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Cornwall Museums Partnership

Unearthing Ugly Truths: The Commemoration of Colonial History at the Royal Cornwall Museum

In this latest blog series, we will be hearing from our 2022 cohort of Trainee Curators on the projects and exhibitions they have been leading on, across the five partner museums where they each have taken up roles. Next up in this series, we hear from Dan Wills, Trainee Curator at the Royal Cornwall Museum.

Over the past ten months, I have been fortunate enough to hold the position of Trainee Curator at the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro. My traineeship has recently involved the opportunity to curate my own exhibition, titled Ugly Truths. Derived from my interest in dark and difficult histories, this exhibition has been produced as a first step in making RCM more open and transparent about our collection. It deals with the commemoration of colonial history through the lens of the South African War, 1899-1902 (otherwise known as the Second Boer War).

The project aims to start a new conversation with our visitors regarding colonial history and the objects associated with this. The British Empire – and our resulting place in the world today – was built at the expense of countless indigenous people and communities. Unearthing difficult and uncomfortable truths are hugely important in presenting balanced and accurate versions of history. As a result, we hope the exhibition goes a small way in making RCM a more welcoming and accessible space to a growing range of audiences.

Building a concise and clear narrative for the exhibition was key in managing a potentially intense and overwhelming topic. This required lots of planning, research and drafting to segment the exhibition into manageable chunks. An introduction to the problematic past of the Empire is explored first, followed by how this specifically relates to atrocities carried out during the South African War. British concentration camps are a prominent example that the exhibition investigates, where malnutrition, disease and gross levels of neglect led to almost 50,000 deaths of interned civilians.

Tragically, many of those were children. The narrative then develops into how modern museums can deal with collections that are related to colonial history. A glass case in the exhibition includes objects that commemorate the conflict in a variety of ways, from celebratory Queen’s South Africa medals to a wooden weapon that was stolen by a British soldier while fighting in South Africa. Ugly Truths then concludes with an appreciation of Cornwall’s undeniable – yet relatively unexplored – links to Britain’s global expansionism and colonial power.

As is usually the case, installation week was incredibly busy! Tasks ranged from wall painting, object preparation, case dressing and photograph mounting. It also took plenty of teamwork to move a 3.1m x 2m painting into the gallery space! Thankfully, the installation went smoothly and the exhibition opened on schedule.
Since opening, the exhibition has seen us collect anonymous visitor responses. Reading through and transcribing these will allow us to gauge general thoughts regarding our collection and how we should be presenting difficult history in the future. We have already received lots of interesting feedback and hope to receive more over the next month!
Ugly Truths stands as a clear message that RCM is willing to start new conversations about our collections, the British Empire, and Cornwall’s role in this. We should not shy away from being transparent about our past. I am thrilled that the exhibition will be moving permanently into the corridor space adjacent to its current home after its official end date in late October!

I would like to thank the team at RCM for their support and for giving me the freedom to pursue my interests as part of this project. It was a hugely engaging and rewarding project to undertake! As some visitors have already alluded to in their responses, I’m confident that this hugely vital work will continue at RCM!

Ugly Truths is open in our link gallery until the 29th of October. 

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