Britain also profited from the resources of the countries it ruled over. Often that meant exporting goods - like sugar cane from the West Indies. But it also meant things like jewels and artefacts found their way to British shores – and into British museums.

Telling the truth about our history

Alice wants British museums and galleries to be more open about the British Empire’s colonial past. That includes telling people where items have come from. Alice decided to create a tour of museums, called ‘Uncomfortable Art Tours’:

“Museums and schools and these places that teach us history do need to change. They need to give us a more honest, more complete picture of the colonial histories that we’re still living with. In a two-hour tour with me, you can get a bit of a potted history of British imperialism and the way that it's been represented over time.”

She uses badges on her tours that say ‘display it like you stole it’. She wants museums to admit how pieces in their collections came to be there - especially if they were taken by force.

It’s a slogan that’s intended to push museums to do something differently.

Encouraging feedback

Alice also offers tour participants postcards to write feedback on. This way people can tell the museum if something in the exhibition made them feel uneasy. That can include saying if you felt a display was, for example, racist or homophobic in some way.

Alice believes that by being open about these things, we can make a change – and we begin to take control of our shared history.

Sometimes that outside pressure is what makes the difference.

If you need support

You should always tell someone about the things you’re worried about. You can tell a friend, parent, guardian, teacher, or another trusted adult. If you're struggling with your mental health, going to your GP can be a good place to start to find help. Your GP can let you know what support is available to you, suggest different types of treatment and offer regular check-ups to see how you’re doing.

If you’re in need of in-the-moment support you can contact Childline, where you can speak to a counsellor. Their lines are open 24 hours a day, 7 days a week.

There are more links to helpful organisations on BBC Action Line.

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