On 12 May 1911, an elaborate event opened in London’s Crystal Palace Park. It was called the Festival of Empire and its aim was to promote the British Empire to the British public. It was one of many empire marketing events held at that time, yet it is not widely known about and there is little for today’s park goers and those living locally to know it took place. Most published and curated accounts of the park’s history focus on the engineering of the Crystal Palace and its tragic destruction in 1936. Details of the 1911 Festival of Empire are pale in comparison to the dynamic spectacle that it was and do not fully examine the event from a decolonial perspective.
In March 2021, artist and academic Lucy Panesar, based at UAL London College of Communication, initiated a new Knowledge Exchange project to make this example of imperialist propaganda more visible and to examine it through a decolonial lens. Knowledge Exchange describes how UAL works ‘with external partners to create positive change’ in connection to UAL strategy, and part of that strategy is to ‘build resilient partnerships at every scale from local communities to international networks, and to use our creative expertise to empower others’.
‘Decolonizing is about questioning our institutions: how and why are some forms of knowledge given priority and authority over others? How do we organize and categorize knowledge? Who determines the selection and quality criteria of collections? Who decides what is presented and represented? How do we contribute to a renewal of the canon with stories and reference frames that have been systematically erased from it?’
Tuck and Yang (2012) explain that:
‘decolonisation brings about the repatriation of Indigenous land and life’.
M.F., a contributor to the UAL and Arts Student Union Decolonising the Arts Curriculum zine (2018, p.17) says decolonisation is:
‘a form of criticality to shake the very ground on which UAL stands’ and to succeed in this, UAL ‘needs to have a closer look at its imperial past, its globalised present and its ambitious future.’
This Knowledge Exchange project looks at the 1911 Festival of Empire to develop understanding of Britain’s imperial past, what happened and what role the arts played in this, and what impact this had on the lives and lands of colonised peoples back then and the lasting legacy of this today. The project does this through collaboration and knowledge exchange between UAL London College of Communication, Wikimedia UK and external organisations including the South London Gallery and Crystal Palace Museum.