The National Army Museum’s refusal to decolonise its exhibitions is a matter of debate, and its position has been both praised and criticised. In this light, AOAV critically examines the museum’s stance, as stated by its director, Justin Maciejewski, who asserts that Britain should not be ashamed of its history, and that history must not be considered through a modern lens.
Mr. Maciejewski’s position on decolonisation is based on the belief that history should be presented as it was, without being filtered through contemporary sensibilities. While it is essential to understand and respect history in its context, it is also necessary to acknowledge and address the oppressive aspects of Britain’s past, such as its role in the slave trade and colonial exploitation.
Decolonisation is a term used by activists who want to shift the focus away from British and Western history and emphasize the contributions of minority groups and other cultures. The decolonisation movement aims to challenge and reassess traditional narratives that glorify the British Empire, highlighting the negative consequences of imperialism and colonialism.
While the National Army Museum’s refusal to decolonise its exhibitions might be seen as a way to preserve historical authenticity, it can also be interpreted as an unwillingness to engage with contemporary issues and perspectives. By not acknowledging the harmful aspects of Britain’s past, the museum might perpetuate a one-sided view of history that fails to provide a comprehensive understanding of the complexities and nuances of the past.
For instance, the museum’s exhibition on the Conflict in Europe showcases the role of Britain’s Armed Forces in various conflicts, including posters aimed at recruiting citizens from the Empire. While it is important to tell the stories of soldiers who fought for the British Crown with pride, it is equally important to recognize the broader context of their participation in the imperial project, which involved exploitation and subjugation of native peoples around the world.
For instance, last year AOAV conducted a study to quantify the civilian death toll from British military global activities since 1945, analysing 28 different conflicts. The research found 1,620 civilians killed by British forces, as reported in historical documents, government reports, and contemporary news reports. The study aimed to emphasise the consequences of war on civilian lives and address the imbalance of unrecorded and unrecognised civilian deaths.
The report categorised British military involvement into four thematic periods, highlighting the continuities and evolutions in patterns of civilian harm. These periods included the end of the empire, with 15 conflicts resulting in 704 confirmed civilian fatalities; multinational military interventions with unclear figures and diffused responsibility; operations in Northern Ireland and the Falklands, which featured growing accountability; and engagements after the September 11th attacks, which led to 431 confirmed civilian deaths.
In the light of an absence of detail in the National Army Museum on such civilian deaths as a consequence of post-1945 military engagements, Mr. Maciejewski’s insistence on not applying a contemporary lens to historical figures might be seen as an attempt to evade responsibility for addressing the problematic aspects of their actions and legacies. While it is essential to treat history with respect, humility, and empathy, it is also necessary to engage in critical reflection and reassessment of past actions and their consequences.
In conclusion, the National Army Museum’s refusal to decolonise its exhibitions raises questions about its commitment to presenting a balanced and inclusive history, especially as it is funded from the taxpayer’s money. While the museum’s position on maintaining historical authenticity is understandable, and veterans may feel strongly that they should have a museum that highlights their sacrifices, all national museums should also recognise the importance of engaging with contemporary perspectives and addressing the negative aspects of Britain’s past. By doing so, the museum can contribute to a more comprehensive understanding of history, fostering greater empathy and appreciation for diverse experiences and perspectives. By refusing to, history is always in danger of repeating itself.
Did you find this story interesting? Please support AOAV's work and donate.