Who’s afraid of decolonisation?

Sharon Heal , 03.07.2019
"We need to collectively stop making excuses," says Sharon Heal in our latest policy column. 
It’s been an interesting year so far for discussion and debate about museum ethics. Sponsorship has hit the headlines in the wake of the Extinction Rebellion with renewed calls to drop fossil fuel sponsorship of arts and cultural venues. And the Nan Goldin-inspired campaign against Sackler funding has led a number of cultural organisations to rethink their sponsors in light of the opioid crisis.

But sponsorship has not been the only test of museum ethics. The calls for the repatriation and restitution of museum objects over the past 18 months have shone a spotlight on colonial-era artefacts held in museums internationally.

Museums and governments have responded to these calls in differing ways. From the Savoy-Sarr report in France to the rethinking of displays in the Netherlands and Belgium, museums and authorities have grappled with what it means to be a museum in the 21st century and how and why some of our collections have ended up in our institutions.

We have a lot to learn from our colleagues internationally and many of them will be sharing their experiences at the Museums Association (MA) Conference in Brighton in October. We chose the theme: Sustainable and Ethical Museums in a Globalised World because we wanted to have a rigorous debate about what our ethics mean for us and our communities in the 21st century.

The director of the V&A, Tristram Hunt, contributed to the debate recently when he wrote a comment piece which concluded: “For a museum like the V&A, to decolonise is to decontextualise”. 

It makes me wonder what there is to be afraid of?  Loss of authority and power? That someone’s story other than the agreed narrative will be told?

The arguments against decolonisation seem to be: that it’s not a nuanced approach - but the purpose of decolonising is to add depth, breadth and new knowledge to collections; and that it’s rewriting history. Reality check - this is what museums and historians do all the time.

To decolonise is to add context that has been deliberately ignored and stripped away over generations. There are many examples of the misrepresentation of objects in museum displays that have only been corrected after dialogue with source communities. And there are countless instances where interpretation still needs to be rectified and stories freshly told.

It’s easy to dither and defend the status quo but it is far more challenging and rewarding to tackle these issues. The question for me is not why should we rethink these collections and our relationships with source communities, but can we afford not to?

When we talked to over a thousand museum workers for our Empowering Collections report, people across the sector gave a clear steer that they want to understand what decolonisation means and how they might engage with the concept.  

The MA and others are working on developing guidance, but in the meantime having conversations with communities and peers who are already working to decolonise costs nothing.

We need to collectively stop making excuses - the universal/encyclopaedic/global museum is no justification for relentlessly holding on to objects, power and narratives. And neither should we hide behind the law - laws can be changed if there’s a will to do so.

Decolonisation is not a phase or a fad. Subject specialists such as the Museum Ethnographers Group and campaigners inside and outside of museums have been raising the issue and thinking seriously about what these collections mean and how we represent them for decades. Across the globe, there is a long intellectual history of decolonial thought that current calls for decolonisation are based on. This is far from a flash in the pan and the impact extends beyond our sector.

The momentum is building inside and outside the museum world: it’s in the hands of museum workers, community experts, academics and activists. This is not the “reductive expediency of a passing agenda” but the work we must do, alongside experts from source communities and museums, here and abroad. Let’s stop defending empire and the status quo and open our minds to new narratives.

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