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HomeOpinionShould museums be woke? Europe's war against 'negativity'

Should museums be woke? Europe’s war against ‘negativity’

Students, curators and museums in Europe and the US are digging up their own history again. But national pride is coming in the way of justice.

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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.

Also read: Modi’s Central Vista project has a history-shaped hole in it

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.

Also read: In European history, the World Wars are seen as monstrous aberrations. They were not

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.

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  1. Very well though out piece of writing. Appreciate idea to present the history as messy but not a binary of nostalgia or sadness.

  2. Very good argument, all Leftists and activists should now start digging Indian history with honesty, please research and publish the violence Islamic Jihadists committed On Hindus and how Tipu sultan became secularist even after killing millions of Hindus and Christians and forcefully converted them in to Islam ,but at the same time Maratha peshwa is called Traitor for fighting against British , because less then 15 Dalit mercenaries ( who participated willing on war with fellow Indians) fought alongside of British against own Indian king !! How Aurangzeb became great king !! Lot to dig !! Please do that work comrades.
    Donot forget Indian partition by Indian Muslims and wiping of Hindus and Sikhs on Pakistan side , but Muslims were allowed to live in secular India , finally some history on Kashmir Hindu genocide

  3. The author conveniently forgets to say ” Studying Muslim rule in India without mentioning the plunder, conversion and molestation of women” while she remembers Manu.

  4. The author is a dishonest fraudster. Look how she deliberately omits the whitewashing of the islamic invaders in India, their brutality towards Hindus and the blatant falsification of the Indian history by the islamo Marxist cabal of her ilk. She does not have the basic honesty or the moral courage to speak about the cultural genocide committed by her friends in India, but she has the gall to talk about everything else. I like Macron for daring to poke the eyes of the wokes and the likes of Rama Lakshmi. As for the tyrant Tipu, we should openly and loudly talk about his atrocities and brutalities towards Hindus so that we don’t let such things happen to us again. Here is the bottom line. Rama Lakshmi is ok with the possibility of her descendents getting converted to another intolerant faith by force or get killed or raped if they refuse to convert – because for her it is just the course of history and you can’t call it “good” or “bad.” Whereas we, the nationalists, want to learn from the injustices and brutalities of the past and make sure that we will not be weak and will not let that happen to us again. You decide which side you want to be on. History is not an academic exercise for us. It is about learning lessons and protecting ourselves.

  5. The tone of this article is biased. There is clamour for unverified good news? Don’t we know what is passed for research among the academics of humanities subject? Anyone can write a completely illogical, nonsensical essay for Ph. D as long as it shows a bias for something subaltern, a leftist ideology and pillories up some people (Men, Whites, High caste Hindus, etc.) as a common enemy. A very little portion tries to apply the same tactics against Muslims, African religionists, etc. Example, the Hindu scholar Rajiv Malhotra. But all this is pure bullshit and does not add an ounce of knowledge to humanity.
    Some academics will try to show how Marathas were not communal while omitting their letters and writings which explicitly talks about marching up to Constantinople. Another group will try to show how Jinnah regreted partition, although he let the Hindu and Christian minority go without rights in Pakistan, another will try to show Patel as a Hindutva leader while forgetting that he banned RSS.
    Real Historians, social science scholars are only a handful minority among all these so called scholars who vomit essays and research papers full of words like cultural appropriation, new historicism, cultural materialism all of which amounts to nothing in the real world.

  6. Excellent piece also because it opens a discourse not usually touched nowadays. Wish someone would pick up the baton and look at slavery as an Arab and south Asian practice too. Both have a far longer experience than the transAtlantic trade.

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