Good Curating

Curatorial thoughts on decolonisation

Museum vitrine showing a display of weapons from around the world with a photograph of a man entitled 'Friend or Foe'.

This Friday at the Museums Association’s 2019 conference and exhibition in Brighton, I will be chairing a panel of international speakers on the theme of decolonisation in museums, with particular emphasis on those museums of 18th-20th century coloniser countries such as the UK, Netherlands, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy.

Organised by Director of the MA, Sharon Heal, the panel is called The End of Empire. There are a number of other sessions also examining decolonisation from different perspectives, including scrutinising the idea of curating ‘world cultures’ collections. For many museums this has become a pressing issue because of pressure from outside, from repatriation requests and a shift in ethical awareness of museum origins and practices.

Broadly, decolonisation is a term used to describe the process or a set of actions to withdraw one nation state’s domination and rule over dependent nations, territories or colonies. It has been a term used in a political and cultural sense to foster self-determination and independence in the people of former colonies including First Nations.

More recently this term has been used to highlight the colonial nature of many Western European museums whose collections are full of artefacts brought back from imperial activities, whether for scientific and artistic motivations or as spoils of war. Interpretively, decolonisation has implications too in terms of how stories are told, and who gets to decide what those stories are.

Museums are by their very nature vessels for objectification. Of people and the natural environment. How will discussions and decisions on decolonisation change the very essence of what a museum exists for?

This debate needs to take us far beyond the definition of a museum and its purpose and much more towards the core of how public institutions assemble and have assembled collections, and what those collections have the power to do, what they have the power to say, and who gets to bring and take knowledge to and from them.

And what will be the result? Decolonisation isn’t just a matter for large and old museums of coloniser countries and it is not just about repatriation and restitution to the previously colonised.

There are lines of power within this country, and others, that are oppressing the expression of difference and diversity and many of our museums are complicit in consciously and unconsciously servicing the oppression by not permitting, or just not prioritising, changing who they fundamentally are i.e. the structures, the hierarchy, the equating of power with position rather than know-how and experience. There are colonial-type relationships between cultural institutions too–large and small, centre and periphery assumptions and these also deserve scrutiny in decolonisation debates.

And there are consequences to all this, complex ones, as you will hear from the conference this week. The vision of the decolonised museum is not yet clear, and it would be easy for many museums and galleries to feel alienated during the debate. Let us embrace the complexity and not turn this debate into a simplistic us vs them judgement.

These are just some of the thoughts going around in my mind. The curatorial opportunity here is huge and I would encourage wide conversations in all sorts of different places, not just the conference rooms of big cities or the pages of hard to reach academic tomes.

The End of Empire takes place on Friday 4 October at 14:30 (2.30pm) in the Auditorium and features: Meera Sabaratnam, Senior Lecturer in International Relations, Chair, Decolonising SOAS Working Group, SOAS; Stijn Schoonderwoerd, Managing Director, Tropenmuseum, Amsterdam, Netherlands and Bruno Verbergt, Operational Director, Royal Museum for Central Africa, Belgium.

For discussion.

– How might decolonisation contradict efforts to diversify representation in our museums?

– How might we add nuance to debates about decolonisation and associated arguments for repatriation, and who gets to decide?

Will displays like this soon become a thing of the past?