Book Review: “The Whole Picture: The Colonial Story of the Art in Our Museums & Why We Need to Talk About It” (2020) by Alice Procter
August 4, 2021
By Amber Lee
In her book The Whole Picture: The Colonial Story of the Art in Our Museums & Why We Need to Talk About It, art historian and anthropologist Alice Procter analyzes specific pieces of artworks and archaeological finds and discusses how museums, as well as galleries, have used these remnants of the colonial past to shape narratives that intentionally leave out the voices of many historically exploited peoples. To that end, The Whole Picture is largely a critique of art and cultural institutions and a discussion on their roles in perpetuating racism in our society.
In the introduction of The Whole Picture, Procter discusses the purpose of a museum, drawing the reader’s attention to museums’ failure to represent complete stories through curatorial decisions, which are often politically motivated. She highlights the importance of viewing objects from former colonies more critically as society tends to overlook the legacies of imperial violence.
The Whole Picture is divided into four parts, with each part devoted to a specific type of space: the Palace, the Classroom, the Memorial, and the Playground. The parts are then further subdivided into smaller chapters describing various objects in that particular space.
Part I—The Palace: In this section, Procter describes a type of gallery space—the “Palace”— called so because royal residences and aristocratic homes were where the idea of the museum first came about. The Louvre, Procter writes, is the “archetypal Palace museum” since it was one of the first Palaces to transition from being a private palace to a public museum. While the objects in this section are not all linked to colonial history, Procter included them because of their significance in demonstrating how the specific tastes of their collectors shaped and influenced the institutions we have today.
For example, Chapter I: Vases and Attitudes recounts how Sir William Hamilton, British Envoy to the Kingdom of Naples in the 18th century, built his private collection of Greek antiquities and had his wife, Emma, reenact scenes from the vases in his collection (essentially adding her to his “collection” and objectifying her in the process). When the British Museum made its first major purchase in 1772, a large portion of the haul came from Sir Hamilton’s collection.
One of the most fascinating chapters of Part I is perhaps Chapter 4: An Offering, where Procter analyzes Spiridione Roma’s allegorical painting, “The East Offering Its Riches to Britannia” (1778), and discusses how the East India Company used this painting to perpetuate the myth of the “benevolent” Company narrative. In this chapter, Procter notes that even though a museum was added to the East India House in 1790 to feature portraits of Company officers and other objects taken from India, most of the East India House–including the Revenue Committee Room where Roma’s painting originally hung–was off-limits to the general public. Procter thus argues that the placement of such art and objects in an intimate setting, as well as the painting’s availability only to a select group (the Company’s members), make the East India House a hallmark Palace.
Roma’s painting was eventually relocated to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office in London, which presents yet another set of challenges as it is difficult to see the painting without access to a civil servant. Equally troubling is the fact that this “continuing, insidious story of imperialism” now sits in a building dedicated to foreign policy as a decorative background to the day-to-day running of the office.
Part II—The Classroom: In this section, Procter explores spaces that are more concerned with cataloging than with personal curation, such as fairs and the Great Exhibition of the Works of Industry of All Nations’ (held in London in 1851). Although the goal of the Classroom is to democratize knowledge, Procter notes the objects presented in here are still restricted by the Eurocentric views of many institutions and by hierarchies that define objects as “useful” or “good.” As a result, certain stories and effects of the colonial past are left untold. For example, in Chapter 9: Abolitionists, Procter delves into a discussion on the lack of representation of Black abolitionists in the National Portrait Gallery in London, drawing special attention to Thomas Lawrence’s incomplete 1828 painting of a British abolitionist, William Wilberforce, as a metaphor for how certain marginalized groups have historically been left out of the narrative on the abolitionist movement.
Chapter 11: The Shield is devoted to the discussion on deaccessioning and repatriation of objects that belong to former colonies. Here, Procter highlights some of the difficulties posed by such efforts in England as the British Museum Act of 1963 sets out a rigid and inflexible criterion for deaccessioning objects.
Part III—The Memorial: Procter describes the Memorial as “a place of commemoration, and often of grief.” In this section, Procter introduces her readers to the emotionally evocative and often disturbing displays of people and human remains, human zoos, and of violence.
The collections housed in this space often tell stories of some traumatic past resulting from colonialism. Chapter 13: Mokomokai, for example, recounts how mokomokai—traditionally preserved heads of the Maori people—became collectors’ favorites in Europe, which threatened this sacred funerary practice due to the Maori’s increasing fear that the heads of their relatives might be taken away for sale. Procter also addresses the issues surrounding the repatriation of human remains, as well as the question of whether it is ever appropriate to display human remains in museums.
Chapter 14: Mining the Museum considers Fred Wilson’s 1992 exhibition of the same name in which he reframed the Maryland Historical Society’s collection to highlight narratives on slavery that has often been hidden from view.
Chapter 16: The Coffin took on an even more somber tone as Procter discusses the Emmett Till Memorial—a memorial dedicated to the 14-year-old African American who was lynched in 1955 after being accused of whistling at a white woman and which features Till’s coffin with a photograph of Till’s mutilated face at the head of the coffin. As disturbing as it may be, Procter writes that the display was permitted by Till’s mother, who wanted people to see what she had seen.
Part IV: The Playground: In this final section, Procter explores pieces and installations that are often experiential, interactive, surreal, and even humorous; hence, the name of this gallery—“The Playground.” For example, Chapter 17: Museum Highlights examines two of Andrea Fraser’s performance pieces that aim to criticize the museum as an institution. The title of this chapter, “Museum Highlights,” refers to Fraser’s performance piece in which she impersonated a museum docent on a pretend tour (unbeknownst to the museum patrons) as a form of meta-commentary on the museum and the vanity of collectors and patrons as the supposed gatekeepers of “an ‘enlightened’ space.”
As works in the Playground are not necessarily confined to a traditional gallery space, artists here seem to have more creative leeway to question who gets to speak about history and identity. In Chapter 19: The Ship, Procter discusses the practice of monuments as commemorating certain historical figures to the exclusion of others, drawing specific attention to British-Nigerian artist Yinka Shonibare’s “Nelson’s Ship in a Bottle” (2010), a scale model of HMS Victory enclosed in a large glass bottle with sails made of patterned textiles after an Indonesian technique. Here, Procter describes the work and its relocation at length, discussing Shonibare’s attempt to refocus historical narrative that tends to overlook sailors of color in the British Navy by bringing these untold stories to the foreground.
Chapter 20: Sugar Baby considers Kara Walker’s 2014 “A Subtlety,” a large temporary installation in the Domino Sugar Refining Plant, in Brooklyn, New York, of a sugar sculpture depicting a Black woman as a naked sphynx. “A Subtlety” was made as an homage to the exploited artisans of the sugar industry, a final monument to the refinery’s history before the site was redeveloped into a high-end residential space. In this chapter, Procter observes how the audience “misbehaved” by taking selfies and making fun of the sculpture’s body, essentially re-enacting the violation of enslaved women throughout history.
The Whole Picture is a fantastic introduction to how society may reconsider objects that art and cultural institutions hold within their collections and how these objects strengthen specific narratives at the expense of others. Procter challenges her readers to take a deeper look at museum practices and their role in perpetuating racist views through curatorial decisions that are often skewed by political, historical, and personal biases. The book’s discussion on the removal of colonial monuments is also timely considering the renewed wave of civil rights movement in the United States and other parts of the world.
The history of colonialism is a painful subject to tackle. However, the book reminds its readers that — despite the political and legal hurdles that might hinder efforts to decolonize museums and other cultural institutions — museums cannot exist without visitors. In other words, we, as part of the audience, can play a part in finally allowing the stories of those who have been silenced throughout history be heard.
About the Book: Alice Procter, The Whole Picture: The Colonial Story of the Art in Our Museums & Why We Need to Talk About It (Octopus Publishing Group Ltd, 2020), ISBN 9781 788401555, available here.
About Alice Procter: Alice Procter is a historian of material culture with a B.A. in Art History and an M.A. in Anthropology, and she focuses her research on the intersection of postcolonial art practice and colonial material culture. Additionally, she runs tours, talks, workshops, and podcasts as The Exhibitionist.
- Alice Procter, The Whole Picture: The Colonial Story of the Art in Our Museums & Why We Need to Talk About It (2020). ↑
- The Exhibitionist, https://www.theexhibitionist.org/#about-alice (last visited July 31, 2020). ↑
About the Author:
Amber Lee was a Summer 2020 Intern at the Center for Art Law. She is in the Class of 2021 at the University of Florida Levin College of Law and received her undergraduate degree in visual arts and emerging media management from the University of Central Florida. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.