The cultural wars unleashed by Brexit nationalism in Britain were powerfully headbutted last year by the #BlackLivesMatter movement. And that battle of ideas has now reached museum institutions and the cultural policies they are meant to follow.
A war on ‘wokeness’ is now underway, not just in France and Britain, but also sweeping across Europe. And cultural institutions and universities are at the centre of this new pushback. The new State foe is the work by students, faculties, curators to dig up evidence of colonialism, transatlantic slave trade and other historical atrocities embedded in sites of culture.
Apparently, they don’t contribute much to national pride. French President Emmanuel Macron calls it ‘Islamo-Leftism’ that corrupt societies. Britain has announced a review of Left-wing extremism and the blind spot of ‘progressive extremism’, and will also appoint ‘free speech champions’ in its campuses to counter woke dominance.
Others are just calling it negativism. It’s not just wokeness, but the war is against critical thinking.
British secretary of culture Oliver Dowden doesn’t want British museums to focus too much on ‘negative‘ history, newspapers reported this week.
When nations collide with own history
Museum institutions carry the triple burden of nation-building, national pride, and interactive historical enquiry. Carrying all three can get tricky. Often, nationalist and cosmopolitan goals collide. Pride can get in the way of justice, for curators.
The good news is that museums are, once again, being placed as the centrepiece of nation-building projects. That is an important conversation. It is an admission that museums are not just places for leisurely visits on Sundays, but institutions that affect national sentiment, character-building and education.
The bad news is it defines both museums and history in the narrowest sense. Of course, the original sin is that we define the nation narrowly. Nation-building cannot rest just on national pride and triumphalism, but have to be a bridge between shared and unshared societies and contested histories.
In recent years, many museums have strived to ‘remove the varnish’ by inserting honesty and justice into artefact portrayals – like the Amsterdam-based Rijksmuseum has done about Rembrandt and the slave economy. After the #BlackLivesMatter movement, a State-funded group called Historic England conducted an audit of Britain’s built history and found hundreds of sites with links to the slavery economy. Comedian John Oliver once called the entire British Museum “an active crime scene”.
But that kind of unforgiving scrutiny of the past has made history un-pretty for some people. John Hayes, a former Tory minister, said “we need to move on from the perpetual criticism of our country”.
It doesn’t serve the nationalism project well.
French education minister Frédérique Vidal has accused race and gender scholars of “always looking at everything through the prism of their will to divide, to fracture, to pinpoint the enemy.’’ He was echoing Macron who had earlier said post-colonial or anti-colonial discourses were a form of ‘self-hatred’ against France.
There is clamour out there for undiluted, unverified, un-peer-reviewed good news.
The social media-driven attention economy began as a call-out culture against tone deafness, but is now fast threatening to turn into a uni-dimensional good-news ecosystem of celebrators and cheerleaders. Triumphalism is taking over the internet. And this extends to our study of history too.
That is why the outcome of the Haldighati battle can be conclusively turned around in textbooks.
History isn’t a feel-good hotel
And yet, in a sense, all history is ‘negative’. Just ask women, Dalits, African Americans, disabled people, LGBTQA+ people, Aboriginal Australians and Adivasis. In every phase of history, there were those whose stories were side-stepped, stymied and stifled.
Someone recently asked me how we will get a unified, wholesome, well-rounded history if we keep fracturing it as women’s history, Dalit history and Black history. Making sense of the past becomes difficult if each one gets their own history, he said. His question was not too dissimilar to the British lawmakers raising the point of ‘negative histories’ and ‘more rounded view’ of imperialism. The question can not only end up whitewashing history and undoing around five decades of academic thinking, but it also underestimates our ability to deal with complexities, contradictions and nuances. Why should our past be a neatly wrapped nostalgia-bubble? It was messy, just like our present is.
If you were to study the history of the cotton trade in the United States without looking at slavery; World War 2 without looking at Hitler’s crimes; Soviet Communist rule without looking at Stalin’s excesses; Gandhi’s story without looking at his arguments with Ambedkar on caste; Partition without looking at how Jinnah came to regret it in his later years; American history without studying what they did to Native Americans; build a statue of Manu without acknowledging what he said about women and Dalits; or study the Louisiana purchase as just a real estate deal and not what it did to Indians’ sovereignty, then you are not getting well-rounded history, you are just rounding it off crudely.
“We have to apply a critical approach to all historical subjects — otherwise it’s just nationalist myth-making…the past cannot be reduced to ‘good’ and ‘bad’, or to events that simply instill ‘pride’ or ‘shame’,” tweeted Kim A. Wagner, a scholar of global and imperial history.
When I trained college students in Bengaluru a decade ago about how to give a guided tour of the Tipu Sultan fort to visitors, I told them they cannot get trapped in the binary of celebrators or mourners. That’s the job of politicians and online activists. Because, after all, there is a disturbing duality to Tipu’s character in historical records.
I told them to leave the visitors with these lines from Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman:
Do I contradict myself?
Very well then, I contradict myself
I am large, I contain multitudes.
The so-called cultural war is neither cultural nor a war. It is political. And this war of deploying history for the nationalism project was won long ago. In World War 2, actually. And then, again in the Cold War.
The author is the Opinion Editor at ThePrint. She is also the curator of Remember Bhopal Museum and has worked in several American museums, including the Smithsonian Institution. She has conducted oral history sessions with Bhopal gas tragedy survivors and American disability rights activists for the Missouri History Museum. Views are personal.