Is it too late to remember the sacrifices of Britain’s Colonial soldiers?
If you take the tram from Piccadilly Gardens to Media City UK, you can walk to the northern branch of the Imperial War Museum (IWM). In there, you will find a main exhibition space dedicated to all conflicts that Britain has been in since 1914. There are also multiple enclosed exhibition spaces (‘silos’) of specific themes that transcend a specific war.
One of them shows the role of colonial and Commonwealth soldiers and it has four display cases; of these, one is a general display, one is for Canadian efforts, one half of one about Indian, the other half about the Anzac efforts, and the final one is devoted, although sparsely, to independence movements and half to the Mau Mau Uprising. Materials in these display cases are meagre, especially the ones about independence movements and the Mau Mau Uprising.
The Imperial War Museum North was built in 2002 and the Imperial War Museum’s (London) World War One gallery was redone in 2014, and both have very little traces of colonial history. These are not museums that are stagnant or forgotten. One notable display in the IWM’s World War One gallery was two Indian soldiers’ uniforms. In a darker part of the exhibit, the uniforms face some artillery guns, so you can only see the backs. Most visitors just walked right past them.
You could play devil’s advocate and ask: how does a museum find materials from nations that do not want anything more to do with what is left of the British Empire? However, this is a weak excuse. The Imperial War Museums field staff once discussed the logistics of acquiring a decommissioned submarine for display (how they would get it to the museum, which roads would it travel down to get to the museum). This is not a institution that gives up easily — something deeper is at play. All historical museums deal in memory and in memory there is space not only to remember, but to forget.
In 2012, the last veteran of World War One died. Two years after that, commemorations for one hundred years since the beginning of World War One began. From 2014 to today, the United Kingdom has undergone three major elections (two general, one referendum). In 2014, when commemorations began, there were discussions about Britain and its connections with the outside world, who it was tied to.
Now in 2018, some Brexiteers hope that the Commonwealth can be relied upon for international trade once Britain formally leaves the European Union. On the flip-side, in London in 2014, when Paul Cummins and Tom Piper’s display of ceramic poppies on the Tower of London became the symbol for Britain remembering World War One, some people forgot that the display remembered colonial soldiers too. Those who purchased the ceramic poppies afterwards seemed content to discuss the poppies in relation to Britain in World War One and Britain today.
When the Imperial War Museum was set up in the last years of World War One, it was going to be called the “National War Museum”. It was made clear from the offset that this would be a museum for the British experience of war. They did not want to encroach on the budding Canadian museum for the war (so what about all the other countries?). The name change to the Imperial War Museum was suggested by a sub-committee for colonial interests and the museum-to-be, whose role appears to have been purely advisory with no real teeth.
The Imperial War Museum was also intended as a memorial when it opened. It is just an educational museum. The Imperial War Museum being no longer half memorial and half museum is accepted — times have changed, and thus the museum has changed. And that is okay, right? However, it cannot claim to be “covering 100 years of experience throughout the Commonwealth”. The museum began to cover British experience of war, and it should either accept and acknowledge that, or change. Life is still not that simple: funded by the British government, the site of speeches by Prime Ministers and heirs to the British throne, any move in either direction would likely be taken as a larger political statement. How the museum behaves now already is one, saying: colonial soldiers and their deeds and sacrifices were unimportant.
Would it be foolish to hope that colonial soldiers would be remembered more in the centenary of World War One in a more progressive, connected, and global world than one hundred years ago, especially considering debates in 2014 about Britain’s place on the world stage? Maybe it was, but it is a lesson in and of itself. Britain has not really changed, it will not challenge nor face up to its colonial history. The Imperial War Museums are a symptom of a larger problem. We cannot educate people about the effects of those who lived (and suffered) under the British Empire if we do not put it in our museums.