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West Berkshire Museum curator talks about decolonising museum collections

Highlights from the West Berkshire Museum Collection by curator Janine Fox

Trish Lee

trish lee

trish.lee@newburynews.co.uk

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Decolonising  museum collections

Portrait of Harold John Edward Peake, Honorary Curator of Newbury Museum. Most of the museum’s ‘World Collections’ were acquired during his time as curator

Continuing our 'Highlights from the West Berkshire Museum Collection' series, here curator Janine Fox talks about how it is a time for museums "to listen and learn".


The Black Lives Matter movement is sweeping the world. Protests, the removal of statues, and discussions about the renaming of roads and buildings that venerate cultural oppression are markers for change.

The leading membership bodies representing UK museums, galleries, heritage and archives have produced a joint statement of intent to end racism - you can read it here.

This work will cover all aspects of the heritage sector, including the curating of historic collections, their staff members, volunteers and learning programmes. This conversation and desire for change within museums is ongoing.

West Berkshire Museum has a collection of objects from around the world that was largely compiled by Harold Peake, Honorary Curator between 1909 and 1946, who was best known as an archaeologist and anthropologist.

He travelled for his research and purchased objects to bring back. He also bought objects from other museums and dealers, and sold pieces from the Newbury collection. This is not how museums build and manage collections today, although it was common practice during this time.

Peake’s collections focussed on his interests in India, Europe and the Middle East. The museum has donations and transfers of objects from other museums within this world collection as well that have connections to Ancient Egypt and the tourist trade in Africa, America and Asia.

The museum also holds objects relating to military campaigns such as the Boer War, the Anglo-Ashanti Wars and the First and Second World Wars that can tell layered and meaningful histories of our colonial past.

Like many institutions founded in the 19th and 20th centuries, West Berkshire Museum has structures rooted in enormous privilege. We care for material culture and attempt to interpret local histories that will sometimes inevitably have connections to colonialism and oppression.

The systemic challenges museums face include lost stories and associations, outdated interpretations and research that might be incorrect or offensive. We also have a clear lack of representational voices from source communities.

Museums have started the process of ‘decolonisation’, but it is complex and varies for each institution. The reason to do it is simple, however. This is a time for us to listen and learn.

As part of West Berkshire Council, the museum has a public equality duty and is committed to being an equal and diverse organisation.

It has a Lifetime Learning and Participation programme that currently helps us to connect with local groups and work together on projects that enhance inclusion, empathy and cultural understanding.

As a community museum, we’re looking to reconstruct new ways of thinking about the collections we hold, to better reflect people’s history and sense of place. We will educate ourselves, but we also want the people of West Berkshire, our community, to have their say and work with us.

We want to have the conversations that will develop our collections and build sustainable relationships that will enable an ongoing dialogue. This way, we can create a trusted, socially-conscious museum that represents us all.

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