Riches vs. Realities at the Museum of London

On Monday after class, I set out for the Museum of London. Just north of St. Paul’s Cathedral, the museum is situated along the Roman ruins of London Wall. Admission is free, although a special exhibit on the Great Fire costs £12.00 per adult. I spent my visit in nine permanent galleries that tell the story of London from prehistoric times to the modern day. Each gallery covers a specific period (Roman Londinium, Medieval London, etc.) and contains artifacts, images, and kid-friendly interactive displays.

Given the postcolonial focus of our course, I was particularly interested in the museum’s portrayal of empire. Weaving my way through school groups and families, I entered the “Expanding City” gallery, which highlights the period from 1670 to 1850, and found what I was looking for: a label on the wall that described the fortunes accumulated from Britain’s expanding trade network before explaining, “[F]or people in the newly styled British colonies, injustice and brutality were facts of daily life” (“Empire”).

“Empire” display

This seemed promising, so I turned to the accompanying wall. There it was: Empire. In bold, gray letters against crimson velvet, the word was surrounded by products of the enterprise. Porcelain plates, lace fans, silk dresses, gilt goblets – the riches abounded in an opulent display.

Where did these goods come from? Where was the injustice, the brutality? Several quaint paintings of British colonial life (by European artists) were accompanied with placards. I’ve summarized two of them below:

  1. The Celebrated Graham Quacy: Born in Guinea, Quacy was enslaved around 1700. He discovered a root with medicinal properties, and “[h]is skills as a healer and diviner made him rich and secured his freedom.” He met the Prince of Orange, who “presented him with a gold medal, fine clothes, and a feathered hat.”
  2. Interior of a Girls’ School, Sierra Leone: In this depiction of the Sierra Leone Female Institution, one girl is an orphan from a royal West African family. Her original name isn’t stated, but she was given to a European captain and renamed Sarah Forbes Bonetta. She became goddaughter of Queen Victoria and married James Davies, “a successful Nigerian merchant.”

    “Interior of a Girls’ School, Sierra Leone” circa 1855

Is it just me, or do these story arcs sound familiar? Graham Quacy’s tale aligns with the rags-to-riches capitalist trope, and Sarah Forbes Bonetta is basically Cinderella. They both have “happy” endings: Quacy gets a medal, and Bonetta, a husband. What more could they want?

I, however, felt cheated. Hoping for the realities of empire, I got fairy tales instead.

It wasn’t until my second turn through the gallery that I literally happened upon it, beneath my feet. In a clear display case embedded within the floor was a map of the British colonies. Tea cups and saucers sat on top. A nearby label explained that students at a local college created this display using colonial imports “such as silk, tea, coffee, and sugar.” Surrounding the map, words like “exploration,” “technology,” and “spirit of adventure” appeared alongside “war,” “displacement,” and “destruction of indigenous peoples.” According to the label, this “represents the positive and negative aspects of the empire” (“Goods from the British Empire”).

“Goods from the British Empire” display

I wasn’t sure what to make of it. While acknowledging atrocities like “slavery and kidnapping,” the display literally and figuratively put these violations on the same plane as adventure and exploration. It didn’t acknowledge the power dynamics between colonizers and colonized, nor did it recognize that “the positive and negative aspects” were not felt equally by all.  Europeans benefited at the expense of others.

We’ve just finished reading Sam Selvon’s The Lonely Londoners, and this exhibit recalls the words of Trinidadian narrator Moses Aloetta, who states, “[I]s we who bleed to make this country prosperous” (21). I’ve been thinking about the role of museums as narrators, too. In contrast with the glittering display of the empire’s riches, placard alone paying lip service to its dark side, this second display was understated and easy to miss. It wasn’t even curated by the museum itself but instead outsourced as a school project for students. The gallery prioritizes the gilded London of imperial trade over the story of suffering that made such wealth possible.

The Museum of London is ambitious, attempting to encapsulate the entire history of the city over a span of millennia. By necessity, it must be selective in what it represents. As visitors, however, we should question whose story is being told. Is there just “One London, many Londoners,” as the museum proclaims (“Londoners”)? Or does London “divide up in little worlds and you stay in the world you belong to and you don’t know anything about what happening in the other ones”? (Selvon 60). I’m inclined to agree with Selvon that there are multiple Londons, distinguished by space and time, class and race. The story of the city depends on who tells it.

~Grace Johnson, ’18

Works Cited

“The Celebrated Graham Quincy, 1796, William Blake.” Expanding City, Museum of London, London.

“Empire.” Expanding City, Museum of London, London.

“Goods from the British Empire.” Expanding City, Museum of London, London.

“Interior of a Girls’ School, Sierra Leone. Circa 1855.” Expanding City, Museum of London, London.

“Londoners,” World City, Museum of London, London.

Selvon, Samuel. The Lonely Londoners. London: Penguin, 2006. Print.





Author: johnsong2

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