I believe – or would rather believe – that very few exhibitions could possibly compete in terms of moral and ideological ambiguity with the so-named “Global City” exhibition at Museum of Liverpool. Never have I ever seen an exhibition so explicitly incorporating imperialism, colonialism, and racism with a city’s pride in engaging in two centuries of economic and cultural exchange (or exploitation and appropriation). Despite how much I love all the rest about Liverpool (like Liverpool FC and the Beatles), this exhibition about Liverpool’s past deeply disturbed me. It is not that provocative curation never contributes to any critical discussions, but on this occasion, I simply have to say no.
“Global City” aims to show how the city of Liverpool played a part in the global network of economic and cultural interaction with the rest of the world in the past two centuries. A period of controversy and complexity, the past 200 years have witnessed the rise and fall of superpowers. Political, economic, and cultural megalomania of the British Empire, particularly, has made an impact on the world’s ideological landscape, for globalism was an idea born out of this sort of imperialist curiosity and passion for conquest in the 19th-century. As for a city as “global” as Liverpool, its history was inevitably intertwined with this complicated past. “How will Museum of Liverpool tell the story?” I wondered as I walked into the exhibition, having very little idea of what awaited.
As I fixed my gaze on the introductory panel of this exhibition, I literally read and reread it for three or four times until I got the idea right. Behold.
Liverpool played a key role in the making of Britain and its Empire.
The British Empire was a large number of countries controlled by Britain for its own benefit. War and trade helped expand the Empire, while patriotism, religion and racism justified its existence.
Liverpool became rich by trading across the Empire and beyond. As trade routes expanded, distant lands became accessible and new cultural influences, people and ideas came into the city.
My intellectual consciousness is especially sensitive to such type of statement reflecting on historical experience on an ideological level. But what on earth is this? “War and trade helped expand the Empire, while patriotism, religion and racism justified its existence.” This indifferently neutral tone defining the British Empire through a very British centralist perspective endorses and justifies such act of imperialism, if not promoting and taking pride in it. The immediate next paragraph sets Liverpool in this sort of historical context, as though to claim that the making of Liverpool as the global city that this exhibition sets out showcasing owed to British imperialism all over the world. From this perspective, the ways in which this foreword establishes Liverpool as the city benefitted from the Empire in turn endorse the Empire and imperialism. Its imperialist undertone becomes explicit.
On the one hand, I was provoked, while on the other hand, I thought those unqualified statements more or less reflect the curators’ irresponsibility in introducing complicated ideologies as such. They overlooked aspects that should have been more carefully contextualized. The detached voice potentially suggests to the visitors that there is nothing intrinsically complex and problematic in “the making of Britain and its Empire,” global imperialism for Britain’s “own benefit,” and the justifiable and almost moral expansion of the British Empire by means of political, economic, and cultural colonialism. At least, this exhibition should not seem as though it is curated by a bunch of supremacists, I thought.
Tragically, Africa, India, and East Asia become the victim of such ambiguous curation. They are the lands with whom Liverpool has traded (and exploited, believe me or not) most extensively in history. Exoticism and Orientalism are also introduced in an unqualified manner – items of foreign interest are put on display for the sake of an eye-opening “Wow!” from our contemporary visitors. Such imperialist gaze, full of condescending curiosity, is cast within the intellectual world of the 21st century where, I naively presumed, no hegemonic ideologies would roam around unrestrainly! Right in front of me, fathers started educating their children who were running around and marveling at those exhibits of curiosities. “Do you know that this wonderfully made but quite scary mask came from some coastal country in west Africa?” “Darling India and southeast Asia were quite famous for their herbs.” Whatever those kids learned, their knowledge was inevitably framed by hegemonic ideologies put forth in the introductory remarks of this exhibition. They’d remember that all wonderful things brought to this museum from all over the world are backgrounded by Liverpool’s imperialist past. Those imperialists brought home what seemed strangely fascinating to the Britons, Furthermore, patriotism, religion and racism justified not only the existence of the British Empire, but also such display of their “imperliast robberies.” Museums, as places of public education, are exactly places where such ideologies would quietly ground in people’s hearts. To my greatest fear, local visitors would learn that the Empire has graciously made this education possible. I fear that they feel proudly justified to boast their gilded imperialist past which, in fact, complicates their historical identity to a degree that they would never realize.
What does being global mean anyway? For Liverpool, this exhibition affirms that it was the Empire that bestowed this beautiful town upon Mersey its global influence. But is it global, or is it hegemonic? Are there other ways to cope with such an out-reaching idea without suggesting an imperialist message? And wait, it seemed so far that I was vexed by this explicit and unqualified justification of the British Empire, but what if the curators do not find any problems with it? What if, as the curators might suggest, the identity of Liverpool is inevitably tied with this kind of imperialist past? If such is the case, ought I to at least try to understand?
But eventually, I settled my heart. No matter what, this imperialist conception of globalism and a global identity seems dangerous for a city as multifaceted as Liverpool to boast. However, there is quite little problem with a city having a controversial history – we all have some “dirty laundries” that we wish to hide or come up with a rationalized excuse for. And no, they are not even “dirty laundries” – historical events rely on how people interpret them and endow them with meanings. But if we learn nothing else from history, we should remember that the ways in which we reflect on and exhibit our history will fundamentally shape who we are as people of the present. In this way, the curation of “Global City” at the Museum of Liverpool poses a perilous threat to building a civic identity of Liverpool that fits into a global and intercultural vision of world history.
28-6-18 drafted in Beijing, China
10-7-18 revised and published in Beijing, China
Cover image: Museum of Liverpool at dusk.