Decolonizing museums — some notes and good practices

by Valentina Bianchi

Decolonial practices are frequently brought up in conversions when talking about social sustainability in the context of cultural institutions. It is crucial, then, to avoid making the topic another buzzword and tackle the matter seriously and with commitment. Most museums were created to reinforce white-partiarcal-Western ideals and and therefore quite problematic places from the very start of their conception. Some of them were built to showcase very specific kinds of knowledge, often connected to a misplaced sense of superiority of certain cultures over others, and very often through the display of artifacts whose source is dubious at best. Museums are undertaking efforts and trying to make a difference with small or big initiatives to reframe their collections, correct the language of their educational material, and highlight the contribution of indigenous people and people of color. The most effective and radical approaches, though, often come from artists and activists. Let’s look at some key points and inspiring examples.

Restitution and responsibility

The Museum Association, for instance, has a statement on decolonization on its website in which it explicitly condemns the harm that lead to the acquisition of artifacts and the constitutions of the museums in the UK.

Over the past decades museums have begun to recognise the trauma and suffering caused by the display and representation of objects that were obtained during or made as a result of the British Empire.

How to deal with displaced artifacts, though, is often very complex and the right of a western museum to own and showcase an effectively stolen object is constantly questioned. A solution often called for is the restitution of the object to the culture it originated in. One example is the recent restitution of 26 artworks, kept in the Musée du Quai Branly, to the Republic of Benin.

three sculptures stand on pedestals. The central one is a person, the one on the left is an anthropomorphic lion and the one on the right is an anthropomorphic fish
Some of the sculptures formerly exhibited in the Musée du Quai Branly

Problematic collections

a bird eye view of a large quantity of glass cases in a museum
View of the collection of the Pitt Rivers Museum

A positive example of collaboration between a museum with a problematic collection and expert activists is the Maasai living cultures project of the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. The Masaai artifacts were analyzed and their function was explained to the conservators who were often surprised to learn they had many ritual and private objects in their depot. This kind of experience reveals how delicate the role of cultural institutions is in the passing of knowledge to the public and the moral consequences of certain conservational choices. Most cultures represented as distant and mysterious in museums are lively and deserving of recognition and respect more than intrusive, condescending curiosity; engaging respectfully with certain objects is a necessary step into decolonizing an institution.

By the same token, the mere acts of preserving and archiving are not neutral nor inconsequential: the exhibition titled The Unarchivable by the Goethe Institute in Rome in 2022 explored the motivation and repercussions of archiving material, in particular ones collected in colonial times. What is preserved shapes the public discourse and the lives of citizens in ways that can be detrimental or uplifting.

Language and mediation

Guided tours and decolonial walks can be an occasion for the public to interact with the space and contents of the museum through the eyes of someone from a particular background. Walk with me at Bozar in Brussels employed special guides, for instance the curator and lecturer Georgine Dibua Mbombo, to help the visitors consider different perspectives and highlight how highly characterized and partial the institution is.


in the foreground a person is photographed while walking with a scarf-looking piece of fabric in their hand. In the background there are many people standing and holding signs
A moment from the “Decolonize this place” protest at the Whitney Museum in 2019

Groups like Decolonize this place organize protests and compile lists of invaluable resources and articles about decolonizing spaces. One of the fronts such groups are involved in is the removal or recontextualization of statues and monuments to the founders and benefactors of the museum when they were contributors to colonization, exploitation, and enslavement of people.

Last but certainly not least, an essential part of the decolonial effort is to showcase, uplift, and welcome artists that have been excluded from museum collections because of their gender, ethnicity, disability, or social status. Unfortunately though it is not unheard of for museums to invite artists that are part of marginalized groups, the queer community or the BIPOC artist to ask for unpaid consultations. For a creative and illuminating “Guide for welcoming artists of color in white institutions” you can visit Fannie Sosa’s expressly created website.

Whatever the strategies you feel like you can promote in your institution, the best strategy you can adopt always comes from being aware of one’s own positionality, privilege, and potential, to ensure museums can become the welcoming hubs of knowledge they strive to be.

You can find many strategies and solutions in our Social Sustainability Ki Book which you can download for free from our website.

Valentina Bianchi is Brussels-based curator working with local and international organizations in the field of contemporary art in connection with science and sustainability.



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Sustainability is the future. Culture is the key. We are Ki Culture.