De-colonising the Decorative Art Collections at Cannon Hall Museum

As a group of 5 MA students from the University of Leeds, we have been looking at the collections at Cannon Hall Museum, researching and re-writing descriptions for a selection of objects in the collections here. The placement is about empowering the diverse histories of the decorative arts collection and doing research into areas that have been forgotten over time.


Internationally, many museums are looking at ‘decolonising’ their collections. This means re-evaluating the existing version of history associated with their objects and seeking opportunities to tell stories which were previously overlooked. The goal of this would be to show history from the most balanced perspective possible. Often, stories go untold because the information is not readily available in  collections as more research is required. We have been looking at glassware, metalwork, textiles, furniture and paintings to try and uncover missing histories.

We began by using the online public catalogue (explorebarnsleycollections.com) of objects to identify items that needed re-interpreting to better understand their context. This would help us to explain the use of some of the outdated terminology. We had weekly meetings over Microsoft Teams to catch up and discuss our findings as we encountered furniture, painting, metal and glass, and carried out in-depth research into their contexts and history. We also had the opportunity to work with different members of the team at Cannon Hall Museum, meeting to discuss various objects with colonial roots from their collection.

Jug with pewter cover by Thomas Booth and Sons

The jug mimics symbols from cultures within China, Japan, and other East-Asian countries. The jug has a transfer-printed design with pagodas, bridges, red and pink flowers, as well as green dragons near the top of the jug
BMBC.CH.163 – Jug by Thomas Booth and Sons

This jug shows scenes, that in Europe, would have been widely accepted as representing China.

Going through the catalogue we found items described with terms that had negative connotations. From this we helped to reinterpret these items to expand the knowledge on their history whilst not omitting how the object was originally described or seen. Some of the decorative items were connected as they used similar terms, which modern audiences might find uncomfortable. Some examples would be ‘Chinoiserie’, ‘oriental’, or descriptions which omitted the history of the item and did not recognise the full significance of the item. We challenged these terms as they often could be seen as negative or even offensive, for instance by portraying other places as ‘exotic’ or ‘othering’ the items and the cultures from which they originated.

Glass Decanter attributed to the Stourbridge Glassworks

This single-lipped decanter is made from clear glass with an applied handle. It has finely engraved buildings in a landscape
BMBC.CH.640 – Decanter attributed to Stourbridge Glassware

The items in the collection of Cannon Hall Museum can tell a fascinating history spanning different continents and periods. We thought it was imperative to bring to light the different stories these items could tell. We looked at a decanter attributed to the Stourbridge Glassworks, which was described as having ‘Chinoiserie’ scenes. This was an 18th and 19th Century art movement that included people of China, and other Asian countries, as well as ‘oriental’ figures and motifs as part of a European interpretation of the landscape. However, the term ‘Chinoiserie’ is no longer used due to its stereotypical generalisations and negative connotations. Therefore, we revised the description and label of the item to show how the term is no longer used, but to not entirely eradicate the term in order for the visitor to understand the context for the item and how it used to be viewed.

Glass Figure of a Man Holding a Basket by an Unknown Maker

The figure's head, hands and feet are made from black glass and he has a clear glass tunic. He is holding a basket of fruit in his left hand.
BMBC.CH.605 – Glass Figure of a Man Holding a Fruit Basket

Traditionally this figure would have been referred to as a ‘Blackamoor’ which is now considered to be a racist and culturally insensitive term.

Explorations and research such as ours are a way of spreading knowledge about the lesser-known aspects of British history that our history books forget. We believe our work has been beneficial to the museum since the diversification and decolonisation of the collection is necessary and highly important. Our work brought a new fresh perspective as museum and gallery studies students studying at this early period of large scale decolonisation. The research we have provided working on new strategies in their interpretation of objects will empower the museum. Additionally, this experience, though limited due to covid, was still largely beneficial and instrumental in our career development, allowing us to network with museum professionals and gain insight into the behind-the-scenes running of a museum.

Bronze Figures of Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake

BMBC.CH.1716&1717 – Bronze Figures of Sir Walter Raleigh and Sir Francis Drake

Historically Drake is often portrayed as a heroic explorer but he was also a slave trader and many people at the time saw him as a pirate/privateer.  

Through this amazing opportunity, we have been able to learn how to catalogue a collection, the process of making a diverse collection digitally accessible, as well as the work that goes into updating and revising past descriptions. We had the opportunity to write labels and through this, update language and outdated descriptions that have been used in the past while keeping the language accessible to audiences with various backgrounds, knowledge, and age range. Through this process, we were able to critically analyse the work of museum professionals, which was both daunting and extremely rewarding. Though difficult, we were able to expand our skills with critical thinking, communication, as well as time management. However, most importantly, due to the controversial nature of this project, we were able to appreciate the complexity of working on a highly politicised subject, making sure the approach was conforming to the values of the institution and sensitive to various communities.

explorebarnsleycollections.com

You can search more Barnsley Museums collections by visiting our online catalogue www.explorebarnsleycollections.com

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