A hundred stories, each told differently — Rachael Minott and the British Museum: a Taino ritual seat
Today I’d like to talk about a really interesting current project: 100 stories of 100 worlds in 1 Object. This project is a response to an earlier BBC radio show made by the British Museum, called A History of the World in 100 Objects. In it, the then Director of the British Museum Neil MacGregor described a hundred objects from the collection, from the Moʻai from Easter Island to a medieval Hebrew astrolabe. Altogether, A History of the World used the whole range offered by the British Museum’s collection to tell the story of the entire world.
This is where 100 Stories of 100 Worlds comes in.
100 Stories challenges the idea that there is only one story of the world to be told. According to them, ‘the British Museum reinstated the idea of a “view from nowhere” and everywhere at the same time.’ A view from nowhere is what we would call a view that is meant to be entirely objective and neutral, complete as well as impartial. This sounds like it could be something informative, and while the BBC radio show was informative, it certainly wasn’t as objective and neutral as the British Museum would like it to be.
Let’s break this down.
Writing a story is as natural an instinct as can be — we humans are storytellers. Museums are filled with stories of different cultures, and that in itself is natural. What becomes rather problematic is when someone tells a story and claims it to be the sole ‘truth’ out there, and that’s what the British Museum ended up doing. While the project of using a hundred objects to write the story of the entire world is incredibly poetic, it isn’t objective — it cannot be! The museum is a particular institution with its own mores and customs, and in particular, its own history of colonialist collecting practices, which we don’t hear reflected in the radio show at all. Other than that, it’s also simply a European institution, in particularly British. (I mean, it’s in the name!)
I’d like to tell you a bit about 100 Stories of 100 Worlds. I’m going to briefly compare its interpretation of a Taino ritual seat, a duho, with the interpretation of the same object in A History of the World.
The 100 Stories interpretation of the Taino seat is given to us by Jamaican-born, UK-based artist Rachael Minott in her paper entitled ‘Head to Head: Masculine and Feminine Approaches to Decolonisation. Taino sculptures from the Caribbean.’ The first part of her paper is self-reflective: she discusses how her own decolonial practice has led her to explore what masculinity and femininity mean to her. She also describes her artistic practice in relation to the transatlantic travel between Jamaica and the UK, a voyage undertaken first by the objects when taken by Europeans from their place of origin, and centuries later by her as a migrant.
She then shares an adapted version of her spoken word poetry about the Taino duho. She begins like this:
The Taino are not dead, they did not die.
Colonialism did not end them as our schools taught us.
They are the ancestors of our land. The objects they made were concerned with the imagination of our world.
It is a deeply personal text, a genuine expression of the relationship between the artist and the object itself. She says that even though the Taino are not her direct ancestors, they still have a relationship through the land she comes from — Jamaica.
My favourite line of her piece is this one:
Time is an idea. It isn’t a line, is an ever-swirling storm and flowing river. We will never return to the same moments, but we will bring elements of the past with us, and the future as well.
Time is not a line, which is why the British Museum’s story of the Taino duho cannot be the only one. It is a valuable story, for sure: I enjoyed learning, for example, about Bartolomé de las Casas, one of the earlier Europeans to settle on what we now call the island of Hispaniola, and one of the few to be sympathetic to the Taino and their massacre. He also paid attention to their culture and in fact described the duho.
It is a valuable story, but it is not a ‘view from nowhere’ and should not attempt to claim it is. It is the point of view of a European museum with a deeply colonial history, now seeking to democratise the knowledge of the institution and share it with others. It is also the point of view of a European museum with a long history of restitution claims, as well, but that’s for another day.
I would like to conclude by saying that the research that has gone behind the A History of the World in 100 Objects show is an excellent way to give an introduction to the British Museum’s extensive collection, and I’m glad it was made and distributed on the radio. But works like Rachael Minott help us remember not only that there is no such thing as an ‘objective’ view of an object or of the world, but also that creating a genuine bond between oneself, an object and the people who made it often leads to questions and ideas that cannot necessarily be explored as easily with the traditional ‘objective’ methods we like to use. As she says:
It was a tool to connect us through time and space, and today it still has this power. Sitting on the backs of the giants who came before us.