Museum TrendsWatch 2019: Decolonization

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

July 03, 2019

I attended the American Alliance of Museums (AAM) annual conference held in New Orleans, May 2019. The conference hosted a TrendsWatch 2019 session where Founding Director at the Center for the Future of Museums (CFM), Elizabeth Merritt reviewed the CFM’s TrendsWatch 2019 report. Read on for my synopsis and observations on the second trend to watch (Decolonization) as part of your museum strategy; I’ll write about the others in additional posts.

Trends to watch in 2019 are: Truth, Trust, and Fake News; Blockchain; Decolonization; Homelessness and Home Insecurity; and Self-Care. The CFM report offers an explanation and review of societal and museum impacts for each trend.

Colonial Origins & Decolonization

Out of all five trends revealed in TrendsWatch 2019, this one is perhaps the most overtly applicable to museums. Ethics surrounding the appropriation of art and cultural objects by outside people (and their museums) have been evaluated in professional spheres dating back to the 1960s civil rights era. As a result, actions to limit questionable acquisitions with emphasis on the value of well-documented object provenance have improved since the 1970s. However, many museums are still grappling with these issues and it may be because they’re not addressing the underpinning issue – colonialism.

Merritt outlines the following:

Museums are intrinsically colonial, fundamentally reflecting a Eurocentric view of the world. Many were born directly from colonial practices, serving as trophy rooms of conquest and superiority. The field was shaped by scientific disciplines that validated racist worldviews, explicitly ranked the world’s cultures, and place Europeans on top. Colonialism is embedded in the collections – in what museums chose to collect, how it was acquired, how it was documented – and in our methods of classification, display and education.

Acknowledging, reflecting on, and rectifying a museum’s colonial origin and its inherent damaging power is a fairly new practice for the field. Only a few (so far) museums are actively working to build a framework that may address the effects of colonial history—an effort to decolonize.

Decolonization is the long, slow, painful, and imperfect process of undoing some of the damage inflicted by colonial practices that remain deeply embedded in our culture, politics, and economics. – As defined in the TrendsWatch 2019 report.

A Museum’s Role in Decolonization

Museums are a natural starting point for this work as they control our collective historical narrative. What is included in the historical narrative and how it’s conveyed has hidden much of the damaging and odious markers of colonization. Merritt states “Museums, in their cultural roles of memory keeper, conscience, and healer, have an obligation to provoke reflection, rethinking, and rebalancing.” And, it’s not just museums who must do this work. In fact, many organizations, municipal bodies, and corporations are being asked to review their role in past or present practices that have displaced, hurt, or taken advantage of indigenous peoples.

Museum To-Do List

TrendsWatch recommends the following potential to-do items for museums:

  • Cultivate awareness among staff, leadership, and boards
  • Consider power structures in the museum
  • Ensure that diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion practices are in addition to (not in place of) decolonization efforts
  • Support indigenous communities in their decolonization efforts
  • Work to ensure that indigenous communities and the legacy of colonialism are kept in public consciousness and not erased
  • Listen to criticism and make the effort to change
  • Acknowledge that museums have benefited from the past power structures
  • Take the lead in telling the truth

And I would add:

  • Be transparent and acknowledge bad acquisition practices in object panel descriptions and catalog records
  • Adjust docent tours to incorporate discussions of how colonialism and racism have contributed to the artifact being on display today
  • Change exhibit narratives to inclusive historical narratives
  • Create and adopt specific actions the museum will take to work towards true diversity, equity, and inclusion
  • Hire individuals from the communities represented in the collection to curate and construct exhibits
  • Acknowledge and open a dialogue with groups who call for the repatriation of their artifacts

As Merritt affirms in the report: “The power, authority, and trust granted to museums by the public means that the sector has a commensurate responsibility not to preserve and perpetuate the destructive attitudes and practices of past times.” Museums have both the power and the ability to make significant changes and can lead the way for other sectors to follow.

Rachael Cristine Woody

Rachael Cristine Woody

Consultant, author, and blogger Rachael Cristine Woody advises on museum strategies, collections management and grant writing for a wide variety of clients. Read more of Rachael’s posts on museum strategies for success. Learn about Lucidea’s Argus solution for museum collections management and digitization, which can be used to support a wide variety of museum strategies.

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