Culture Critic Orla Taylor-Davies interviews the provocative Alice Procter in the lead up to her Barber visit this month

BA History of Art and History student
Images by George Procter

‘Uncomfortable Art Tours’ are the brainchild of Alice Procter, a historian of Material Culture based in UCL and writer and podcaster of The Exhibitionist. Many of us, although not enough of us, acknowledge the violent legacy of colonisation. However, how many of us can say that they have entered a learning space in order to understand and discuss exactly what colonisation has to do with society today?  

Alice’s tours address how big-name institutions such as the British Museum or Tate Britain exert considerable power as upholders of the colonial rhetoric. From the display of stolen sacred objects, positioning the object as now ‘ours’, to the celebration of colonial tropes such as the ‘intrepid explorer’ of the ‘undiscovered’ or ‘civiliser’ of the ‘primitive’, Alice highlights the importance of criticality in institutions that are anything but neutral. She invites us to consider the providence of museum and gallery objects- how did it enter this space…should it be here? What agenda informed its creation and how is this reconciled with its display? Art galleries and museums are not the sleepy places of passive appreciation they can often be portrayed as. Instead, on closer inspection, they sizzle with injustice, conflict and urgent conversation. I was lucky enough to interview Alice in anticipation of her tour at the Barber Institute. 

Q: So, I know that The Exhibitionist started through your podcast, how did it evolve into these tours? Was it frustration that galleries and museums weren’t telling these stories and you just wanted to make people aware? 

Yeah! The podcast and the tours just both came out of a situation where I was in museums all the time, looking at the stories they were telling, looking at the narratives they were putting forward and feeling really frustrated with what I saw. I started the podcasts before I graduated because I really wanted a way to keep on talking about art while I was looking for a job and doing other work. I wanted to keep having those conversations about art spaces and museum display. 

I already had tour guiding experience and I was talking with friends about trying to find a way to share this, and it was originally going to be an audio guide. So halfway between the podcasts and what the tours are now- talking about art collections, talking about these things. I started them in June 2017. It was only really from the beginning of last year that I was doing one a week minimum, but it all kicked off pretty quickly. 

Q: Have you ever encountered any resistance to your tours by the public or any institution?

 Yes, it does happen. I don’t tend to get resistance from somebody that has bought a ticket and come on the tour. I’ve had people ask. ‘Oh, is it an echo chamber then?’ and it really depends on whether that’s a bad thing or not. What matters is it is a sympathetic conversation between people who want to engage with the same subject, and you can call that an echo chamber or a classroom, depending on how you want to view it. I have had negative responses from people who happen to be in the galleries, generally older white men with very critical responses.  

Sometimes people will say I’m being too critical. Somebody said that I shouldn’t give my opinion about the artwork but of course I’m going to have something to say about the depiction of Queen Victoria as the ultimate white saviour. I have a no devil’s advocate rule, I’ve never had to ask for someone to leave, I’ve never had someone on tour to start trouble. I start tours with a warning that this is an empathetic space where we respect the fundamental humanity of everyone here and to be as kind and intersectional as possible, while still being critically engaged, we will do this without attacking everyone.

Q: Have any institutions listened to what you have said and changed anything? Have there been instances where any have improved upon what you have critiqued?

It’s tricky- the British Museum have announced their own tours that focus on collection history, the headline being: ‘not everything was looted’ which is such an unfortunate choice. That was explicitly a response to me, but their tours don’t engage with the same objects as my tours. There is a little bit of overlap, for example talking about Charles Stuart, but we do it in different ways. Those tours are led by curators and academics outside of the institution and it’s a really important project, I just wish that they hadn’t been so defensive and had been more open to actually responding to what I’m saying, rather than reacting as if I’m coming in and screaming at them for stealing everything.

Q: It’s disappointing but not surprising to hear that big-name museums are offering certain experiences only once they see themselves as ‘under attack’. 

It’s so frustrating. Lots of places have started doing black history month and Afro-Caribbean heritage tours. Some of them are starting to do South Asian tours, but that’s much less represented than black history tours and I think that’s a reflection of museums who are realising that their audience is going to have to change. The main demographic is older, whiter, more educated, wealthier, London based and tourists, and institutions are all beginning to realise that that doesn’t fly anymore.

I think because Birmingham is such a diverse city, the whole minority majority context means that institutions have been aware of this conversation for longer because their audience isn’t the same as the big nationals in London. London institutions are beginning to realise that they can’t keep churning out the same stuff year after year because one day that audience won’t exist anymore and unless they’re courting a new demographic, they’re going to be completely obsolete.  

Q: I was going to ask, has there been increased popularity as the tours have gone on? Have they just escalated and escalated in popularity?

Pretty much! The tours book up way faster than I ever thought they would. They started as part of this free education festival. Before the programme went live, I think something like seventy percent of the tour was booked up, which was wild. Then people kept asking for more events and asking if there was more going on. 

 I’ve hit a zeitgeisty moment for thinking about colonial history, to be honest. I’ve coincided with a period of time where this is a much more mainstream conversation than ever before. From April last year, I got some press attention. So, in April there was a piece in The Times followed by The Daily Mail and The Guardian, and that’s when most people found out about me. I have absolutely no idea how that first journalist heard of me! The tours began to go viral, so yes, from this press attention I can’t even describe the experience. 

Q: I think there’s this excitement about learning about history that has such an enduring legacy, one that needs to be challenged right now. This is something that riles up the acknowledgement that history isn’t just for classrooms, its living, relevant, involves all of us and is shaped by our current actions.

This is the thing, I’m a bad historian, I can’t memorise names or dates. I try to avoid doing that on a tour because I think it’s really boring. That’s never been the type of history I have wanted to do, and that’s why I’ve gravitated towards art history because its thinking about history in such a wide context and in a creative space. Fundamentally, so many museums are really dull. They might have some incredible things in there, but they are doing the worst job making it seem interesting. And that’s the work I’m trying to do- museums and art galleries can make history boring and that’s not the objects or events themselves but the way they are presented! 

Q: Well, you’re definitely making museum experiences a lot more engaging. Are there any resources you would recommend to students who just want to learn more about these conversations? 

The Museum is not Mutual have a reading list that is fantastic and has everything. It’s hard because some of the resources are very specialised. Exhibition catalogues are always a good place to start especially if you can get them from a library, seeing what objects are included and how they are described so you can try to read critically, because it can be overwhelming to do that in an exhibition. I think one of the best resources is twitter, you get so many recommendations there. The Instagram account for Decolonise This Place (@decolonizethisplace) which is an activist collection based in America working on colonial history often with a contemporary stance. They are fantastic people doing important and difficult work. 

 Alice is returning to Birmingham to give a tour of the Barber Institute of Fine Arts on Tuesday 12th November 2019. More information about Alice’s work can be found on The Exhibitionist. ‘Uncomfortable art Tours’ dates and locations can be found on The Exhibitionist on Eventbrite.

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