I remember the first time I stood underneath that famous skeleton in the foyer of the National History Museum. For someone that used to lug my dinosaur collection around in an old suitcase for most of my childhood, this was my fantasy turned into a towering reality. That, and many other artefacts on display from around the globe, brought history to life. But a museum is a much more finite space than the natural history of the planet’s civilisations and critters, and so curators have the task of presenting history in a way that they deem most appropriate for the average museum-goer. It’s common sense that not every culture or canine species that has existed can make the cut, but it is often the case that museums present history in a somewhat misleading way. It might be a stretch to claim that museums have been leaning towards style over substance, but there’s most certainly a lack of clarity that these bastions of knowledge really ought to shed light on.
Imperialism has meant that the exotic artefacts in exhibits far too often fail to go alongside the unpleasant and violent truth that they are steeped in them. Human civilisations have been great at a number of things, but what we’ve really mastered is the art of raiding and pillaging our neighbours for entirely self-serving reasons. Whether it be in the name of religious honour or a general sense of superiority, conquering is in our DNA, and it has been for as long as your ancestor wanted the latest neanderthal gear from those hunter-gatherers across the river, and was prepared to wipe them out to get it.
I have learnt from a young age that history is not really the recollection of facts – it’s selective storytelling. If you look at Sri Lanka on a map, the northern region of Jaffna has inhabited the Tamil population of the country, and the middle and southern regions have typically housed the Sinhalese people. It became known to me that in some Tamil schools, students were genuinely shown maps of Sri Lanka with most of the Sinhalese-majority areas removed entirely, depicting Jaffna as what is the whole country on the map. It was startling to me that there were kids living in the same country as me who had been taught a completely different reality. This is of course an extreme case in a minority, but despite the wealth of information at our disposal, we still take the history that we are told as gospel and rarely strive to scratch the surface. Although an accurate set of accounts published online might be an objective truth, it most often doesn’t run parallel with the history that is the lived truth your parents and relatives have passed down the generations in the form of stories. I feel it’s important to remember that even perceived truths that have been handed down in order to remember historical moments in one’s timeline should be taken with a pinch of salt, as the truth is, to an extent, what we want our children and grandchildren to remember.
Even Winston Churchill has been called into question recently. Voted the Greatest Ever Briton in a BBC poll in 2002 for his leadership as a wartime prime minister, British history has conveniently forgotten his white supremacist attitudes and divisive policies, many holding his War Cabinet policy responsible for the Bengal famine in 1943, which killed about 2.2 million people. Putting aside the fact that I think Churchill being called the greatest ever Briton above the likes of Charles Darwin, William Shakespeare, William Wilberforce, Florence Nightingale, Sir Isaac Newton and Stephen Hawking is a great injustice, there has been a lot of interesting debate about Churchill’s sketchier past. It calls into question how British history has often been sculpted to paint a noble and gentile picture, and to shove the bloodshed and systematic human suffering under the carpet.
Personally, I believe that to expect heroes and people in general to lack a side of transgressions and fatal flaws is a morally arrogant stance to take. Although there is a scale of people that are clearly worse than others, what we all have in common is that none of us are exempt from imperfection. It is important to judge people on the balance of their character and the positive impact they have, as this is the only true way to make an accurate assessment of a person. If Nelson Mandela’s dismantlement of apartheid can outweigh his involvement in communist terrorism with the ANC, and Michael Jackson can be immortalised as the King of Pop for his transformation of the genre despite numerous claims of paedophilia, why can’t Churchill be seen as a war hero rather than an imperialist tyrant? But ultimately, it’s a personal choice that you make about how you choose to view individuals.
There is no right way of looking at historical figures and events, many interpretations have been cast and this will continue as humans continue to be imperfect. But what I feel is absolutely necessary above all is transparency, as the only way to see the truth in history is to not have one story, but a series of tales told from different viewpoints and different experiences. Once we have a range of perspectives, then we can make our own objective analysis to make up our minds about how we view a person. History all too often paints in a binary fashion. People and events were either morally righteous or deeply malevolent, so I think we, as well as the museums, must take more responsibility in providing greater clarity to the complex nature of our past.