by Vatsala SethiDec 31, 2022
The popular postmodern view is that truth is relative. There can be no such thing as ‘absolute truth’. Objective truth cannot be known since it is built on the shifting foundation of man’s perceptions and lived experiences. And since each individual’s perception and experience is different, truth cannot be singular.
I recently came across The Unfiltered History Tour, a unique multimedia intervention about the disputed artifacts at the British Museum. Using augmented reality (AR) technology, an interactive tour was created for 10 artifacts that are part of the museum’s collection. The immersive digital experience serves as a parallel to the actual physical tour for a fresh perspective on the artifacts, all of which have been acquired over centuries from British colonies. What makes this project even more intriguing is the fact that it was executed without any knowledge of the British Museum. The artifacts were scanned by an ‘undercover’ field researcher. PG Aditya, Chief Creative Officer at Dentsu Webchutney lead this project. I feel fortunate to have spoken with him. I had many questions about the intent and process that Aditya patiently responded to. He says, “Emi Eleode made over 30 trips to the Museum over eight months to test the filter and provide feedback on the placement and lighting of objects — all without the museum’s knowledge”. Users are simply required to scan these artefacts to get transported back in time to when they were created. It is layered with an audio narration by people from their homelands.
I wondered why was this not done the right way, with the support of the museum rather than secretly? Aditya said that the British Museum hosts plenty of official tours on various history trails, but a key topic remains under wraps – that many objects in the Museum’s collection were stolen and have outstanding requests for return to the countries of origin. “For decades, the British Museum has been telling the story of non-British artefacts without making room for underrepresented and minority colonial voices, whose countries these artefacts belong to. We wanted to change that,” he says. The team was keen to staying to the ‘unfiltered’ idea of the intervention. “In order to be truly unfiltered and maintain the journalistic integrity of the narrative, we believed it would be best to represent experts from the different home countries without the British Museum’s knowledge, feedback, or consent,” he adds.
After this conversation, I was left with a dilemma – why is it important to retrace, retract, re-write history? The fact remains that the British Empire, for instance ruled India, and in their 200 odd years here they took away many valuable resources. That fact cannot change. How far back is enough to go? I got reminded of a casual comment made by my fellow masters’ student at my art school in the USA. During a heated conversation I said that Americans have displaced native community to settle. He asked, “…and who did your ancestors move to settle?” I realised that my forefathers migrated, my father left his home-town to settle in the city. So, movement and settlement are an integral part of the development of humanity as we know it today. So, what does it really mean to ‘correct’ the course of history? All of the events are layers that accumulate over time and all of it is part of the history.
Aditya made a pertinent point about this. He says that the intergenerational impact of colonialism continues to affect the lives of people who were part of the Empire’s erstwhile colonies. Through The Unfiltered History Tour one is likely to learn what neither the British Museum nor British textbooks teach openly - about colonialism and the intergenerational trauma it has created, and its impact on our collective future. “We hope this encourages every visitor to start engaging in meaningful dialogue about reconciling with our uncomfortable shared pasts in an equitable manner,” he explained.
He believes that there is a certain ‘manufacturing of ignorance’ that keeps Britons from learning about its imperialist past. Only when we escape from the fantasy of the Empire, will we all learn about what really happened, check our privilege and build a better, inclusive future. He referred me to research of January, 2016. YouGov poll found that 44 per cent of Britons (and 57 per cent of Conservatives) thought their country's ‘history of colonialism’ was something to be proud of, and 43 per cent thought the British Empire was a ‘good thing’. But in the context of the objects in the tour, how reasonable is it to return them to the home country? Besides the fact that the entire British Museum will be empty if they were to return items to countries of origin, Aditya feels that official narrative is given by those who have nothing to do with them. “This campaign is an aim to fill in the gaps and further education about the impact of colonialism. We wanted to find a way to make room for underrepresented colonial voices - so that they can represent the artefacts from their home countries and share their stories, without its significance being whitewashed,” he says.
But then again, if Pablo Picasso made Guenrnica post the Spanish Civil War, would the context of it change if it stayed at MoMA New York? The popularity of the work is because it left Spain and was at MoMA for almost three decades. Aditya feels that none of this can be delinked from politics. He asks, “If art is political, isn’t art history – inadvertently – political history?”
Several countries benefit from the artefacts being present at the British Museum, because it furthers discoverability for visiting tourists. There are other countries who believe that because their artefacts continue to live in England shows that colonialism has in fact not ended. Many others believe that the artefacts do not belong in a museum, given its cultural and symbolic significance as a spiritual and living entity. But the mission of the project is to present a counter mapping, an alternate point of view. “Our stance is that while governments of the home countries and the British Museum engage on the future of these artefacts, their history cannot be told only from the imperialistic, European perspective. There’s a danger in a single story. The British Museum has an incredible opportunity to teach every visitor about the impact of colonialism, the circumstances of the looting that brought them to Britain and the intergenerational trauma it has generated, so that we can all address our shared past in an equitable manner,” adds Aditya.
Personally, I still do not have an answer to the question – ‘should the museums return collected objects to the countries of its origin’. Should the uncomfortable aspects of history be undone? There is the UNESCO’s 1970 convention on ‘Return and Restitution of Cultural Property’…but this too must be applied keeping in mind the prevailing ‘power equitation’ at play!
Credits & acknowledgement:
The Unfiltered History Tour was co-created by VICE World News and Dentsu Webchutney. The team is engaging for its future interventions through its online campaign that asks ‘Which museum would you like us to unfilter next?, as a long term commitment to decolonise a singular narrative. Each illustration has been made in consultation with Shaleen Wadhwana, Art Historian & Cultural Researcher, who helped ensure accuracy in visual detail. Emi Eleode, field researcher, was responsible for scanning of the artefacts on site. She shared live feedback on where the artefacts were placed, where they were being moved, and what their lighting conditions were, to enable the filter to be developed and modified. The British Museum’s layout on Google Earth proved to be the biggest ally. The Unfiltered History Tour team at Webchutney in India has never set foot inside the British Museum, but they could navigate every artefact in the museum on the list, thanks to their research of the Museum’s layout using Google Earth. Gurbaksh Singh, Chief Technology Officer at Dentsu Webchutney, lead the technical team. Tech filters use real-time weather updates for accuracy. For building the filters, sunlight reflecting off glass display cabinets meant actual development of different filters for different times of day and different weather conditions for the same artefact.