Over the past several days the media has been awash with theories which claim to identify the cause of the recent English riots. One of the most controversial theories, as confidentially articulated by historian David Starkey, is that so-called Black culture is to blame. Starkey’s comments have reignited a national debate on the relationship between race and culture.
19th century anthropologists viewed culture as a static phenomenon attributed to particular racial groups. Crude notions of cultural sophistication were developed which seemingly proved the superiority of European culture. Objects like those in the Living Cultures collection were used to demonstrate the assumed primitive nature of non-European cultures, particularly those in Africa. This cultural primitivism was believed to have caused moral impoverishment, the jingoistic remedy for which was colonial intervention.
Shockingly the idea that African and Black culture is somehow negative is still perpetuated. So too is the absurd notion that culture is inextricably linked with race and cannot transcend it. Over several decades individuals, communities and organisations, such as the Manchester Museum, have worked tirelessly to confront and extinguish these myths.
Stephen Terence Welsh
Curator of Living Cultures