Alice Procter (The Exhibitionist) on Tipu's Tiger
Institutions in the United Kingdom often hold objects that have come into their collections under opaque, violent or less than desirable conditions. Often, these histories are silenced or have been conveniently left out of the museum’s official narrative. This is where people like Alice come in. We had a wonderful, lengthy conversation about Alice about the work that museums do, and how museums can take steps towards being places for everyone.
This particular interview has been edited for clarity, but our full unedited conversation with Alice can be found here.
Alice Procter is an art historian and museum educator. She runs Uncomfortable Art Tours, unofficial guided tours exploring how major institutions came into being against a backdrop of imperialism. Alice’s academic work concentrates on the intersections of postcolonial art practice and colonial material culture, the curation of historical trauma, and myths of national identity. Her website is theexhibitionist.org. She spends a lot of time screaming on Twitter at @aaprocter.
Context & Significance
Alice Procter (AP): Tipu’s Tiger was first created as an emblem of resistance. The object is quite reactionary in many ways, but it is about trying to find an aesthetic representation of un-Britishness, and making that both powerful and tangible.
When it was first taken by the East India Company from Tipu Sultan’s palace, the object was placed in the company’s India Museum. It immediately went on public display, and it was treated as a trophy taken from a violent society that they had “saved”.
Tipu’s Tiger is an organ. It is an active, loud and tangible object. It was meant to be touched, and to be played. Now, it sits isolated, muffled and silenced in a glass case. It was meant to be experienced, but now all we can do as visitors is look at it. I find it quite sad, actually. I was doing a tour recently where a musician in the group remarked on how heartbreaking it was that any musical instrument should be muffled. There are other musical instruments in the Victoria & Albert (V&A) Museum’s South Asia Gallery as well, and they are very good examples of how museums turn everyday domestic objects into silent things to be observed. Every so often a conservator cranks the organ up and plays it, but the fact that we don’t experience it the way it was meant to be experienced is a real shame.
LAbelling the Object
AP: The label for Tipu’s Tiger begins with the sentence, “Tipu Sultan was killed when the East India Company stormed Seringapatam in 1799”. That’s written in a passive voice. It doesn’t mention the fact that he was killed by the Company’s officers, and gives the impression that he just happened to die at the same time.
Later on in the label it reads, “as was usual, the royal treasury was then divided up between the army”. There’s a whole history of looting and conflict being used as a way of creating museum collections. We know that East India Company officials were in contact with collectors and curators in London. We know that the trustees of institutions such as the British Museum, the V&A and the National Gallery are sending letters to military officials around the world at this time, expressing interest in particular objects and artworks. There’s also this mention that kills me: “the wooden tiger […] was discovered in the palace”. People already knew that the organ was there, so it wasn’t being discovered at all.
Sentences like “when visitors turned the handle at the side, noises were produced that supposedly imitated the European victim's dying wails of agony” also have a very clear angle. It focuses, overwhelmingly, on the European victim as compared to the tiger itself. That little choice surrounding the way in which the sentence is phrased then shapes how viewers experience the piece. It makes the European the protagonist, and transforms the way in which the object is seen.
Viewing the Object
AP: I would describe my approach as object-led storytelling, where I work with a physical object but also consider its presentation within a gallery space. It’s not just about a painting in isolation, but about what is in the room with the painting, what the space looks like, how people move through the space, and who gets to be in the space anyway. I often start my tours by describing the object before giving an overview of how these objects moved between places. It helps people realise how a single object, such as Tipu’s Tiger, has had many lives, and how the viewing contexts of these objects change their narrative.
Tipu’s Tiger is now housed within a museum of design, and is thus treated very much as an object of design. It went from being an object of art in Tipu Sultan’s palace, to being a military trophy at the India Museum, and now having its story focused on its aesthetic and material qualities at the V&A Museum.
It’s also in a display case with other objects from Seringapatam. There’s an overwhelming focus on the use of the tiger as a motif as compared to how these objects were actually used or understood. For example, the Seringapatam Medal is another object that sits within the same display case as Tipu’s Tiger. It shows the British lion defeating the Mysorian tiger. This motif was used widely in British prints and illustrations, and one could fill the entire gallery with ways in which the tiger was used as a metaphor for Indian resistance. The motif was invented and reinvented, both by Mysorian artists who were commissioned by Tipu Sultan himself, but also by British artists. To present something like this medal in isolation is really damaging. It takes away from the fact that there were thousands of these medals in circulation, and were representative of an accessible motif.
The rest of the South Asia Gallery is filled with items such as clothing. Clothing is meant to be worn out. It’s meant to break and wear down. Whilst it is incredible that we have examples of historical dress, it is also important to remember that they look very different on the body. Textiles crease and were probably worn alongside jewels and shawls. When we go into a gallery and see dresses on mannequins, it is important to realise that we aren’t looking at them as markers of identity and self-fashioning, but as fragments. The gallery is absolutely haunted.
Understanding the Museum Space
AP: It sounds like a cliché saying this now, but museums are contact zones. Museums are spaces of encounter, where one can see a collision of identities and different levels of power. If you’re an art historian or a curator, you’d think that statement a cliché. Yet when visitors come into these spaces, that fact is not always visible. Often, it’s far from obvious. We then have to ask how we can make that knowledge more tangible or accessible to people. How can we get viewers to realise that objects in the museum are hybridised forms, and have resulted from decades of trade and exchange?
Museums have more power over how we display these histories than they would like to admit. Museums are institutions of memory. If you enshrine one particular story, you’re doing it at the expense of an alternative. It’s so important to recognise that, and to own that power. As part of that, you then have to be willing to make choices that some people might not like.
I use this slogan in my tours, “display it like you stoke it”, as a way of saying that if museums and institutions are going to hold onto these objects in their collections, the least they could do is to directly address their provenance. Museums need to talk about how they’ve been displayed, how they’ve been represented, and recognise that they need to be conversational and active spaces. When you actively resist talking about an object’s provenance, you’re missing a huge part of its story. Obviously the slogan is meant slightly as a joke, but the reason that it works is because it is true. I say it in an almost flippant way, but museums have to follow through on it with honesty. Someone on a tour once pointed out to me that “loot” (ٹ लूट) is a Hindi word that means to steal. The East India Company brought it into the English language. If we’re thinking of multilingualism in the gallery, that’s a linguistic narrative that needs to be present.
Museums such as the V&A have plenty of experts on their staff, but they’re not the only experts in the world. There are also different types of expertise too. There might be material expertise, or the perfect curator for objects such as Tipu’s Tiger, but emotional knowledge is also important in helping us understand these objects empathetically. There needs to be room for that too.
There is this idea, particularly amongst an older demographic, that is if I haven’t personally experienced something, that it therefore doesn’t matter or exist. This is true of all sectors, but I feel it is particularly prevalent in the arts and heritage sector. People somehow tend to feel their own experience the most authentic and the most important, but fail to realise that they can’t speak on behalf of everybody. A lot of curators are used to living in a world where their expertise makes them untouchable, and that they don’t have to talk about their own potential pitfalls because of this fantasy of objectivity. There’s no such thing as objectivity. Everything is subjective — some people just have self awareness. I don’t know why we still have to have these conversations about whether museums should or should not be neutral. It’s something that I really hope we can all agree on soon because it’s honestly boring to keep having this conversation. The overwhelming majority of people recognise that this is a problem, but there still is a group of loud traditionalists who call for objectivity. They say that museums should not be political, should not have an opinion and should represent everybody — but the truth is they’re not representing everybody. They might as well stop pretending and own up to the fact that they can’t represent everyone. Museums are going to become irrelevant unless they come to terms with this.
Museums as Emotional Spaces
AP: We have this notion of the museum as a space of enlightened knowledge, but the founder of the British Museum, Hans Sloane, used to host parties where people could touch his collection. For him, it was all about experiencing the object. His approach to his collection was very haptic and multi-sensorial, and this often resulted in a very emotional experience. Somehow that’s been squashed down into this narrative of Enlightenment where we understand things by studying them.
I think a lot about crying in art galleries, which sounds like a strange thing to say, but when is it okay to be emotional in front of an object? When you see something that has a very violent past, does the space let you experience your emotions, or does it push you towards walking along and staying calm? Are you allowed to be moved by something that’s beautiful? Usually that’s okay, but you’re not allowed to be moved by something painful in the same way. This is something that more museums are beginning to address. The National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington D.C. has an amazing space at the end, where viewers who’ve gone up the historical galleries then come up to this place with water and quiet. It’s a very cathartic room, and was deliberately built in by the museum’s architects. They knew that space had to be made for the trauma and pain felt in those galleries. They’ve also built in little booths where visitors can record their thoughts or responses to the museum’s collection, which will then be collected and added onto the museum’s history. That’s so important, and so many of the more traditional art and anthropology museums can really learn from that approach. It puts the visitor’s experience, particularly their emotional health, at the centre of what the museum is doing. There are with human remains in them, objects that have been taken under violent circumstances, and artefacts that have literal blood on them. If you don’t make room for the fact that people are going to respond to that honestly and humanly, you’re really failing your audience.
These collections can be very overwhelming, and it’s easy to express that emotion in anger. It’s completely natural to feel angry in museums as well. You don’t have to go into a gallery and cry. You can also feel outrage, and that sort of righteous indignation is an important response to have to the collections. Yet, that’s not socially acceptable within the context of a museum space either. One could feel angry at the fact that their community was misrepresented or not represented at all. That can lead to people feeling rejected by the space, and it perpetuates the sense that museums are for some people and not others. If you’ve had an angry response to something you saw in a museum, that only proves the point that you and your voice belong there. Yet, there’s no obvious channel for communication between museums and their visitors. Firstly, you can never get in touch with museum curators. Secondly, there isn’t a socially palatable way of saying: “Your exhibition hurt me. It made me angry and upset because you misrepresented my history, my experience and my community”. That’s a very difficult thing to communicate, and because of how museums are set up at the moment, the onus of communicating that is always on the viewer. I don’t think I’ve ever gone into a gallery and felt like the museum wanted to hear what I had to say about it.
Uncomfortable Art Tours
AP: When I was studying for my undergraduate degree in art history, I did modules on topics such as imperial art, mapmaking in the 16th to 17th century, and how skin tone was represented during those time periods. One of the things I found really interesting was how unwilling people were when it came to having conversations about colonialism. It was this thing that no one wanted to talk about. You’d talk about expansion, or trade, or even exchange, but you weren’t allowed to say “empire” or “colonial forces”. We just didn’t talk about things such as the East India Company. For me, there was an obvious hole in the conversation that everyone was walking around and not acknowledging.
I was trying to find a way to make that gap visible to people, and I already had some experience as a tour guide. I figured that doing guided tours in museums could be a useful way of getting people to recognise this. By being in a museum or a gallery, you have objects that you can work with. When you’re having the abstract conversation about imperial legacies, it can often feel really vague because you’re talking about things such as identity, national ideology, mindset and self representation. All of these are important concepts, but they are often intangible. In comparison, a gallery allows you to look at these objects — their histories, aesthetic qualities, how they were manufactured, and who their previous owners were. It becomes a lot more accessible, especially for people who aren’t familiar with such conversations, or who don’t come from a background of doing art history.
I first started doing these tours in art galleries, particularly the Tate Britain and the National Gallery. When you talk about an institution such as the British Museum, even someone who isn’t familiar with colonial collections or histories would probably know that some of the objects in the museum have been stolen or taken under violent circumstances. In a similar vein, the Victoria & Albert Museum is associated very strongly with the Victorian empire. Those two institutions would have been obvious places to begin my tours in, but by saying no — we’re going to do it in a national gallery, people then had to deal with the fact that this was something that was everywhere. It wasn’t just about stolen objects, it was also about how Britishness was represented in, for example, the 1740s. These conversations needed to be had in order for us to make sense of contemporary situations as well.
When I do these tours, I’m very aware and open about my position as a white Australian who grew up in Hong Kong and London. I have a very colonial history, and every moment of my life has been shaped by a legacy of empire. But my experience of that, as someone that comes from a Northern European white background, is very specific and very much about the opportunities that has afforded me. I try to be very conscious of that, and I also try to make sure that the people who come on my tours are aware of their own privilege and their own perspectives within that. We all have a responsibility to address these things, because we all live within a legacy of empire. Some people feel it more keenly than others, but just because you don’t know about it doesn’t mean it is not there.
We need to start rethinking the role and position of museums now, when there’s still a certain level of goodwill and respect towards these institutions. Museums are not perfect, but they still have a place — they just need to find that place. I say all of this and do all the work that I do, because I want museums to be better. All of the criticism, response and disruptive stuff I do with these tours come from a place of genuinely wanting museums to be good, and knowing that they can be good. It can be fixed, but somehow we just can’t get past this traditional idea of museums as conservative spaces. I’ve had conversations with museum curators where I’ve asked them how hard it would be to change a label. They often brush it off with excuses, saying that it’s a lot more complicated than it seems. Yes, but have you tried though? Have you asked? Honestly at this point, it feels like a lot of the passivity comes from the fact that nobody wants to be the first one saying, “What if we changed that panel?” That is frustrating to me because it reveals the extent of these curators’ privilege. It also sounds like, on some level, many of these professionals have internalised this notion of the museum as an untouchable space. Yet as someone who works in a museum, it is their job to change the museum and to take risks. If you’re not willing to take that risk, why should anyone come to see your works?
At the end of the day, we just end up having the same conversation over and over again. We just have to keep yelling until something happens. It will be a time consuming process and a generational change, but it will happen. The dam has to break. But in the meantime, it is tiring and it is hard. We have to support and care for each other. If museums don’t step up and make these changes, someone will do it for them. Someone will come in and change their labels, or to do tours of their collections, to tell the stories they aren’t telling. Either they decide now, whether they’d like to be a part of that process, or others can begin that process for them — and when others come in, they don’t always play nice.