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Museums Can No Longer Ignore Colonizer Narratives

Apr 30, 2021

Museums Can No Longer Ignore Colonizer Narratives

On October 8, 2018 (Columbus Day for some states and Indigenous Peoples Day for others) a protest took place in New York’s American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). The protest was led by activists from Decolonize This Place. The event was their third annual Anti-Columbus Day event. While a main point of contention is the AMNH’s outdated and racist exhibitions, their position is detailed and multi-faceted. Visit this link to read more on Decolonize This Place’s  position, experience with, and request of the AMNH.

Neutrality Isn’t an Option

The continued existence of Columbus Day is just one example of the many things that still need to be addressed and amended when it comes to respecting and including traditionally underrepresented peoples in the United States, and indeed, the broader Western world. Museums are in a transitional state where their traditional claim of neutrality can no longer be accepted as reality due to obvious colonizer, racist, and white supremacist narratives present within many exhibitions. As a result, museums with outdated narratives are increasingly called upon to fix this broken and antiquated piece of their organization.

In an April 23, 2018 opinion piece for The Guardian, “Museums are hiding their imperial pasts – which is why my tours are needed”, Alice Procter explains why she gives Uncomfortable Art Tours. Procter states: “Museums are institutions of memory—they must stop pretending there’s only one version of events, and be willing to own up to their role in shaping the way we see the past.” She calls for telling a story that hasn’t been told—at least not publicly. She’s been called a sensationalist, and even UK Members of Parliament have taken the time to belittle and demean her efforts.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Statements

In the last few years, museums as well as nonprofits and corporations have started to adopt statements for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). (Sometimes “accessibility” is also mentioned). Museums cannot have statements for DEI and refuse or be slow to acknowledge poor past practices, grievances, and atrocities perpetrated against the non-dominant cultural groups represented in museum collections. Museums have a proclivity for censoring catalog records and sanitizing descriptive panels, leaving only a sterile, basic description for an object. It’s a practice that’s becoming less and less tolerable as the call for transparency rises — being the first of many steps necessary toward full reparation. By exposing and confronting colonizer attitudes and practices, museums can begin to evolve.

Letting Go of Neutrality for New Learning & Engagement

Museums need to shake off their tacit commitment to presenting a biased, one-sided, and white supremacist view and acknowledge our collective, diverse, messy, controversial history. This work should be done because it’s the right things to do; however, museums are slow to evolve and unfortunately require inducements to validate any evolution. In that vein, think of the potential new learning and community engagement that will occur once efforts to address colonizer narratives are underway. These are two items that are typically very desirable for museums and their strategic plans.

Where Do We Begin?

There’s not a tried and true, nor perfect path for museums to follow that will adequately address this problem. However, that’s not to say they shouldn’t try. Here are seven things a museum should begin doing right now:

  1. Be transparent and acknowledge bad acquisition practices in object panel descriptions and catalog records.
  2. Adjust docent tours to incorporate discussions of how colonialism and racism have contributed to the artifact being on display today.
  3. Change whitewashed exhibit narratives to inclusive historical narratives.
  4. Create and adopt specific actions the museum will take to work towards true diversity, equity, and inclusion.
  5. Address concern and calls for correction from (currently) external, directly impacted groups.
  6. Hire qualified individuals from the different cultural groups and geo-political regions represented in the collection to curate and construct exhibits.
  7. Acknowledge and open the dialogue with groups who call for the repatriation of their artifacts. Actively work towards a resolution with benchmarks and a timeline in place.

Some of these items can (and should) be quickly employed, while others will undoubtedly take time. Though I caution any museum against taking too much time, as it indicates insincerity and a lack of commitment to solving the problem. This isn’t something to be metered out in a 10-year plan. There needs to be action, plans, transparency, and communication right away. As Decolonize This Place and other activist groups accurately point out, the continued existence and access to colonizer narratives is harmful, and museums should take the safety and well-being of all their patrons very seriously.


Image courtesy of Jasn, via Flickr’s Creative Commons (https://www.flickr.com/photos/lewishamdreamer/447537371/), and follows the Creative Commons Attribution License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/. Image downloaded for use November 2018, and was not purposefully altered. 

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