David Olusoga, a historian, writer and broadcaster demonstrated to us the ways the British Empire had been [mis]represented and re-written through television in the last 70 years. The hour long BBC programme revealed how the British Empire had largely been celebrated (to my horror by current historians such as Andrew Roberts), and then critiqued and analysed by historians like Simon Schama and Jeremy Paxman. Timewatch and other material from the BBC archive allows Olusoga to analyse how periods of turmoil in history such as Britain’s Caribbean colonies growing rich on slave labour; chaos that gripped India’s post-independence; and Africa plundered for her mineral wealth were portrayed on our televisions.
This “amnesia” of history can even been seen in our national and governmental art collections, where the art of the British Empire has largely been ignored. After studying slavery within Art History (or lack of it) I have come to realise that there is still so much to be brought to light. Many regional galleries and country houses profited from the institution of Slavery, yet this is not explored within their organisations. Usually when studying for a topic I am far stretched to find a missing element of discourse, however slavery within the arts has surprised me in that there was still so much to be discussed. It is usually exiting to think that you have found something new and worthy of being explored, and even though it is, it is a shame that it has not been already.
Even though Olusoga talks about the imperialist views of our forefathers and the shame we behold today of our Empire, I feel that the idea of these imperialist views being “a thing of the past” is a tad too naive. In the current political climate I would argue that it is very much a current issue.
My current module (which is my dissertation module! Ahh!) ‘Art and Empire’ explores the relationship between the representations of Empire within the visual arts. Any Empire within history can be chosen, yet my mind is drawn towards the 18th century, and after watching Olusoga’s research come to life I have realised that my research can either be ground-breaking or a repetition of something that has already been said. My role is to uncover something that was already there, but bring it to the surface and help people view it in a new and more truthful way.
BBC’s documentaries on history and the arts always inspire something within me and Olusoga’s British Empire: Heroes and Villains is one I will watch again and again. I suppose maybe this is due to visibly seeing the historians I look up to discuss and present their work with such pride.