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21 January 2023

“Crabs taught me to be anti-capitalist”: how a Margate museum is on a mission to change politics

What do capitalism, colonialism and the climate crisis have to do with crustaceans?

By Hugh Smiley

Walking through the Old Town of Margate my eye was caught by a blue and red sign. “Crab Museum,” it read. “Is it really just a museum about crabs?” I said to my sister. “Only one way to find out,” she replied. So to satisfy our curiosity, we entered this centre of crustacean education. Located above the Pie Factory Gallery (which doesn’t make pies), the Crab Museum is possibly the most political, anti-capitalist and pro-crab space in the country.

When entering via a small walkway there are early signs that this museum has a broader scope than one might expect. A timeline of the history of the universe, told through crabs, can be seen on the yellow walls, accompanied by cartoonishly adorable drawings.

I spoke with two of the three founders, brothers Bertie Terrilliams and Ned Suesat-Williams, who opened the Crab Museum alongside their friend Chase Coley, about their venture. “It is a museum about crabs. But it’s more than a museum about crabs,” is how Suesat-Williams, who trained as an archaeologist, introduces the concept. “We use crabs as a way to discuss all manner of other things”, from science and history to “what we humans call politics”.

While the museum itself is a fairly modest space, with one large open room populated with wooden displays, models and microscopes, there is an enormous amount to be found in all kinds of unexpected places. When I opened a small display marked “DANGER!! TRUTH INSIDE DO NOT OPEN”, I was met with large bold text proclaiming “CAPITALISM CAUSED CLIMATE CHANGE”. The display explains that “for a capitalist, the ocean floor is only valuable because of the oil or minerals it might contain – not because of the ecosystems there that took millions of years to evolve”. The museum argues that this mindset has caused “gigantic damage to the environment”, either directly through extraction (for example fishing) or indirectly from the polluting byproducts of fossil fuels, for the profit of a wealthy few.

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But isn’t all this a bit irrelevant? “Well it has a lot to do with crabs,” explains the engraved text of the display. “Human civilisations need a healthy planet to live on and a healthy ecosystem requires a whole variety of living things working together – this includes crabs.” If humanity wants a world to live in which hasn’t been ravaged by climate change, it needs to be inhabitable for all its creatures, “no matter how squishy or spiky”.

In addition to geography, economics and climate science, there are history lessons here too. “There are many angles from which thinking like a crab can find you at the door of colonialism,” argues Suesat-Williams. A small, green side section of the museum features a bank note from the Cayman Islands, a British Overseas Territory in the Caribbean, with images of crabs alongside the visage of the Queen Elizabeth II. Through this seemingly minor connection, the museum explores the subject of colonialism and its lasting damages. The Cayman Islands were seized by the British in 1670 and were a part of the Transatlantic slave trade, which “saw Britain abduct 3.1 million Africans and sell them into a lifetime of brutal servitude”.

The display argues that humans try to “borrow” from the natural world in the hopes that some of the qualities associated with animals will rub off on themselves, be that the “British Bulldog spirit” or the US’s eagle of bravery. The historical use of crabs as a “physical manifestation of state power” is another way in for the curators to explore colonialism. Crabs in this sense are used to examine how capitalism drove global conquest. “[Christopher] Columbus was looking at islands as a place to extract wealth from, not as a place to explore,” says Suesat-Williams. The museum highlights the exploitative nature of global capitalism by presenting a contrast: instead of appreciating crabs as living creatures that contribute to a healthy ecosystem, colonialists viewed crabs (and other living beings, including humans) as nothing more than objects from which to extract wealth.

“Crabs taught me to be anti-capitalist,” Terrilliams, a geographer and writer, claims. “I want to be led by the crabs, and in trying to be as objective as possible in studying the natural world I found it quite naturally led me in the direction of an anti-capitalist narrative.” Crabs have been affected by capitalism in a number of different ways, the brothers argue. The negative byproducts of capitalism, colonialism and climate change – such as overfishing, rising sea temperatures and species extinction – “are all a part of the same historical movement”, Terrilliams says, destroying the ecosystems and environments that crabs occupy.

[See also: Stop dithering, British Museum – give the Elgin marbles back]

This can be applied across the natural world, and the founders argue that similar nature-led thought processes would lead them to the same political ends. “It could have been a museum about slugs or seagulls,” says Suesat-Williams, “we just happen to be crab enthusiasts.”

Whereas other museums might try to navigate political subjects while pretending to be apolitical, the crab museum is very upfront with its ideology. “All museums, all places that disseminate information have their own political agenda,” argues Terrilliams. The founders draw a comparison to the British Museum, where the intertwined subjects of nature, climate change and colonialism will be presented as both physically and conceptually separate. As Suesat-Williams argues, “it’s doing a disservice to both politics and to science to interrogate them without each other”.

They claim that Craig Mackinlay, the local Conservative MP for South Thanet, once visited the museum. “He was inside for about 45 seconds,” Terrilliams says. Presumably he took one look at the politics on display and deciding, like a hermit crab that has outgrown its shell, that it was time to move on.

A tenet of the crab museum is that “all forms of knowledge are connected”. This is apparent when speaking to both siblings about any political subject that their museum explores. Our discussion about colonialism led naturally to the industrial revolution, which then brought us back to climate change. As they put it, these issues are “part of the same historical movement”. This perspective can be seen throughout the museum itself, which moves seamlessly between the subjects of Brexit, biodiversity and how the acidification of seawater has led to crab shells becoming thinner. This demonstrates why the owners don’t necessarily describe their museum as “activism”; political messages are a natural outcome of their form of education.

The two hope that their museum can help humanity “recognise that they are a lot less important than they think that they are”, says Suesat-Williams. They argue that if we recognise our insignificance in the grand scheme of things, we will pay more mind to issues (and creatures) that are often ignored and overlooked, including as Terrilliams puts it, the “criminally underestimated crab”. This will be the group’s message for 2023, as they plan to venture out of their first-storey space to local schools and community events. While the subjects that the museum explores, most notably climate change, remain a constant in people’s lives that can often be ignored, perhaps their unusual approach could uniquely cut through.

[See also: Christopher Harborne: the silent donor behind Brexit and Boris Johnson]

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