By Rachael Minott 

This wooden gun was confiscated by British soldiers at some point during the so-called Mau Mau Uprising, which was fought by Kikuyu, Meru, and Embu people, with some units of Kamba and Maasai too, against white European colonist-settlers in Kenya between 1952-64. It has become well known as the most violent and prolonged resistance to colonialism in the British Kenya colony. Rifles such as this appear in museum collections across the United Kingdom and are typically displayed as examples of the violence of the Kenyan soldiers who made and brandished these objects. An exhibition at Birmingham Museum & Art Gallery displays this rifle in a different way. The Past is Now: Birmingham and the British Empire explores how we might attempt to de-colonise the museum and its collection through radical reinterpretation and co-curation.

Handmade rifle with a carved wooden handle, copper pipe barrel and door bolt firing mechanism. Photo © Birmingham Museums Trust

The co-curators of the exhibition were a group of six ambitious and politically-active women with diverse heritages, passionate about the (mis) representation of the British Empire in British Museums. The group were made up of activist Aliyah Hasinah, textile designer Shaheen Kasmani, graphic designer Abeera Kamran, writer Mariam Khan, writer and researcher Sumaya Kassim, and cultural activist Sara Myers. It was the co-curators who came up with exhibition storylines, wrote the panel texts, and decided on the graphic design and 3D design of the space. The project team at Birmingam Museums decided on the final object selections for the exhibition, wrote individual object labels and decided the gallery layout. The panel text interpretation written by the co-curators was also edited by museum staff and content-checked by specialist academics. Throughout the co-curation process, the co-curators posed difficult questions for the Museum, many of which challenged entrenched institutional practices and problems. They brought to light the micro-aggressions enacted daily in museum spaces, and revealed how some of our behaviours replicated colonial assumptions and tactics, particularly the infantilisation of ‘outsiders’.

The Past is Now; Birmingham and the British Empire, Photo © Birmingham Museums Trust
The Past is Now; Birmingham and the British Empire, Photo © Birmingham Museums Trust

Kenyan Independence was one of the narratives the co-curators chose to explore in the exhibition. They were interested in the fact that the only items in Birmingham’s collection that could tell this history, or indeed, the history of the peoples of East Africa more generally, were objects that had been confiscated by colonial forces during the Uprising. The display critiques the limited perspective offered by these objects, and there was an attempt to re-situate the collection in this self-critical context; the label for the gun, for example, reads:

Improvised guns are objects created out of necessity. They are evidence that the fighting group does not have sufficient funding or the connections needed to purchase professionally manufactured weapons. Because they are handmade, these objects were extremely unsafe to fire and would likely be used as a blunt object or as a scare tactic.

A simple comparison of this gun with the professional manufactured guns available to British soldiers (produced in large quantities in Birmingham), illustrates the disproportionate investment of colonial forces in the conflict. In this context, the handmade wooden gun becomes an illustration of British rather than Kenyan violence, and can be seen to reflect the imbalances of power which continue to exist in museums which represent such contested histories.

Rachael Minott is a Jamaican-born artist, researcher and curator. She champions the idea of self-authored histories and challenges neutrality in public spaces. She is currently researching Jamaican national representation. 

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