Museums and the sensation of history

On 26 July 2023, thanks to a connection made by Heather Lomas, MCC Museum Collections Officer, I was invited to join a panel to debate museums, heritage and ‘culture wars’ at Lord’s Cricket Ground, St John’s Wood, London.

Cricket? Culture wars and museums? This post will make sense if you read to the end.

Skip to my full exhibition review: No Foreign Field.

Having spent much of my late teenage years in and around cricket grounds I did not know that the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC) – for so many years the sole arbiters of world cricket and still keepers of the rules of the game – had a small museum at Lord’s.

It was a completely unexpected apparition from the past to find myself again on the edges of that hallowed ground. I had a near religious devotion to cricket that had been put away as I found new things through university and life. I knew the MCC was an old boys’ club but I really didn’t much care. I was playing women’s cricket and was happy to pay a fiver to watch the men at Lord’s and the Oval. But how things had changed since my last visit there in the late 1990s. There were women visible in the ground and the museum for a start, not just competing teams (the Hundred has been surprisingly exciting and the women’s sides are putting out the most brilliant cricket). Prominent memorials, such as the one to Rachael Heyhoe Flint (1939-2017) were also a new addition.

No Foreign Field

Collections in museums provide a sensation of history they are not history.

I began thinking of my work as a museum curator, particularly as a critic of how equity is practiced curatorially (good and bad). I experienced some friction in myself. My fangirl had re-emerged and I felt that that had dampened my criticality as I found myself in a room full of white-haired older gentlemen and about three other women. However, appearances can be deceptive as I keep reminding my colleagues who insist representation is all in the quest for more egalitarian museum institutions. Wait to see what you hear from people’s mouths.

The MCC Museum Symposium was by far the liveliest and intellectually engaging conference exploring colonial themes, history and legacies that I had participated in. The eponymous exhibition: No Foreign Field: MCC and the Empire of Cricket that the symposium was launching felt likewise a surprise. In large part owing to the initiative of Professor Prashant Kidambi of the University of Leicester in collaboration with Neil Robinson, MCC Head of Heritage and Collections, both symposium and exhibition were determined to tell the stories of how cricket and empire building went hand in hand.

In December 2023 I returned to the MCC Museum to research an exhibition review for No Foreign Field and the MCC Museum as a whole. While the exhibition broke new ground as far as sporting heritage is concerned, particularly for an institution like the MCC which is rooted in establishment tradition and usually the last to move forward, what struck me most was the direction the museum was travelling in.

Flanking the Empire exhibition was a contemporary photographic exhibition of England’s Black Cricketers by Tom Shaw. I spent much time immersed in this space because so many of those faces were familiar to me, Devon Malcolm, Joey Benjamin, Phil Defreitas, Chris Lewis, Alex Tudor. The film Mark Butcher presented, You Guys Are History, originally aired on Sky Sports, and which formed somewhat of a soundtrack, was deeply affecting. I experienced friction inside again once I witnessed the struggles these players endured as well as their incredible successes. To me they were simply brilliant cricketers.

On the other side, an exhibition on Cricket and the Jewish Community had just been launched in the new Community Gallery. Co-curated by Zaki Cooper and Daniel Lightman, the exhibition sought to repopulate cricket history with the Jewish cricketers that whose stories had been hidden away or sidelined–much like No foreign Field wanted to do with the cricketing stories of the colonised in India, Pakistan, Australia, New Zealand and South Africa.

Read my full exhibition review of No Foreign Field in the Museums Journal which came out this month.

Museums are not very good at history

It will come as a surprise to no one when I say that museums are not very good at history. This is what I wanted to convey when making my provocation about how museums like the MCC Museum might develop its thinking and response to the live debates in and about so-called ‘culture wars’ and what this means for how museums preserve and interpret heritage–that feeling of history and how we as individuals relate to relics from the past, but not history itself.

Museum showcase full of cricketing memorabilia
A sensation of history at the MCC Museum.

For me history in museums is about explaining causes and consequences, not about judging them to be good, bad or indifferent. That’s for the consumers of the heritage we exhibit and enagage with to decide. Museum collections should be treated as any piece of historical evidence, with care and consideration for what they mean for everyone involved in their creation. Collections in museums provide a sensation of history they are not history.

In my experience museums are not very good or at history and a major commitment all museums big and small need to make is to better and more critically undertake research––and to make collections and archives much more accessible to anyone else who might want to research and question them. It is not up to curators and museums to decide what others should know or think. The best way for curators to connect with various communities is to try and be part of them, rather than apart from them. Museums need to change who they speak with and how. It’s also ok for the people you might want to ‘reach’ to not be interested in what you are doing. 

Museum showcase full of cricketing memorabilia
Sacred objects at the MCC Museum.

Museums like MCC Museum have another dimension that is not shared by most other museums, that is their temple-like and spiritual function for the fans of cricket (or other sport). Because of sport’s more comfortably tribal nature, its clearer determination of success and therefore importance, sporting collections work to satisfy both memory, nostalgia and anemoia (a longing for a time or place you have never experienced yourself). This makes the use of critical decolonial approaches to museum collections all the more difficult and potentially contentious because the emotional connections to memorabilia are that much higher than other types of museum collection. As I experienced with the No Foreign Field exhibition, it was easy to be scooped up in this pleasingly internationalist, sentimental, heritage, but the reality was, those well-attested stories of how cricket was recreated by imperial subjects in their style and image, remained somewhat on the margins.