Collections,colonialism, and the ugly truths of our past, an  exploration of British colonialism and the commemoration of difficult history through the lens of the South African War (the ‘Anglo-Boer War’), 1899-1902.

Aimed at expanding global power and influence, centuries of British conquest came at the devastating expense of communities across the globe. At its peak, the British Empire controlled 24% of the Earth’s land surface and had colonised space on all but one of the seven continents – Antarctica.

At the Royal Cornwall Museum, our collections include many objects that were stolen by British invaders and brought here to Cornwall by collectors. At a time when expansionism and greed have led to the appalling invasion of Ukraine, it is of paramount importance that we are honest and transparent in unearthing the dark reality of British history and the collections we take care of. This is not about ‘tearing up’ or ‘sanitising’ history, but rather unwrapping a broader range of narratives so we can holistically understand our past and its repercussions. This can be an incredibly conflicting and uncomfortable experience. Our recent exhibition, Ugly Truths, was purposefully curated to start a conversation with our visitors regarding British colonial history. We achieved this through the lens of one of Britain’s most expensive and bloodiest colonial conflicts: the South African War (1899-1902), also known as the Second Boer War.

Read the full blog post here…


Over the past ten months, I have been fortunate enough to hold the position of Trainee Curator at the Royal Cornwall Museum in Truro. My traineeship has recently involved the opportunity to curate my own exhibition, titled Ugly Truths. Derived from my interest in dark and difficult histories, this exhibition has been produced as a first step in making RCM more open and transparent about our collection. It deals with the commemoration of colonial history through the lens of the South African War, 1899-1902 (otherwise known as the Second Boer War).
The project aims to start a new conversation with our visitors regarding colonial history and the objects associated with this. The British Empire – and our resulting place in the world today – was built at the expense of countless indigenous people and communities. Unearthing difficult and uncomfortable truths are hugely important in presenting balanced and accurate
versions of history. As a result, we hope the exhibition goes a small way in making RCM a more welcoming and accessible space to a growing range of audiences.

Building a concise and clear narrative for the exhibition was key in managing a potentially intense and overwhelming topic. This required lots of planning, research and drafting to segment the exhibition into manageable chunks. An introduction to the problematic past of the Empire is explored first, followed by how this specifically relates to atrocities carried out during the South African War. British concentration camps are a prominent example that the exhibition investigates, where malnutrition, disease and gross levels of neglect led to almost 50,000 deaths of interned civilians. Tragically, many of those were children. The narrative then develops into how modern museums can deal with collections that are related to colonial history. A glass case in the exhibition includes objects that commemorate the conflict in a variety of ways, from celebratory Queen’s South Africa medals to a wooden weapon that was stolen by a British soldier while fighting in South Africa. Ugly Truths then concludes with an appreciation of Howitzer Gun Model

Cornwall’s undeniable – yet relatively unexplored – links to Britain’s global expansionism and colonial power. As is usually the case, installation week was incredibly busy! Tasks ranged from wall painting, object preparation, case dressing and photograph mounting. It also took plenty of teamwork to move a 3.1mx 2m painting into the gallery space! Thankfully, the installation went smoothly and the exhibition opened on schedule.

Since opening, the exhibition has seen us collect anonymous visitor responses. Reading through and transcribing these will allow us to gauge general thoughts regarding our collection and how we should be presenting difficult history in the future. We have already received lots of interesting feedback and hope to receive more over the next month!
Ugly Truths stands as a clear message that RCM is willing to start new conversations about our collections, the British Empire, and Cornwall’s role in this. We should not shy away from being transparent about our past. I am thrilled that the exhibition will be moving permanently into the corridor space adjacent to its current home after its official end date in late October!

I would like to thank the team at RCM for their support and for giving me the freedom to pursue my interests as part of this project. It was a hugely engaging and rewarding project to undertake! As some visitors have already alluded to in their responses, I’m confident that this hugely vital work will continue at RCM!

Ugly Truths was open in the link gallery from 12 September to 29 October 2023.

Dan Wills

Dan Wills

Dan grew up in Cornwall, on the outskirts of Camborne near the small village of Beacon. He attended the University of Gloucestershire in Cheltenham and completed a BA in History, with a dissertation in American politics. Following that he studied for an MA in International Heritage Management & Consultancy with the University of Exeter on the Penryn Campus. Here, Dan was able to develop his interests in interpretation, tourism and museums as inclusive spaces. Dan is also interested in the enriching and rejuvenating role that heritage can play in local communities.
Since then Dan has been volunteering for English Heritage giving guided tours of the Keep at Pendennis Castle in Falmouth.
In his spare time Dan is very keen on playing and watching Cricket, as well as exploring the Cornish landscape and coastline.
Dan has taken a position of Collections and Operations Officer at the Royal Cornwall Museum.