The unethical histories that created collections or the institutions they sit within has been a prime discursive space within the administrators, curators and researchers that care for those collections. Often finding light in the odd curated exhibition, public programme but mostly taking place in closed research. Conference after conference of those speaking museumese are interspersed with a keynote on decolonising the collections, on restitution, on authority of knowledge. There is a lot of energy in the discussion but how is this manifesting in practice in museum functions? From discussions about reinterpreting an object to removing the object altogether. From talking about community voices shaping the interpretation of collections to letting in effect communities hold, touch, and claim some sort of mediated ownership of the objects and materials. Does this hyperactivity of discussions and research have any impact on the day-to-day experience of museum visits? This paper reflects on one research activity I was part of in the form of an autoethnography of a study day looking in the ‘Clive Collection’, in the care of the National Trust, to rethink how the collection can engage with its histories going forward. A study organised as part of a wider research project coordinated between Tate, National Trust and UAL. Yet, although this very paper emerged from this institutionally-sponsored research, it found itself in a purgatory of institutional (in)visibility. The experience of being part of this study day raised a tension on the purpose of research in relation to this work – and what impact do these types of initiatives have on the actual day-to-day functionality of these spaces.
I submitted this paper initially to the National Trust – with a request to publish. The representative of the National Trust that I was liaising with, along with the wider research project team that was delivering this research, highlighted that the National Trust wouldn’t publish my writing for public consumption but was willing to share the paper as an internal only document. I then asked Tate if it was possible to publish the paper with them. The associated research team working on the project highlighted that the article was too critical of the National Trust, which would make it difficult for Tate to publish it. So, the paper found itself in a no man’s land.
August 14th2021, was the formal acknowledgment of یوم آزادی,the day celebrating the 74th year since Pakistan’s independence. The following day is the official acknowledgment of India’s independence from British rule, also in its 74th year. A weekend that marked an independence from centuries of resource syphoning rule by a British private company com state enterprise. The weekend is a mark of independence, but also a mark of the final symbolic legacy of total administrative control – the drawing lines and motions of partition. The carving of a map led by the Viscount Radcliffe, who despite never stepping foot in India, drew new national borders which caused the largest migration in history – with the consequences visible across countless lives, generations, and untold traumas.
That very weekend I also found myself driving to ‘Powis Castle and Garden’ with my mum and my sister. A National Trust site in Wales, which is acutely framed as an attraction that ‘reflects the changing ambitions of the Herbert family, who occupied the Castle from the 1570s’ (2021). Yet, there is peculiarity to this castle that prompted to travel to it. That is, Lady Henrietta Herbert who wedded Edward Clive in 1784, the son of Major-General Robert Clive. The great ‘Clive of India’ as his statue, that still stands tall outside the foreign office today, symbolises. A statue that was erected 140 years after his death, and championed by Lord Curzon in a zeal to recognise or, rather re-interpret, Britain’s control of India as statecraft rather than the exploitative and extractive capitalist enterprise that it was. A significant attitude shift to memorialise ‘Clive of India’ as a public servant to his royal highness, considering that he still rests in an unmarked grave. The public opinion even in his own lifetime was more serpent than servant, labelling him as a ruthless a-moral brute whose flaunting of wealth was derided. Yet, this man, who walked into a Mughal treasury and returned as one of the wealthiest men in Europe, is to this day memorialised as a statue of dignity and civility in the heart of Britain’s capital. With all the PR-driven culture war politics being churned, and the current Conservative fan(fiction) of history and hollow claims of museums being ‘bullied by the woke nihilistic left’ (Dowden, 2021). What is the actual story that wants to be told about the ‘Clive of India’ statue in their ‘retain and explain?’
Beyond the monument that sits amongst the institutions of Governance in London – the public memorialisation that also bears his name in Britain, is the hidden (but not really) ‘Clive Collection’ that sits in a couple of rooms in Powis Castle. This is not really hidden because it is part of a National Trust property, whose very principle was to create access to the history and beauty once locked into the fiefdom of aristocracy. This is still hidden however, because nobody I have spoken to in my immediate networks knows it exists. Even museum people, interested in unerathing histories of Britain’s rule in India, ignore its existence. I didn’t even know it existed until 2020, when I sat in a virtual conference organised by Paul Mellon British Art Centre on Arts and Empire in India. Me and a colleague, also of South Asian heritage, also studying museum practice around wider perspectives, were surprised to hear that there is a public ‘Clive Collection’ display that has been open to the public since 1987 . The presentation, I recall, was framed around the research being done since 2018 on the ‘Clive Collection’, with the aim to re-think how such a space could be presented to the public and bring new perspectives on the objects and artefacts in the collection. From meaning and understanding to how the object entered the collection – loot or purchase. The strongest memory of listening to this presentation was the unsurprised nihilism that I felt in my heart when it was emphasised that the majority of ‘objects’ in the collection had received little attention of provenance, and even with research – most objects are ultimately categorised as ‘unknown’ in relation to their acquisition. I remember speaking to a colleague after the session about the purpose of this research? Who was thisfor and what was this hoping to achieve?
This 2018 research kickstarted by the 70th anniversary of India’s independence, is part of the recent awakening within the National Trust to the wider heightened investigations, pressures and internal reorientations of thinking around which stories are included and excluded in museums. And most importantly, whose voices are present in the production of knowledge in these spaces and what type of cultural histories do the audience have access to? A notable turn is symbolised by the an interim report released in September 2020 about research being carried out on the links between colonialism and slavery in National Trust properties. A report which drew the irk of the voices of worry from static eyed visions of Britain’s history that the National Trust has gone ‘woke’ and even drew complaints and an investigation from the Charity Commission (Adams, 2021). The response, to a report that is hardly radical, and when I read it, simply provides facts that are expected in relation to how it feels to think of representation in these spaces. It speaks volumes to the status of the National Trust regarding which parts of the public feel most ownership with it. The dominant culture that feels best served by the National Trust as an institution. The culture that the trust in the National Trust supposedly needs to be restored too.
It is in this context that I was driving to Powis Castle – following an invitation to engage with the collection as a researcher. A researcher, who draws deeply upon my personal and emotional self in relation to navigating public spaces of cultural value, worth and historical storytelling in Britain. These emotional responses are vital (and perhaps more important) of the historical narratives that are often framed as facts – considering how little is often included and how much it is excluded. The invitation was a strand coming out of a cross-collaboration between the University of the Arts London’s Decolonising Arts Institute, Tate Galleries, Imperial War Museums and the National Trust. The project is titled Provisional Semantics. In this specific output, researchers within the field of art history, heritage and museum studies were convened for a proposed ‘close reading of the display and interpretation of a book of poetry by Hafiz, currently on display at the Clive Museum, Powis Castle’. For me, this reading resides in how I experienced the space, physically. By taking a trip to see the object and drawing on what can be defined as an autoethnography of sorts, this paper represents my ‘close reading’ of the object, reflecting on the observations, experiences and emotional impacts that are present in the space .
I am unsure if it is a coincidence or a planned conscious intervention, that it just so happened that the visit fell in the weekend that also marked Pakistan and India’s independence. I also invited my mother and my sister to join me. The invitation of my mother, who I see as a source of safety and strength, particularly in relation to the unfamiliarity I find myself in when working within museums. My mother, who seldom visits any museum or art historical space, unless when accompanied by me. Often, commenting on how attending these spaces with me makes her feel welcome, when in fact her presence makes it more welcoming for me. I feel familiar in these spaces yet simultaneously broken-hearted by them. To visit a National Trust site which houses a space called the ‘Clive Collection’ made me anxious. With my experiences of working within the field, I had a presumption of an uncritical space, in which my presence would feel like a hyper-minority – where publics would visit for a day of leisure, having tea and scones with a flavour of passive nostalgia for the Empire. I asked my mother if she would like to join me to give that sense of comfort that she brings, offsetting any authorities of dominant culture in these spaces. She had never heard of Powis Castle and Gardens and did not know there was even such a display called the ‘Clive Collection’ in Britain. I told her it held items lauded as treasures and trophies collected by ‘Clive of India’, as well as items collected by his son (who also served as Governor of Madras) and his wife, Lady Henrietta, whose castle was her family’s estate.
As we left London on the morning of the 14th August, my mum shared the latest song being played on the Pakistani radio stations and channels marking independence. I wondered whether there will be any acknowledgment of the independence at Powis Castle and Gardens, or even in the ‘Clive Collection’. Perhaps a specially curated public programme taking place across the weekend?Verbalising it, both my mum and sister laughed at me – and yes, I did think such expectation was futile – but then again it had been three years since the research on re-energising the collection began. Maybe my expectations on the fate of research in cultural institutions are too high. Of course, turning up on the day, there was not a single reference to independence – there was no public programme, there was not even a peep on the social media channels of Powis Castle and Gardens. This made me think of Emily Pringle’s (2019) interrogation on the place of research in art museums, or museums and collections in general – with competing discourses that govern the space. The role of research itself is both ever present in museum spaces, and also can be at times disconnected and scattered across the organisation. Being split through the different corridors of the museum, for instance, the research on collections or learning, often most challenging and critical, is detached from discourses on audience development or financial stability. This is how I make sense of the reason why the research at Powis Castle is taking place. For many, attending Powis Castle and Garden over this weekend, having their scones and tea with a side of peacock flaunting, their knowledge of Britain’s role in India can be reduced to complete passivity locked in a timeline far from the now. Detached from their daily life. Without a second thought of the impact it has had on their life. The ‘it’s in the past’ choir.
As we crossed into Wales, my mum recalls a memory triggered by our laments on the consequences of the British Empire. Me and my sister reflect on our schooling in London and the lack of reference points on the reality of the British Empire. My mum grew up in a working-class neighbourhood in Karachi, Pakistan. She recalls that whilst independence was of course celebrated, thinking to herself as a child, there was a passiveness in discussing Britain’s rule. The true extent of the impact was not a critical presence but an everyday one. She recalls a moment when she applied for a job as a teaching assistant in a well-regarded school in Karachi, aged 18. She was rejected after the interview for not having the right proficiency in English. She recalls this memory with the emphasis on the legacy of Britain’s everyday presence that forever lingers. As a young person who had never been to England, being rejected for a school assistant role in Karachi, for not being versed enough in English. It’s a tangible reality of one of the entrenched echoes that postcolonial nations found themselves in the grip of. The language of English and the ‘power’ and ‘politics’ that are coded into the presence and access the language still holds within the country (Kachru, 1986). More specific to Pakistan, Firasat Jabeen (2019) calls the presence of the English language the ‘perpetuation of colonial legacy’. Not its presence as a language as it cannot be detached from being a global language, but its presence in structuring society. In how it manifests and is used as a tool for status, class, economic and acutely educational access. A domain of elite Pakistani society represented in an educational system that gifts those who have access to English. There is a sadness in my heart that I am not proficient in Urdu. The heart of Mustafa from Tayib Saleh’s 1960’s novel ‘Migration to the North’ – the broken heart of the colonial/post-colonial subject who masters the cannons of knowledge production and language of ‘the West’. I have a degree in English Literature. I have an acute experience of working in art museums and cultural institutions, spaces in which I feel a hyper minority within. I research these spaces often as someone who felt and still feels excluded, and my research touches on why experiences like mine, and communities I feel associated with are invisible from these spaces. The native, the insider and the outsider. But I think about Abu-Lughod’s (1991) point of the halfie – the researcher in the field of Western academia, who are from and researching communities who were historically the researched, historically ‘othered’, that they are more recognisable as ‘researchers’ within those communities than ‘Americans who study Americans’. Or in this case, those with the attributes and affiliations of the dominant culture that has been canonised as the cultural memory in British art institutions, and overpopulated in the literal presence of its audiences, staff, and knowledge producers. I wonder why I was invited to this study day to inform the framing of the ‘Clive Collection’ and not someone with the experiences and insight of my mum?
The study day on the Hafiz poems displayed in the ‘Clive Collection’ was framed as a ‘a collective close reading of the object itself, its display and its past and current interpretation’. The reading in this context is stretched beyond the pages of the book. I assumed this was a museological reading in the first place – rather than a collective reflection on the poetry of Hafiz. I do so because I have no linguistic expertise on Persian manuscripts, nor an expertise of the work of Hafiz. When I think of Hafiz as a poet, as a historical figure, he lives in my consciousness through his timeless referential space in the collective imaginary of (translated) Urdu poetry of the 20th century. Particularly, in the biographical and poetic works that have elevated the great Iqbal to hold the timeless status he has in South Asian consciousness, and particularly Pakistani Muslim consciousness. I have read of how Iqbal had held Hafiz as a portal to a transcendent space in his formative years studying in London, and how his verses allowed him to traverse time and space as narrated by Atiya Begum Fyzee-Rahamin (1947). A transcendence I feel from Iqbal, when listening in Urdu or reading (with English translation) his verse. Liberating transcendence. Priya Satia (2020) in her reflection on the construct of history and time in relation to European colonial realities, administration and memory emphasises the power of the poetic to ‘enable a truer reckoning with the legacies of empire’ (2020:272). Emphasising the role of liberation dialectics of poetic-philosophers, like Iqbal, in the independence of India and formation of India/Pakistan, Satia speaks to poetry as a way of reclaiming the very ‘truth telling’ that has been held in the discipline on history. To buckle the locked narrative of history that frames the developed and underdeveloped civilization universal narratives- the ultimate moral justification of colonial control and power. This collection of Hafiz poetry, that sits caged in a collection of other looted objects in a venue which is presented largely as a passive nice day out for National Trust members, gained a heighted symbolic status on the anniversary of Pakistan’s independence.
We entered the grounds, driving through the long road of the estate into a large, overcrowded car park sat just below the castle. Walking into the castle courtyard, I feel an ashamed privilege that I always feel in my stomach when walking into public cultural and heritage organisations. A quite extraordinary reality of what was once a space of restricted elitism, is now functioning as a mediated public space. Yet, just like all cultural and heritage public institutions, the radical optimism that is embedded in these spaces of public education, is also locked into that dominant culture that formed it and reproduces around it. Consistently, arts and cultural spaces have a disparity in their visitor base, particularly in class and race, even in the recent decades of diversity confidence. Data specifically on the National Trust’s demographic base is not easily available in the open space of public reporting, yet, looking to one of the few sources I have come across, a 2008 survey on its membership base, it highlighted that 99% was white (National Trust, 2009). A statistic that was felt to be present across the National Trust, including staff and volunteers, as reflected on by Naomi Harflett (2014) in their ethnographic doctoral thesis on volunteer profiles in the National Trust. The research highlighted an extraordinary disparity, even in relation to the wider sector’s general consistency of lack of participation and inclusion in the category of ethnicity. The National Trust’s current vision till 2025 is titled ‘For everyone, for ever’ – with a strong commitment to diversity that recognizes ‘we have a long way to go, but we’re determined to be for everyone, for ever’ (2021). Part of this vision is an expanding research-led interrogating of the legacies of colonialism and slavery in many of its properties.And my being in this space as a visitor and researcher is a slipstream of this vision. Yet, standing in the courtyard of the castle, I didn’t feel any welcoming enthusiasm, an enthusiasm ‘for everyone’. I stood there with my family and looked at this packed visitor attraction, across the various tables and chairs with tea and scones being blissfully consumed with peacocks striding across the garden. I stood in this courtyard feeling a hyper minority, like we were the only racialised experience in that space, the 1% of its 99% membership. Like I thought I would feel. My mum wondered as to how many people there today even knew the symbolic nature of the date – there was no reference to independence, just a pasteurised sense of passive Empire nostalgia.
I spoke to a very welcoming front of house volunteer to register my attendance for the appointment to see this book of Hafiz poetry. I asked if today felt like a normal Saturday, looking at the visitor numbers, and they confirmed yes – it feels like a normal Saturday afternoon in the summer period as if it were pre-covid. We were guided to the former servant quarters of the castle by the deputy collections manager, where a space was prepared to hold and inspect the object that had brought me here, the book of Hafiz poems. This was the first time in my mum’s life she had been in the back of house of a museum, let alone holding a museum object: the book, a small pocket-sized volume. I had no reference point to the physicality of the book as, surprisingly, there is not a single photographic listing of it and no listing whatsoever of a Hafiz book of poetry in the National Trust digital database. I asked the staff member present about the missing presence of the book in the digital database, and they informed me that it was only recently that the very listing of the object has been corrected. At times in its history, it had been acknowledged as ‘Tipu’s prayer book’. The prayer book of the defeated Muslim sultan who stands as a symbol of conquering might equals right, or a valiant spirit of anti-European resistance. Whose defeat and death fell inthe same period when Edward Clive became Governor of Madras, 1798-99. Opening the book, touching its pages I felt an overwhelming sense of consequence – of objects and peoples dispersed across Britain, and taking roots within its national and linguistic boundaries meandering without plan to where it is now. A space that has navigated the presence of difference firmly rooted in its ‘motherland’ as an unplanned consequence of its history. We open the first page, the colours and format familiar to me, echoing Quran and other holy books of Arabic script I learnt to read in madrassas in Northeast London. My mum looks at the Persian script, and through her tongue of Urdu can pick up the odd line, the odd word – fragments. The first word she points to is جامِ, jaam – and says it symbolises the wineglass. جامِ is wineglass. We turn from page to page, with the fragments of Persian via Urdu via English coming to me. My mum opened the book just past the halfway mark and there, to the surprise of the staff member, within the pages was a delicate, hand cut paper bookmark. It turns out this bookmark had not been catalogued before. I’d like to think that in her brief interaction with a museum object my mum has instantly contributed to its documentation. The staff member present, who themselves knew the collection and premises having been there for over a decade, said the bookmark was likely Lady Henrietta’s – who was versed in Persian and was known for her papercuts. Was this bookmark where she had read up to or perhaps her favourite of the poems?
In the biography of Lady Henrietta through her letters titled ‘Birds of a Passage’, Nancy K. Shields (2009) emphasises the immersion Lady Henrietta found herself when moving to India when her husband took the post of Governor of Madras. It tells of her travels, particularly to Mysore and engagements directly with the relics and remnants of Tipu’s kingdom. She took residence in Tipu’s now abandoned Bangalore palace, and was arranged for Tipu’s مُنشی to be her personal tutor in Persian. Shields goes on to narrate that she was even encouraged by her new tutor to take the poetry of Hafiz as a translation exercise – a poet whom she became more and more intimately affiliated with. Ultimately contributing a series of scattered translations of verses.
‘The mystery of love, hid behind the veil; search
For it amidst the intoxicated drinkers of Wine
For such things belong not to religious men of eminent degree.’
– Hafiz, translated from Persian by Lady Henrietta Clive
I think to myself of what it means for Lady Henriatta Clive to have a linguistic and intimate connection to Hafiz as a poet – in contrast to the reality of her being at the centre of a violent syphoning and pillaging of a peoples and culture through Britain’s presence and administration of India. Whilst at the same time, the poetry of Hafiz being timeless staples that inspired the liberation verse of independence poets.
We put the book down and move through the back of house corridors into the ballroom, where the ‘Clive Collection’ is housed – starting with the empty space where the book I was just holding is usually placed. Sat behind glass, crammed amongst other objects, and displayed as a closed book. There is no interpretation, information, or insight into what is in the book or any details of the books context in the collection. The book is also displayed back to front, an overlook given that Persian is read right to left. I stepped back and looked at the whole room. It is a museum of a museum. The collection has largely remained unchanged from its 1980’s installation, in which it is cased in kitsch orientalist we learnt from a volunteer host. The welcoming staff member who had facilitated access to the book, said how the space is in desperate need for revitalization – for access, for context and for wider audiences. There is a lack of coherence in the displays, with objects seemingly put together for no other reason than an aesthetic choice. The lighting is so dim, you can’t even see the colours and gems on many of the objects on display. I was told that there have even been collection materials that have had to be taken off display as the conditions in the display room are not to standard. I look to this dimly lit space with such sadness, a prison, a tomb of euthanised historical context, a graveyard that no flower of poetics can grow in. It makes me feel that just holding the book of Hafiz, with my mum, outside this context was a liberatory moment. Maybe we should have not put it back in its box, which feels like a coffin. Even the sacred materials are present but reduced to ornaments – with the most striking image I have been left with, that of a portrait of Clive set above a shelf of Hindu Gods and Goddesses. Sickening.
I noticed a set of interpretation panels just outside the room. These are newly installed, a material consequence of the hope held by researchers to reframe the collection. It profiles the characters involved, Clive, his son and Henrietta. It references Clive as someone to some was an ‘imperial hero’ and to others a ‘greedy bully’. It introduces the ‘Clive Collection’ as ‘one of the most important collections of South Asian artefacts in Europe’. I overheard a comment from a visitor who didn’t look out of place walking around saying ‘this Clive doesn’t sound like a pleasant man’. Is this a positive effect? Is this really what this collection could be doing to visitors, on the anniversary weekend of Pakistan independence? My mum and my sister both feel the same as I do, we desperately want to leave this place. Outside, I ask my mum and my sister if they want anything from the café or the shop, my mum replies, ‘I don’t want to give a penny more of OURS to this place’. As I looked over the courtyard, still seeing all the tables and chairs full, with scones, tea and peacocks roaming – it made me think of the Harflett (2014) who observed that the National Trust is conflicted between its presumed financial base and that of its vision to address its diversity at all levels. It’s a perfectly working model for a normal summertime Saturday. An enshrined dominant culture – it’s the crux I have observed and experienced across many public cultural institutions, particularly those that have a remit to explicitly be custodians of British art history and heritage. Their functional day to day resting on an unconscious gratification of the dominant culture. Diversity must find pockets around this – in research, in curatorial, in meetings and trainings – but not in the daily functional bread and butter. What would the National Trust identify as the reason(s) for Powis Castle and Gardens to not do anything to acknowledge independence – considering it bills itself as hosting one of the ‘most important’ collections of South Asia in Europe?
Reflecting on this trip, I wondered how impactful this study day on a Hafiz book really was? Perhaps the time, energy and expertise may have been better used to curate, programme, and resource a programme of Powis Castle and Gardens for the 2022 anniversaries of Pakistani and Indian independence. 2022 marks the 75th anniversary of independence, of partition, will there be an acknowledgement of that at Powis Castle? The study day came and went. Its discussions amongst those invited will be drawn into data contributing to the Provision Semantics research project. There will be papers, reports, and maybe even agenda items to discuss findings at some institutional meetings – but then what? If I visit the castle in 2022 on 14th August, will I have a different experience?
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Hassan Vawda is currently a Doctoral Researcher at Tate and Goldsmiths University. His research focuses on religion and secularism within British art museums.