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
One of the most glaring issues plaguing museums, particularly ethnographic ones, are the very collections that constitute the reason they were built in the first place. The provenance of many specimens is uncertain in the best of cases, while in others we know that they are the result of pillaging, theft, and abuse of power. The acknowledgment of the circumstances that lead to the very constitution of certain institutions is the first step towards dealing with them.
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.
In some cases, though, restitution is not possible, either because it’s impossible to pinpoint the provenance of the object or because the culture is virtually nonexistent. In any case, what museums can’t abstain from is questioning their collections, the ways in which some of the artifacts came to be in their possession, and reflecting upon the messages they are conveying when showing certain objects. Entering a dialogue with activists, the general public, artists, curators, and scholars can contribute to problematizing the nature of their original purpose. One admirable example is the type of collaborations Clémentine Deliss, former director of Frankfurt’s Weltkulturen Museum (Museum of World Cultures) has implemented. Deliss invited artists and experts like Luke Willis Thompson and Issa Samb to interact with the problematic collection of the museums which was rarely examined by anyone but the resident conservators. The results were engaging discoveries that open interesting bridges between the museum, the university, and the illuminated artists. You can read all about it in her book The metabolic museum. Provided that the invited parties are well compensated and given unconditional agency, similar projects could bring new life to a potentially sterile or even harmful collection. An example of an artistic intervention that effectively questions the presence of certain items and their treatment was As never before / as never again by Britt Hatzius and Ant Hampton at the then Ethnographic Museum Dahlem, Berlin (twhose collection is today part of the Humboldt forum), in 2014. Seven terracotta figures of the Mesoamerica room replicated as 3D prints, positioned outside the glass cases facing the originals; a work that questions the concept of the original and the value of such objects in contexts that don’t allow them to exist in the way they were intended to by their creators.
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
Once what should be shown is established the way that knowledge of and around an object is conveyed is as important. First of all, the point of view of the museum is always a partial one, often linked to the aforementioned white-partiarcal-Western paradigms and biases with roots in the Illuminism and colonialism the museum operators should always be aware of. The way we show objects, in glass cases, in display cabinets, or on pedestals, frames the object in a well established context of power and one-sided intellectual authority; it is hardly a neutral setting that fosters personal readings and interpretations in the viewer. A desirable direction to go with the contextualization and the accompanying wall text should question the intention of the museum and its own bias as much as it discusses the cultural significance of the object. If such an artifact belongs to all of humanity (as it is often claimed about most objects held by most institutions) it comes quite naturally to ask why it is shown in this particular place, for example. The Van Abbemuseum in Eindhoven works towards more conscious communication in their wall text and educational materials, using a language that is mindful of the experience of BIPOC and LGBTQA+ individuals (often an afterthought in museums), and providing accessibility implementations such as options for the deaf and hard of hearing. Always consider that neglecting to tackle the biases of the museum contributes to racial inequalities in society. Think of your organization as a resonance chamber and of what messages and ideas you would want to hear amplified.
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.
Decolonizing a museum means questioning all aspects of the institution and asking ourselves the right questions. Museums should be open to histor-ies, to point-s of view, to beaut-ies. Plurality and complexity are enriching and welcome in a space meant to welcome people that want to learn, be challenged, understood, stimulated, and be even comforted. More often than not activists and artists provide insightful solutions that public entities should listen to and learn from. About the already mentioned Humboldt Forum, the Coalition of Cultural Workers Against the Humboldt Forum is calling for its defunding, criticizing both the management of the museum and the very architectural structure that hosts its operations and collection. Despite the efforts in form of symposiums and lectures the Forum regularly hosts, the activists lament the exorbitant amount of public money such a problematic institution requires to function.
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.