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The project: Why and why now?

Re-collecting Empire is a process.

At the Museums of the University of St Andrews we are examining the legacies of empire in our collections and exploring how we can build a more equitable future.

We commit to:

  • conducting research to uncover when and how objects arrived here
  • rethinking the stories we tell, who tells them and what voices are included
  • building relationships with different communities and working together to care for, understand and present different collections and peoples.

The exhibition is one part of that process.

The exhibition seeks to explore links to empire with you, to open up spaces for discussion, and to provide ways of exploring the collections that include a variety of voices and perspectives, including yours. We invite you to participate by visiting the exhibition, creating your own object labels, commenting on labels in the museum and sharing your feedback.

The British Empire took freedom and the rule of law to countries that would never have known it otherwise.

Margaret Thatcher, British Prime Minister 1979-1990

We have been experimental in the way we have put together this exhibition and we know we will not get everything right, but we hope to open a conversation with you to better understand and help improve the legacies of empire today.

There’s a bigger picture.

We’ve written into our strategic plan that one of our goals at the Museums of the University of St Andrews is to “tackle institutional legacies and work for a more inclusive and equitable future”. Re-collecting Empire is a central part of this.

The British Empire is a monument of exploitation and conquest.

Ken Loach, film director, 1977

Behind the scenes the Museums team have been doing provenance research to better understand when, how and in what circumstances objects came into the collection – a painstaking but important step in tackling those legacies. We’ve been talking to different communities to know how we should store and display them, and what the stories we should be telling about them are.

We will make mistakes.

The exhibition is one part of the Re-collecting Empire process. We will probably get things wrong in our approach, but we will learn from them, listen to our visitors, and improve so that we really can work for a more inclusive and equitable future. If we are too scared of making mistakes to move forward, progress will never be made.

Empire expands and lives on – the last wave of red, white, and blue replaced by the next. The lands still belong to foreign men and their local friends; the gold and oil is still bled from our earth; our people are still forced into dying farms and smoke-filled factories, paid a pittance for things later sold for ten times what the workers are given. The difference between now and then is only in name.

Putra, student, 2022

Next steps…

We will reflect carefully on what we learn from this exhibition. Your feedback will help us plan how to move forward, including how we present imperial and colonial legacies in the rest of the museum, what our museum records and how we work with different communities.