By Isabella de Souza
My name is Isabella de Souza, and I am a student on the Museum and Gallery Studies MLitt at the University of St Andrews. As part of that course, I have become a volunteer at the St Andrews Preservation Trust, specifically working on helping to decolonise the collection. To decolonise a collection means to acknowledge the crucial role that Imperialism played in the creation and development of British museums, and to reassess whether the stories being told by these objects recognise that problematic history. In order for a museum to properly fulfil its purpose as an open forum of discussion, it is crucial that people from all races, nationalities and social backgrounds feel seen and heard. This is not currently the case — in fact, people of colour often experience anxiety and discomfort when visiting museums and galleries, due to a sense of misplacement, the perpetuation of ‘othering’ narratives, or even the complete erasure of their cultural past. It is necessary for this to change, and as such museums need to create a public reconciliation with its interpretations of complex object histories.
There is a common misconception that not all localities were impacted by the web of colonialism, or that not all museums need to be decolonised. This could not be further from the truth. Despite its small size, St Andrews was not immune to the horrors of imperialism, as evidenced by the presence of slaves in the town in 1770. In order to investigate the history of objects in the collection, I have worked closely with Samantha Walker, the museum manager and curator. We came up with a list of over 1000 objects, mostly from the costume and furniture department, that could be flagged as having colonial links. The first order of action was to create a hierarchy within the list: firstly, there were objects with clear colonial links; secondly, objects that may have colonial links (or links that could arguably be tagged as colonial, such as tea or coffee); and lastly, objects with no clear colonial links, but that still could have had a problematic history through its donors and/or provenance.
Since the Museum is a social history institution, the great majority of objects with colonial links that are in the collection are everyday objects that relate to tea, tobacco, coffee and sugar. Specifically, tea caddies and tobacco tins are very common within the collection. Highlighting the problematic histories of everyday objects in the collection can make an even more compelling argument about the pervasiveness of Empire within British society than selecting rare, looted objects more commonly associated with colonialism. One of the things that Samantha and I discussed at length was how fascinating it is that something that has become synonymous with Britain, such as tea, has such deep colonialist and imperialist roots. The close connection between Britain and tea is evidenced by the fact that in 1931 the Imperial Economic Report on Tea stated that “over 70 per cent of the tea exported is produced in the Empire, and nearly 70 per cent is consumed by the Empire.” This 20th century statistic corroborates the abundance of tea caddies and boxes from that period that are kept in the collection of the museum. However, there are also other objects in the collection that pose interesting questions. One of these, for example, is the presence of a pair of saris which were gifted by a British donor after her aunt did missionary work in ‘Bengal’ (now in between India and Bangladesh).
After having finished working with the objects themselves, I moved onto researching provenance and donor history. This was done by cross-checking the names of donors mentioned in the database with names that have been mentioned in the museum’s scrapbooks, some of which date from the late 19th century. While I had begun working on this in December 2020, in-person research had to be put to a stop due to new developments in the coronavirus pandemic and lockdown. As soon as possible, our next steps will be to continue the investigation into object provenance and to acknowledge this recent work by re-writing object labels appropriately. Furthermore, there is an exhibition in the works at the Wardlaw Museum addressing colonial histories — conversations have been had between Samantha, myself and their staff on how objects from the St Andrews Preservation Trust Museum collection can be included for a more complete picture of imperialism within our town. In this way, we hope to create a safer, more inclusive environment for visitors from all backgrounds to our museum.