walking ladies by Yahaira

Decoloniality in Relation to Museums and Curatorial Practices

IN CONVERSATION WITH LEANA BOVEN

The museum’s colonial foundation

One could look at the museum as being an active entity, or an urban actor. The museum could be seen as agitator and the space it occupies as a place where political activism can develop. Museums can engage in acts of representation as intervention, and – at least in the Netherlands –  lectures and debates concerning societal issues are more and more organized between those walls. Nowadays museums are relooking into their own history and collections, as society nowadays pressures museums more into applying a self-critical approach towards its collections, knowledge production, and curatorial practices, where even the concept of the museum itself gets criticized.

The concept of ‘decolonizing the museum’ is also widely used where questions such as Who is the museum including and excluding? and Is there enough representation of black and non-black people of color? among others are discussed. As is argued by Bryce and Carnegie in ‘Exhibiting the “Orient”: Historicising Theory and Curatorial Practice in UK Museums and Galleries’, “current thinking about museums and their roles and responsibilities and overall accountability to funding bodies, reflect current concerns and criticisms of a failure to engage with local and diverse communities.” [1]

The history of museums in itself is something worth discussing as well, as “modern museums were formed as part of a general trajectory of British government policy over the past 200 years, a trajectory of reform, based on increased government intervention, democratization” [2]. It is argued by Robin Boast in ‘Neocolonial Collaboration: Museum as Contact Zone Revisited’ that:

“The museum as contact zone, is and continues to be used instrumentally as a means of masking far more fundamental asymmetries, appropriations, and biases. The museum, as a site of accumulation, as a gatekeeper of authority and expert accounts, as the ultimate caretaker of the object, as the ultimate arbiter of the identity of the object, as its documenter and even as the educator, has to be completely redrafted. Where the new museology saw the museum being transformed from a site of determined edification to one of educational engagement, museums of the 21st century must confront this deeper neocolonial legacy. This is not only possible but, I would argue, could renovate the museum into an institution that supported the enrichment, rather than authorization, of collections. To do this, however, requires museums to learn to let go of their resources, even at times of the objects, for the benefit and use of communities and agendas far beyond its knowledge and control.”  [3]

Decoloniality in the European and Dutch context

With more awareness around this (neo)colonial foundation the museum is built upon, calls for “decolonizing the museum” are increasingly voiced. What is meant with decolonizing the museum depends on the geographical context I would argue. In the United States the notion of decolonizing is linked to the fight by Native Americans against settler colonialism, to make museums more open and community-relevant sites. These museum sites can help with ‘tribal nation building, empowerment and healing’ is argued by Amy Lonetree in Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums. [4] She argues that “a decolonizing museum practice must involve assisting our communities in addressing the legacies of historical unresolved grief. Doing this necessarily cuts through the veil of silence around colonialism and its consequences for Native families and communities.” [5]

This idea or concept is of course applicable in imperial European and Dutch context as well, where Eurocentric narratives and representations are the base of the museums of the 19th and 20th centuries. Unchallenged museums reproduce colonial thinking, so interventions are necessary to disrupt the museum as whole. The aim is of course to bring about structural changes, as argued by Simone Zeefuik in a talk with Lex Bohlmeijer, especially in the Dutch context where many colonial practices go unchallenged. [6] Decolonization could be seen as the breaking open of certain power structures to show that there is another way of thinking, other than the white Eurocentric narrative. We need to rewrite the narratives to create a collective memory that is for all the people of the Netherlands. This is why it is important to have museums that tell the whole story – instead of the well-known Eurocentric narrative that often goes unchallenged – to move away from exclusive practices and patterns.


Notes:

[1] Derek Bryce & Elizabeth Carnegie, “Exhibiting the “Orient”: Historicising Theory and Curatorial Practice in UK Museums and Galleries,” Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 45, no. 7, (2013): 1739.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Robin Boast, “Neocolonial Collaboration: Museum as Contact Zone Revisited,” Museum Anthropology 34, no. 1 (2011): 67.

[4] Amy Lonetree, Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012), 4.

[5] Ibid: 5.

[6] Lex Bohlmeijer, 2017. “Lex Bohlmeijer – In Gesprek met Simone Zeefuik,” podcast interview. In De Correspondent. Interview recorded on October 19th 2017, 34:31 min. Soundcloud.

 

References:

Boast, Robin. “Neocolonial Collaboration. Museum as Contact Zone Revisited.” Museum Anthropology 34, no. 1 (2011): 56-70.

Bohlmeijer, Lex. 2017. “Lex Bohlmeijer – In Gesprek met Simone Zeefuik,” podcast interview. In De Correspondent. Interview recorded on October 19th 2017, 34:31 min. Soundcloud.

Bryce, Derek, Elizabeth Carnegie. “Exhibiting the “Orient”: Historicising Theory and Curatorial Practice in UK Museums and Galleries.” Environment and Planning A: Economy and Space 45, no. 7, (2013): 1734-1752.

Lonetree, Amy. Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 2012.


Cover image by Yahaira Brito Morfe. © Museum of Equality and Difference