Museums feel like they have always been here, like the sky and the seas. But, while the sun has always come up, museums are not a natural phenomenon. They are much more recent, younger than many countries. Museums have their foundations in the Enlightenment and colonialism, two interrelated historic situations. Museums grow from the European impulse to possess the rest of the world.
The idea that museums haven’t been here since the dawn of civilization might be jarring. Museums give off an air of the ahistorical. Gatekeeping is at peak levels in museums. Academic knowledge, a system that trains people to replicate existing knowledge-making processes, is the chief sources of power for staff. Organizations present singular, authoritative narratives in clinical settings. The whole system of museums has society fooled. Think of the oft-quoted idea that museums are the most trusted source of knowledge in our society. Why? Because museums don’t show fissures and uncertainty. Newspapers are responsive, and as such, show their processes; people understand them to be socially-constructed and biased. Museums are certainly biased (#museumsarenotneutral, right), but our systems obfuscate this for visitors.
This field-bias to ignore the constructed-nature of our work makes thinking about decolonization challenging for many. The first step to truly decolonize our work is to admit we are colonial institutions. What does that mean? Stepping back, colonialism is classically defined as the occupation of one nation by another. Colonization, however, is not solely about land. It’s about the transformation of culture and the ways of thinking due to the state of being subjugated by another society. By the time Columbus sailed the ocean blue, our global consciousness had already been irrevocably transformed due to European “expansion”. Therefore, decolonization isn’t just about places or things—it’s about ideas and thought-processes. As a society, we can’t return to the pre-colonial ways of thinking. There is no going back, because Pandora’s box has been opened and time machines don’t exist. Instead, we need to work to create new systems of thinking that no longer centers colonial meaning-making.
What does this mean for museums? Well, it means that decolonizing isn’t going to be just about returning objects to their original nations. Sometimes this is the right answer. There are situations where objects were taken under duress, sacrifices to the colonial machine. Stolen objects should be returned. Other objects migrated to the West (N. America or Europe) in the way that people have traveled. In our mixed-up world, those objects are as hybrid as human immigrants, between and betwixt. Returning those objects isn’t the answer. What is? Rethinking those objects.
First, and foremost, this requires including voices of the people who are the real authority. For museums, this giving interpretative power to people who are not curators, and admitting having cultural ownership of an object/ idea is more important than a PhD. This move requires changing our systems and rethinking the centers of power. Given knowledge is our power base, this move requires fundamental change. But, also, transforming our means of knowledge creation will improve our content, and therefore, is in line with our missions.
These new voices will help us see our many blinders. Think, for example, about one of the most common norms in encyclopedic collections. Anonymous is a word used in labels when the artist is unknown. Most of the collection objects have unknown artists, but anonymous is commonly only used for objects made in the west in the modern era. Excluding the word anonymous might seem innocuous. But, in effect, it negates the humanity of artists before the modern era.
Technology is in a particularly good position to counteract colonization. Museum technologists work on projects that overlap siloes. They are used to ceding power to outside sources, like vendors or artists. And, technology is very often used in layers means, i.e. not make a physical change to exhibitions. For example, AR is already being used by artists to confront colonialism, and this would be an exceptional way for museums to cede power to outside voices to decolonize galleries. How? I developed a framework and wrote a whole paper about the topic. Give it a read if you want full details.
In short, technology is a collaborative and connective function in museums. It is perfectly poised to serve as a convener and conduit for decolonization. Leading decolonization in museums would have a lasting positive impact on the field.