The Politics of a Bicycle

What can a bicycle tell us about the nature of Imperial trade relations during the 19th and early 20th century? The temporary exhibition at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, The Past is Now, is currently displaying a Hercules Bicycle (1946) as an example of the historical revolution in transportation due to the increased access to asphalt and rubber in Britain. The black bicycle stands as a nexus between everyday life in Britain during the early 20th century and the extreme environmental and human cost of harvesting resources from British colonies.

Hercules Bicycle from Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery's exhibition, The Past is Now
Photo by Cesare Cuzzola.

Museum objects hold a multiplicity of meanings within them: not only do they symbolise concepts, but their material characteristics hold connections to several realities. Objects can offer a compact and tangible representation of wider concepts that entail multiple lives, worlds, and relationships. The Past is Now understands this powerful link, and applies it to many of its artefacts. Specifically, the Hercules Bicycle is linked to the growth of the manufacturing industry during the Imperial rule and its dependency on asphalt and rubber, as well as the negative impact this had on British colonies. The trade, sourcing, and movement of rubber during the colonial period is an extremely complex phenomenon that can uncover the interconnectedness of human beings and communities in ways that go beyond rubber itself[1]. Similarly, standing in front of the bicycle, one will perhaps not think of colonial trade and exploitation as concepts detached from the ordinary: an old-fashioned bicycle seems to suddenly materialise a certain reality by linking it to everyday life in Britain. Not only does it shed light on the cost of colonialism, but ultimately reminds us that these intersections still exist in the present, and that issues of ethical sourcing and trading are still painfully relevant today.

Arjun Appadurai notoriously claimed that objects have “social lives”[2], they exist within systems of social relations, and they in turn affect those systems. Museums today are perhaps recognising that the social life of objects (and their intrinsic materiality) can have a powerful impact on visitors. The Past is Now beautifully exemplifies these ideas: objects, simply by existing, can turn the colonial experience into a tangible reality, with a critique on the contemporary representation of history. The bicycle is not just a symbol: it reminds that everything is made of “stuff”, and that materials and artefacts exist in a politicised reality.

Objects (including bicycles!) are part of the human experience, and – just as human beings – they acquire histories, meanings, and political significance. They are tangible links to complex phenomena, and it is up to museums to reveal these links and acknowledge that the material characteristics of an artefact are meaningful. Museums don’t simply tell stories about objects, they can tell stories through objects. And those objects are just as symbolic, as they are material.

[1] Harp, S. (2016) A World History of Rubber: Empire, Industry, and the Everyday. Oxford: Wiley Blackwell.
[2] Appadurai, A. (1986) The Social Life of Things. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

You can visit The Past is Now at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, until 24th June 2018. Twitter: @BM_AG | #ThePastIsNow

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This entry was written by Cesare Cuzzola, a PhD student at the University of Leicester's School of Museum Studies, currently researching the role of artefacts in socially engaged museum practice. Twitter: @Cesare_Cuzzola


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