The work to Decolonise the Museum of Cambridge has started, and the community is involved more than ever!
ReStorying OUR Museum was a pilot project that ran from January to May 2021.
The Museum of Cambridge wanted to start exploring the colonial heritage in its collections, and how different ways of displaying and curating could offer more diverse and contextualised versions of our objects’ stories.
Throughout the project, staff members and volunteers researched and discussed ‘The Tobacconist Sign’, to try to understand more about its link to Britain’s colonial heritage, with a focus on the impact it had in Cambridge in particular.
In addition, three workshops were held with members of the community to think creatively about how we can contextualise this object better and re-imagine its label.
We’ve captured some of the results in the panels displayed around the object, where you can learn more about it and what our community sessions achieved.
You can also learn more through our blog posts, resource library, and interactive online display!
With autumn settling in, and sunshine shifting to dreary drizzle, it was time to head indoors—behind doors long closed during the first lockdown: to the Museum of Cambridge. I had just finished my master’s degree in Cambridge but had yet to visit the museum when I first heard of its new ReStorying OUR Museum pilot project. Intrigued by the museum’s plans to take a closer look at its collections and their colonial connections, I decided to take a look for myself.
What objects did the museum have on display that might be connected to British colonialism? How were they displayed? Whose stories did they tell? How could they be reinterpreted? I wondered.
With these questions in mind, I explored the museum on the lookout for objects that might become part of the ReStorying project. Amidst quaint children’s toys and curious kitchen gadgets from bygone years, I encountered ornately decorated tobacco pipes, a crumbling sugar cone, and eventually, tucked in a corner, the “Tobacconist’s Sign.” The eighteenth-century sign’s label, with its singular perspective and matter-of-fact tone, felt like a closed door. Silent on—and arguably silencing talk of—colonial legacies. But the ReStorying OUR Museum project was an invitation to conversation. And I was eager to join.
Joining the project was a chance to go behind the sign with fellow volunteers, participants, and museum staff: to probe its history, its label, its past and present place in the community, and approaches to its “ReStorying.” It was a chance to do just what so many of us have done since the onset of the pandemic and ensuing lockdowns: to slow down. To look. Listen. Look again. Connect. Question. Amidst the seemingly comfortable collections of an old inn, it was a chance to uncover uncomfortable histories—and lean in.
It wasn’t enough for the sign’s label to say that “[s]hopkeepers in the 18th century often had decorative signs made to advertise their trade using symbols which would have been familiar to people at the time”—not when those “symbols” were people, including “an African slave.” As one ReStorying participant aptly put it, the sign’s label was “economical with the truth.”
To put it less economically, tobacco signs like this one often exploited tobacco’s “New World” associations to market tobacco as “exotic,” even as they ignored the brutal realities of British colonialism; violence against Indigenous peoples, the first growers of tobacco; and enslavement of Africans on tobacco plantations (Molineux, 2007, pp. 329, 338, 347).
And what of Cambridge’s connections to the colonial tobacco trade? On that topic, the label was silent, too. And yet, a number of tobacco shops existed in Cambridge over the years. Some were even neighbours of the White Horse Inn that would one day become the Museum of Cambridge (Capturing Cambridge, 2021a, 2021b). One of the oldest known Cambridge tobacco shops, Bacon Tobacco Manufacturers, was a Market Hill institution from 1805 to 1983 (Capturing Cambridge, 2021c; Allen and Hannah, 2012, p. 12). As documented on Capturing Cambridge, a plaque with Charles Stuart Calverley’s “Ode to Tobacco” (1862) still marks one of the former tobacco shop’s walls at the corner of Market Square and Rose Crescent (ibid.). It is an enduring reminder that Cambridge is no stranger to the legacies of British colonialism.
Through helping to facilitate a series of virtual engagement sessions, I connected with other community members open to challenging conversations about creating more inclusive, multi-vocal museum displays. In time, we built a sense of community and a space to exchange ideas.
And when we looked “behind the sign,” we could see how such a seemingly inconsequential everyday object is embedded in both the local history of Cambridge and the wider history of colonialism. What are the implications of this reality for the people of Cambridge, who (like countless others elsewhere) have benefited from colonialism, enslavement, and their legacies? That is a question we could only begin to unpack.
Even at the close of the last engagement session, we volunteers, participants, and museum staff still weren’t certain of the “best” way to reinterpret the sign. But we were more alive to the way labels can hinder or enhance our understandings of colonial histories. We were deeply unsettled by the matter-of-fact “neutrality” of the original label’s authoritative voice. And we were certain of the value of our conversations—and the need for more.
Look again. Listen. Add your voice to the ReStory.
With this participatory redisplay, we welcome you to join us in filling a telling silence with new voices—and fulfilling this pilot project’s potential for continued growth and inclusion. Because ReStorying never ends, we’re eager to see where it—where you—will lead the Museum of Cambridge in the future.
This Post was written by Kirsten Huffer, a volunteer for the ReStorying OUR Museum project.
Allen, B. and Hannah, J. (2012) ‘Secret Cambridge: Ode to Tobacco’, Cambridge Alumni Magazine, 67, pp. 12-13. Available at: https://issuu.com/cambridgealumnirelationsoffice/docs/cam_67/14 (Accessed: 5 May 2021).
Capturing Cambridge (2021a) 3 (99) Castle Street. Available at: https://capturingcambridge.org/castle/castle-street/3-castle-street/ (Accessed: 26 January 2021).
Capturing Cambridge (2021b) 13 Magdalene Street. Available at: https://capturingcambridge.org/centre/magdalene-street/13-magdalene-street/ (Accessed: 26 January 2021).
Capturing Cambridge (2021c) 16 Market Hill. Available at: https://capturingcambridge.org/centre/market/16-market-hill/(Accessed: 26 January 2021).
Molineux, C. (2007) ‘Pleasures of the Smoke: “Black Virginians” in Georgian London’s Tobacco Shops’, The William and Mary Quarterly, 64(2), pp. 327-376. Available at: https://www.jstor.org/stable/4491624 (Accessed: 21 January 2021).
Tobacconist’s Sign [Object Label]. Museum of Cambridge, Cambridge. (Viewed: 23 October 2020).