The Museum

They are telling lies in this museum,’ – Leila Aboulela (‘The Museum’ 18)

Martha Blow

Edited by Veronica Vivi

Art by Livi Prendergast https://liviprendergast.wordpress.com/ 

It was in my fourth year of university that I came across Leila Aboulela, shelved under ‘suggested further reading’ for a seminar on a Postcolonialism course. Indeed, before taking this course, my exposure to non-western writers within required reading was limited to the obligatory inclusion of Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart in my second year. Although Aboulela’s novel The Translator occasionally crops up on postcolonial syllabi, it is her unflinching approach to colonialism in ‘The Museum’ that captured my attention and caused me to question museum ethics and neutrality. The 1997 short story’s value has not gone unrecognised elsewhere: it was the first winner of the Caine Prize for African Writing in 2000. The 19-page tale paints the story of Shadia, a Sudanese woman studying at Aberdeen, and her acquaintance with a fellow student – a long-haired Scot named Bryan. The predominant theme of the story is the struggle of communication between colonialism’s ‘predetermined groups’, and while Bryan and Shadia begin to bridge the gap in communication, this is halted when they visit a local museum at the story’s denouement, culminating with Shadia’s announcement, ‘I shouldn’t be here with you. You shouldn’t talk to me…’ (Aboulela 18).

Aboulela may raise questions about the relationship between formerly colonised and coloniser, but she does not offer answers. Instead, she points towards bastions of power imbalance, indicating the role of institutions such as museums in continuing a colonial legacy. The act of collecting and archiving is inherently imperialist, demonstrating what Stuart Hall terms ‘the symbolic power to order knowledge, to rank, classify and arrange, and thus to give meaning to objects and things through imposition’ (4). In Aboulela’s museum, artifacts are removed from their original systems of meaning and displaced as Other—a spectacle within the display case—instead becoming ‘disconnected objects out of place and time’ (15). The agency of the artifact—and, by extension, the culture it originates from—is diminished, and replaced by the dominant voice of the coloniser. Labels and descriptions within the story’s museum record only a colonial narrative, claiming ‘northeast Scotland made a disproportionate impact on the world at large by contributing so many skilled and committed individuals,’ and thereby omitting the African voice and participating in the ‘widespread selective amnesia and disavowal’ of Empire (Aboulela 15; Hall 7). The Africa of the exhibition is rendered devoid of humanity: the ‘real’ Africa is ‘jungle inhabited only by game’, therein removing the presence and agency of its native people altogether (Aboulela 18). Aboulela draws attention to the disparity between the imperial museum and Shadia’s life in Khartoum, in which she goes to weddings in her fiancé’s Mercedes and is served lemonade with ice by waiters dressed in white: Shadia ‘would not make a good exhibit. She wasn’t right, she was too modern’ (4, 16).

Nonetheless, Shadia internalises the narrative shown in the museum, as evidenced by her own anxieties and conflicted self-identity. Although she does not identify with the savage African presented in the museum, she measures herself by the same ideology which produced such an exhibition: her values are legacies of colonialism. As a child, Shadia envied her doll’s hair; ‘she had longed for such straight hair,’ a longing which lasts into adulthood and manifests in her preoccupation with Bryan’s ponytail and her own hair straightening (Aboulela 2). Hair straightening has a long history for black women living in Western societies who ‘hoped…to approximate white standards’: it was an action that ‘could be taken to win respect despite living in a hostile environment’ (White and White 171). While it is now widely accepted that black women’s hair choices are their own, Shadia’s hair straightening corresponds to her view of kinky hair as inferior. She finds that ‘her hair depressed her’ and that ‘she didn’t like this style, her corrugated hair’, indicating her internalisation of white supremacy. This internalisation is a consequence of the ideology promoted in the imperial museum, resulting in Shadia’s alienation and identity struggle.

As a site of imperial memory, the museum serves to preserve and continue colonial narratives. While these narratives are still presented as the norm, ‘postcolonial’ remains a myth and effective communication between colonised and coloniser is futile: ‘If she had not been small in the museum,’ Shadia ‘would have patiently taught him another language…she would have shown him that words could be read from right to left’ (Aboulela 19). As I’ve mentioned, Aboulela does not offer a solution, but she instead leaves it to the reader to climb the ‘steep path’ to decolonisation.

A place for ‘The Museum’ on university curricula would be a progression along this path.  Like museum exhibitions, reading lists are curated, and the absence of non-western narratives and perspectives results in universities populated by Bryans who ‘don’t understand’ (Aboulela 18). The inclusion of the themes and issues raised in ‘The Museum’ in academic discussion is imperative, as they pertain to academia itself. In order to decolonise sites of power imbalance such as museums or universities, it is necessary to start from within, dismantling systems of white elitism through diversification and intersectionality.

Works cited

Aboulela, Leila. ‘The Museum’. An African Quilt: 24 Modern African Stories, edited by Barbara H. Solomon and W. Reginald Rampone Jr., Signet Classics, 2012, pp. 1–19.

Craig, Maxine, Ain’t I a Beauty Queen?: Black Women, Beauty, and the Politics of Race. Oxford UP, 2002, http://www.oxfordscholarship.com/view/10.1093/acprof:oso/9780195152623.001.0001/acprof-9780195152623-chapter-2. Accessed 12 December 2017.

Hall, Stuart. ‘Whose Heritage? Un-settling “The Heritage”, Re-imagining the Post-nation’. Third Text, vol. 13, no. 49, 1999, pp. 3–13.

White, Shane and Graham White. Stylin’. Cornell UP, 1998.

About the author

Martha Blow is a recent English Literature graduate from the University of Glasgow who is currently preparing for her postgraduate degree at the University of York. Martha is interested in the representation of the imperial museum within literature and the intersection of literary and museum studies.

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