The Student
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Review
Looking Back, Looking Forward Decolonising the Museum
by Sofia Cotrona, 9/04/21

The role of the museum in visualising the past and present cultural and national identities has a central place in the ever-resurfacing debate about the decolonialisation of cultural and artistic institutions.

The urgency of this conversation re-emerged in the past year prompted by the Black Lives Matter movement and today it should still hold a central focus in any artistic conversation as Dr Nima Poovaya-Smith (OBE) pointed out that although the concept  is an old one, it seems to be constantly at its developmental stage. Britain is witnessing at once problematic and promising steps against and towards the contestation of its colonial history. Recently, British cultural secretary Oliver Dowden threatened museums with funding cuts for the removal of ‘controversial’ statues with a contested colonial history and ‘invited’ twenty-five leading British public heritage bodies to desist from ‘airbrushing British history’. On the other hand, just two days ago the University of Aberdeen announced its intention to repatriate to Nigeria a Benin bronze looted by British troops during the 19th century and acquired by the University through an auction. 

The Courtauld recently held the conference ‘Looking Back. Looking Forward, Decolonising the Museum’ chaired by Dr. David Dibosa and with an incredible panel of scholars and experts: Dr Nima Poovaya-Smith, Alice Procter, Erika Tan and Michael Ohajuru. Procter and Ohajuru begun the session by reflecting on a poem recited by poet Ben Okri sharing their belief that the violence of British colonial past is met today with a historical excavation that is inevitably going to be painful and will emerge through some form of catharsis that will reflect that violence and intensity of its history of brutalization. Their words evoked this summer’s toppling of public sculptures with contested colonial affiliations that the recent ‘retain and explain’ bill instead aims to obstruct.

Some of Dowden’s policies also openly target heritage bodies that will use public money for the creation of artistic projects deemed as ‘political’. This statement allows us to reflect on the broad perception of museums as shrines of apolitical history whose apparent institutional omniscient, ‘neutral’ voice disguises and naturalises a very specific cultural and national narrative. Instead, the specific and partisan voices of cultural institutions emerge from exhibition displays and labels, as well as collection acquisitions. Tan quoted Ariella Aïsha Azoulay who contested museum ‘neutrality’ calling these institutions shrines of imperialism celebrating and upholding imperial violence. Tan furthered her thought pointing out that museums- perceived as centre of benign knowledge born of the enlightenment educational objectives- are instead largely built upon the expropriation of objects, people and ideas. Moreover, tracing back the historical origins of the museum, journalist Aditya Iyer highlights that besides their educational purpose these institutions were created to showcase a white supremacist vision of ‘civilisation’: thus, they have always been political. In naturalizing their specific narrative as ‘apolitical’, museums demonstrate their ideological role in upholding dominant values and systems of belief. Museum ideological functions thus shows that their contestation and the panellist call for their decolonisation may trigger a wider shift against colonialist structures.

In looking at the benefits of decolonising the museum Tan’s words really resonated with me as she said that unreflexively museums display should be seen as a continuity of a colonial tool for extraction or resources and maintenance of power and hierarchical relationships: there is no such thing as a ‘neutral’ museum. Dr. Poovaya-Smith offered a more poetic explanation highlighting that by re-settling the lens of history everyone can benefit from a richer perspective that will inevitably increase our knowledge capital. 

The question that inevitably arises is how do we move forward in the decolonization of museums? The entire panel agreed that it must be a collective effort to which Dr. Poovaya-Smith added that she believed it also had to be a multi-disciplinary and international effort to ensure some kind of impact rather than remaining an additive practice to standard museal approaches. This seems like a concrete issue as multiple panellists contested the use of ‘decolonisation’ as a buzzword (especially in the aftermath of BLM protests) which didn’t lead to concrete actions on the part of those institutions that pledged to change. Moreover, even when changes are implemented, Tan underscored the demoralizing bureaucracy that obstructs many innovations and the fact that often the process appears incomplete as a change in terminology in an exhibit may not be reflected in the storages labels of the same museum. 

Procter highlighted how shame can be a powerful tool for change, yet the panellists underscored the difficulty of contestation for people working within museums for the fear of retaliation and repercussions which are always higher for people who don’t have the socio-economic privilege of job stability. We observe social-media pages such as #changethemuseum already attempting to pressure US museums through public shame as they collect anonymously museum workers’ grievances against their institutions. Social-media platforms and external networking were also suggested as ways for the public to engage with the fight against colonialism to connect institutions, activists, and educators- whose fundamental role was reiterated multiple times. 

From this conversation, a decolonised museum space appeared as a site where people can critically witness colonial histories that are made apparent and visible in the discourse around the objects on display. Beginning with the repatriation of looted objects a decolonising approach will focus on the recontextualization of objects that are kept in western museums highlighting how-for example- they got there.

It is going to be a long and uncomfortable process for many but we have the chance to join this discourse and learn to know better than what we accept as ‘the norm’ at the moment. We have the opportunity of unmasking collectively museal approaches that withhold a system of cultural oppression which visualizes the national identity of the few by erasing that of the most.

About the panel

Dr. David Dibosa: co-investigator for Black Artists and Modernism,member of the UAL’s Research Centre for Transnational Art, Identity and Nation
Dr. Nima Poovaya-Smith (OBE): developer of the Transcultural Gallery (1977) and founding director of Alchemy until 2018
Alice Procter: author of The Whole Picture (2020) and leader of Uncomfortable Art Tours
Erika Tan: artist focusing on postcolonial and transnational archives
Michael Ohajuru: co-convener of the workshop ‘What’s Happening in Black British History’