Glasgow's Burrell Collection was recently awarded the title of Art Fund Museum of the Year for its £68m revamp. Among the plaudits that followed was a comment which described the Burrell as the 'most woke' museum in the UK. Depending on one's viewpoint, this may or may not be taken as a compliment.
This provokes the question: what is woke
? The comment was probably directed at the work of the current curators, with their emphasis on diversity and on re-interpreting museum objects for new users. But might it also apply to the whole collection of 9,000 items? Or even to Sir William Burrell himself?
The image of Sir William Burrell as woke may seem far-fetched: at first sight he looks the very opposite. Born in 1861, he left school at 15 to join the family shipping firm, took joint control when still in his twenties and made a fortune through his sharp eye for trade. Interested in art from an early age, he later emphasised his status by buying a castle in Berwickshire to showcase his collection.
This life story fits several stereotypes. He was a lad o' pairts (he had a better than average start in life but made the most of it by his own talents). He was also a classic example of British and Scottish imperialism at its Victorian and Edwardian apogee, flourishing through shipping and global trade. From one woke perspective (or perhaps its caricature), Burrell could be painted as a pantomime villain.
But there is another side: his commitment to art and to making art visible to the widest possible public. He lent his own works to galleries and exhibitions, served as a trustee of various institutions, and finally donated the core of his collection to Glasgow (along with a substantial endowment to build a home for it). Is this philanthropy, ego trip or something else again?
And there is also the extraordinary – global – range of his artistic interests. Burrell was not exactly omnivorous: there are gaps in his collection, including blind spots that now seem regrettable. (Think how many Van Goghs he could have bought, and for a mere pittance. And Burrell was a man who liked a bargain: he rejected works that he considered overpriced.) But in principle there seems to be no part of the world, no civilisation ancient or modern, and no artistic medium that is excluded. If we want to identify wokeness, this comprehensiveness might be one pointer towards it.
From a 21st-century standpoint there are obvious biases in the collection: not many women, not many queer or subaltern perspectives. But this just tells us that Burrell, like most people, was heavily influenced by the values of his era. Which in turn tells us something wider: rather being a personal idiosyncrasy, his globalism reflects a core aspect of Victorian imperialism.
I don't know if Burrell spent much time studying Latin, but many of his contemporaries, some of them training to become imperial administrators, would have been familiar with the Latin tag: Homo sum: humani nil a me alienum puto
. 'I am a man: I count nothing human foreign to me.' It may be significant that this comes from the dramatist Terence, himself a freed slave who may have had Berber or African ancestry – a living example of imperialism in practice.
Imperialism is vexed notion. It is often interpreted as an expression of inequality between social or ethnic groups, condemned (on the woke side) as a systematic exploitation of the weak by the strong, depriving them of cultural and political autonomy. On the opposite (anti-woke) side also, many people accept, or even celebrate, the fact of inequality, defending imperialism in terms of the material and educational benefits it transfers.
But there are alternative lines of thought that aim to decouple imperialism from inequality. In his book Empires: A Historical and Political Sociology
, Krishan Kumar envisages a model of empire that is 'universalist, unitary, and multiethnic or multinational' and aspires to be 'coterminous with mankind'. Ideally, it aims to combine universality with internal plurality.
This vision is not entirely idiosyncratic. It echoes the universalism of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) promulgated by the United Nations in 1948 which commits signatory nations to recognise all humans as being 'born free and equal in dignity and rights' (Article 1) regardless of 'race, colour, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national or social origin, property, birth or other status' (Article 2).
This is a contentious area. The UDHR, framed by the victorious allies after the end of World War II, has itself been criticised as a form of 'liberal imperialism', a charge laid by members of the Soviet bloc in 1948 and later by various Muslim-majority countries.
There are political and practical issues here. What kind of structure could combine cultural diversity with effective equality of voice? Different people do, as a matter of fact, come from different backgrounds and (quite sincerely) hold different values. Given this, it is not surprising to find disagreements that can sometimes end up with different factions abusing one another from opposed trenches.
But there are also underlying philosophical issues. Lorraine Daston's recent book, Rules: A Short History of What We Live By
, surveys the hugely diverse ways in which societies have used rules, and thought about rules, over the millennia. It demonstrates both change over time and the recurrence of regular patterns and paradigms.
With a bit of heroic simplification, two lessons might be extracted from Daston's book. First, except (perhaps) in logic and mathematics, there are no absolute laws: every rule must always be interpreted in a particular context. Second, no context can be spelled out with complete (infinite) precision: there is always space for interpretation or discretionary action.
If this is right, it suggests that the argument between woke and non-woke, equality versus diversity, is finally undecidable: each side is partly right and partly wrong. On this basis, we might choose to call the Burrell Collection both woke and non-woke. This seems to breach the law of non-contradiction. But, as philosophers know, you can usually dodge the law if you make sufficiently fine distinctions.
Dennis Smith is a retired librarian