Note: This article discusses sensitive topics of violence such as the murder of George Floyd. Additionally, I am an Asian woman from a middle-class background, and thus am writing this article from that point of view. I have written this article both from the perspective of a BIPOC who has a keen interest in the decolonisation of museum spaces as well as a museum audience member who wants the heritage sector to reflect our global community accurately by dismantling systemic racism and colonial narrative of museums.
The month of June is one of celebration for many reasons: it is Pride Month, National Smile Month and the month when we celebrate our dads. However, just across the Atlantic, the month of June holds a special significance for the African American community. The nineteenth of June, known as Juneteenth, commemorates the emancipation of slaves in America. This year’s Juneteenth is especially significant, as President Joe Biden declared the day a federal holiday. Despite the steps we have taken as a global community towards ending systemic racism and racial injustice, there is still an underlying question of whether we are doing enough to keep this movement towards equality going.
The Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement was first formed in 2013, however the movement gain reinvigoration following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis last year. The pandemic had only served to highlight the social inequality in America, and this violent act set fire to one of the biggest protests against police brutality and racism. The movement expanded beyond America, with marches taken place in the United Kingdom, the Netherlands, Australia and many more countries across the globe. While the issues faced by minorities may change from place to place, the underlying point being conveyed was clear: enough is enough. Racism, whether overt or subtly woven into the social framework of a society, needed to go.
How do museums fit into such a movement then? This was a question posed to the panellists of Black Lives Still Matter and Museums, a symposium run collaboratively by the Museums Association and Culture& on the second of June 2021. Almost a year since the resurgence of BLM, the panel reflected on the statements and changes made by museums, discussed where some institutions fell short and presented to the audience what needed to be done to ensure that the heritage sector restricted itself to become more culturally diverse and inclusive. The discussion was led by Errol Francis, the Chief Executive for Culture&, and it involved individuals from both side of the Atlantic. From the United Kingdom, there was Hassan Mahamdallie, a diversity specialist, and former Director of the Muslim Institute; Arike Oke, the Managing Director at the Black Cultural Archives (BCA); and Rachael Minott, who is the Chair of the Decolonising Working Group for the Museums Association. American panellists included Monica O. Montgomery, who is the Curator of Special Projects + Programming at the Smithsonian Institution Arts + Industries Building; and Ian Damont Martin, the Executive Director of Inclusion and Belonging at the Art Institute of Chicago. Each panellist provided a unique perspective to the questions posed by Dr. Francis, as their backgrounds and fields were so diverse. I think Martin’s answer regarding the connection between the BLM movement and museums was interesting, as he linked the idea of violence with museums. The BLM movement helped to bring specific questions about creating a diverse museum space to the forefront of discussions regarding the future of museums, and it is now our job to change museums from repositories of colonial violence and white supremacy into spaces with historical narratives that present the full, honest, and culturally appropriate truth.
Another one of the questions posed during the panel which struck me was this: is it possible to decolonise a western museum? One may think that restoring remains and cultural assets to their home countries may leave museums in the UK barren, seeing as many collections acquired before the 20th Century tended to be colonial bounties stolen from their indigenous lands. Therefore, wouldn’t the act of decolonising museums strip a western institution of all their valuable cultural artefacts? Dr. Francis pointed out that the idea of decolonisation at its core is a shift of power between the occupied and the occupier; however, there seems to be a revisionist perspective on the word now with heritage institutions in which the term includes the act of repatriation, the rewriting of cultural narratives and the removal of inherently racist portrayals of indigenous peoples. I think that western museums, especially in countries that have an overtly imperial history, can be decolonised in the sense that they can provide a space for the truth of colonisation and its effects to be accurately explained to local audiences. This line of thinking was very much drawn from Montgomery’s answer to this question where she aligns the idea of decolonisation with resilience and resistance. Museums need to understand that to display and discuss issues such as the Black Diaspora, slavery and consequences of imperialism, they have to remember ‘nothing about us, without us.’ This phrase was used by Montgomery to emphasise the point that we have to question conventional wisdom and who holds the authority to speak about such history.
The final point I kept thinking about following the symposium was the idea of performative actions versus actual change. It’s always easy to release a statement regarding your institution’s stance on racism, but it is much harder to put such a stance into practice. I wholeheartedly agreed with Montgomery’s observation that museums are in service to society and should therefore reflect the past, present and future of our humanity; however, to do this in a manner that is anti-racist and culturally sensitive, it means that they may have to tackle certain topics that aren’t necessarily easy to speak about. The idea of a ‘clean’ history is not possible because history has not been clean, and it is something that current audiences must reflect upon. If only the easy narratives are being perceived, it is no surprise that, as mentioned by Minott, a dichotomy between those who have the privilege of perceiving museums as a safe space and those who are only presented with narratives of erasure and epistemic violence through exhibits. This links back to the violence which reignited the BLM movement in 2020, as George Floyd’s death was not unique in the violence itself, but rather unique in the response it garnered. Violence against BIPOC is interwoven in colonial history, but the issue is now it is also woven in the silence and lack of change in museum narratives.
The takeaway from this discussion was twofold: first, there are some institutions that are already making big changes to the way they operate and portray narratives. An example close to home is the University of Aberdeen, who recently repatriated one of the Benin Bronzes because they had concluded that it was obtained in a questionable, colonial context. Another example is the skulls recently returned to Sri Lanka by the Anatomical Museum here in Edinburgh. These are only two examples of the action being carried out across the UK with regards to decolonising museum spaces. The second takeaway was this: while there is some movement towards repatriation and restructuring the historical narrative of museums, there is still much work to be done. As Oke mentioned, violence and museums go hand in hand because of the colonial roots of museum collections, however education and museums are also intrinsically linked. It would be more problematic to remain silently complicit to the underlying racism of museum origins, instead institutions should accept that part of history as exactly that: history. To acknowledge the past is important, and ensuring the narrative becomes inclusive and transparent is the key to ensuring museums become a safe space for all.
If you want to watch the entire symposium, you can do so here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uarMUygLK38&ab_channel=MuseumsAssociation
If you want to read Culture&’s Black Lives Matter Charter, you can do so here: https://www.cultureand.org/news/black-lives-matter-charter-for-the-uk-heritage-sector/
By Tessa Rodrigues.