Race, Empire and the Pre-Raphaelites

Decolonising Victorian Art and Design through Museum Collections and Practice

This research group brings together museums holding Pre-Raphaelite and Arts & Crafts collections with academics and artists to consider these objects’ global contexts, particularly in relation to ideologies of Orientalism and Empire.

By using Birmingham’s rich collections as a starting point, we aim to facilitate wider conversations about how Pre-Raphaelite and Arts & Crafts material, and collections of Victorian art and design more generally, might be displayed and interpreted for the 21st-century museum and its diverse audiences. We propose to create a set of resources for museum and higher education practitioners wishing to foreground race and empire in 19th-century collections, which will be available online. Our group’s activity will also inform a major exhibition proposed for Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery following its full reopening.

Our key research questions are:

1) How can we rethink Pre-Raphaelite and Arts and Crafts objects through the lenses of anti-racism and decoloniality? How can contemporary museum practitioners interpret and engage audiences with these complex and difficult histories of art and design; what challenges and opportunities do they offer?

2) How can museums and galleries work ethically in collaborating with contemporary BIPOC artists and designers to engage with these nineteenth-century objects and their legacies?

3) How can the group build on the activities of our first year in order to create collaborative resources for museum and higher education practitioners?

New for 2023

Race, Empire and the Pre-Raphaelites in now making available a digital version of Approaching Race and Empire in collections of nineteenth century art and design – A resource pack for museums and galleries which is downloadable via the links below. An accessible digital version has been designed for people with print or visual impairment. 

Digital Accessible Museum Resource

Digital Museum Resource

This Resource Pack has been designed to be a practical source for museum professionals, and we would be most grateful for any feedback. Please contact [email protected] if you would like to speak more about it, or to let us know if it has been useful – or how it might be improved.

Hew Locke, Souvenir 9 (Queen Victoria), 2019. Mixed media on antique Parian ware, 44.1 x 27 x 26 cm. Birmingham Museums Trust; photo Hales Gallery/Anna Arca 

Activity in 2021

During 2021 the group’s activities were centred around the following questions:

  • How can we rethink Pre-Raphaelite and Arts and Crafts objects through the lenses of anti-racism and decoloniality?
  • How can contemporary museum practitioners interpret and engage audiences with these complex and difficult histories of art and design; what challenges and opportunities do they offer?
  • How are contemporary BIPOC artists and designers engaging with these nineteenth-century objects?

The group began addressing these questions through three events: two primarily for group members, and one open to a wider public. The two network events featured a wide range of invited speakers, followed by small group ‘workshop’ activities which set out to apply the ideas discussed to objects in historic collections. Full details of the events programme is available here. Although the Covid-19 pandemic forced a focus on online rather than in-person events, it allowed the group to bring together a wider range of participants, including speakers and attendees from the UK, Europe, North America and Australia. Recordings are available of Event 2, Artists in Dialogue: Contemporary Responses to Art, Design and Empire and Event 3, In Conversation: Hew Locke and Matt Smith: Commemorating and Contesting Empire with Victorian Ceramics, chaired by Dr Sadiah Qureshi.

The co-convenors gathered their reflections on the group and its programme in an article published online in Midlands Art Papers 4 (2021) available here.  As well as publishing an ‘in conversation’ in the journal focusing on the research group’s activity, the co-convenors presented at an online event for Midlands Art Papers exploring decolonising approached to collections, hosted by Wolverhampton Art Gallery and the Department of Art History, Curating and Visual Studies at the University of Birmingham.

A challenge that the group is particularly conscious of is that the academic and museums sectors remain overwhelmingly white. While the co-convenors believe they have succeeded in creating a network that includes more people of colour than is usually the case in art and design history, they acknowledge there is still a lot of work to do. In an attempt to address this imbalance, they are committed to ensuring BIPOC speakers are in the majority at all events, and seeking to maximise BIPOC representation within the group while also asking that white members reflect critically on their positionality in relation to race, empire and privilege. Feedback on the programme to date has been extremely positive. Members have commented particularly on the focus on individual objects and practical decolonising approaches, and on the range of voices the events have brought together.

The questions raised in the three events in 2021 and suggestions from network members have prompted the co-convenors to consider some further areas of research. Extending the group’s focus on race in Victorian art and design, a more intersectional approach would allow for discussions of other practices of marginalisation in the context of empire, including issues of class, gender, anti-Semitism, and the racialisation of Irish people in the nineteenth century. The group’s fruitful discussions with contemporary artists and museum practitioners also left everyone wanting to explore further how museums and galleries can work ethically in collaborating with BIPOC artists and designers in addressing nineteenth-century objects and their legacies.

The group and its events have provided a vital source of community for the co-convenors during the pandemic, as well as valuable discussion and new perspectives. In their future programme they hope to build on the first year’s activity and expand the network, forging greater dialogue between academics, artists, museum professionals, and the wider public.

Kate Nichols, Victoria Osborne and Sabrina Rahman, January 2022


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