Decolonization in exhibition trails: first steps

Increasingly museums and galleries are addressing the colonial nature of their collections with audiences. My work as an Education Officer involves producing resources to help school groups explore the themes of exhibitions and displays. Roots to Seeds is an exhibition exploring 400 years of plant science in Oxford, currently open at the Bodleian Libraries.

The curator, Professor Stephen Harris, and the team at the Bodleian Libraries and Oxford Botanic Garden who are behind the exhibition, have acknowledged the colonial nature of some of the material on display with statements at the centre of the exhibition space.

A Matter of Justice

A matter of justice acknowledges the marginalisation of people involved in the collection and exploitation of their knowledge.

Supporting Decolonization

Supporting decolonisation explains the current frameworks under which botanists operate and the work to address centuries of inequality.

I wanted to address the issue in an exhibition trail I created for Roots to Seeds. The aim of the trail is to help children and young people explore themes of the exhibition. The content touches on themes within the exhibition, rather than providing comprehensive coverage. Open questions encourage exploration of the texts and objects on display.

Trails can be used by visiting school groups making a self-led visit and the Education Team may also use them as a starting point for a taught session; we also make them available for use by visiting families.

A trail is usually two A4 sides and includes text, questions, illustrations and, in the case of Roots to Seeds, some space for responses.

I decided to include a version of the A Matter of Justice statement in the section about plant collecting called ‘A World of Plants’:

As European botanists began to explore the world, they found many plants they had not seen before. Local people explained which plants were useful as foods or medicines. We often don’t know the names of these people because the explorers didn’t record them.

I was aiming the language level at Key Stage 3. In a later Art Trail, I changed ‘local people’ to ‘local experts’ because I thought this phrase better emphasised indigenous understanding of local flora rather than simply the knowledge of where to find particular plants.

I’m interested to know readers’ views on the approach I took. Is this enough? Should I have included something about current practice? Could I have taken a different approach? I’m interested to hear your views.

Roots to Seeds is open at the Weston Library, Broad Street, Oxford, until 24 October 2021. Admission is free.

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