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A Roundup of Decolonization News

Category: Center for the Future Of Museums Blog
Photo by Giulia Forsythe, on Flickr. Indigenization & Transformation Decolonization to Reconciliation #tlt18 keynote by Vice Provost Indigenous Engagement, @JackieOttmann
Photo by Giulia Forsythe, on Flickr. Indigenization & Transformation Decolonization to Reconciliation #tlt18 keynote by Vice Provost Indigenous Engagement, @JackieOttmann

The popularity of last week’s guest post by Frank Howarth on decolonizing the museum mind prompts me to share a round-up of some of the stories I’ve been collecting on efforts to decolonize museum practice.

The following abstracts and links were featured in Dispatches from the Future of Museums, the free weekly e-newsletter I compile for the Alliance. You can sign up to receive Dispatches here. If you are a long time subscriber, and haven’t received the last few issues, you may need to add “” to your safe senders list.

Museums in Balboa Park attempt to “decolonize”
San Diego City Beat
August 1, 2018

In recent years a number of museums around the country, as well as in Balboa Park, have embarked upon journeys to “decolonize” both their collections and their messaging. Locally, this means changing not only how the story of San Diego’s past is told, but also who tells it. The San Diego Museum of Man in particular has been at the fore. Last year, it established the position of Director of Decolonizing Initiatives, which is currently held by Jaclyn Roessel. These actions and hires aim to identify colonizing practices in each of its departments and create a strategic plan for museum-wide decolonization. Roessel says the museum has centered its efforts on the three main tenets: acknowledging the harm that the institution has previously perpetuated via colonizing practices, as well as amplifying voices from within cultural communities that have been ignored in the past and working in collaboration with such communities.

Belgian Museum Looks At Country’s History Of Colonialism And Racism
National Public Radio
September 2, 2018

Belgium’s only museum devoted to Central Africa, where Belgium was a colonial power, is being renovated to highlight the deaths of millions of Congolese and the display of others in “human zoos.” The Royal Museum of Central Africa began as a temporary exhibition in 1897 on the woods of Leopold’s country estate. The most talked about portion was a mock African village. The king displayed 267 Congolese men, women and children there behind a fence. Art curator Cesarine Sinatu Bolya insists that the museum cannot decolonize unless Congolese are in charge of it. In the end, there was compromise. It took five years and cost nearly $90 million. But the renovation is almost finished. Some of the old exhibits remain, but they come with explanations about Leopold’s brutality. There’s a new building that includes exhibits on Congolese history and culture.

A Canadian Museum Promotes Indigenous Art. But Don’t Call It ‘Indian.’
The New York Times
July 13, 2019

The Art Gallery of Ontario — one of Canada’s most distinguished art museums — [has] recently renamed [Emily] Carr’s painting, originally titled “Indian Church,” “Church in Yuquot Village.” saying that the old terminology ‘‘denigrates and discriminates.’’ Wanda Nanibush, the museum’s curator of Indigenous art, along with [curator Georgiana] Uhlyarik, drove the decision to change the painting’s title. Ms. Nanibush and Ms. Uhlyarik have gone well beyond renaming one painting. At the Art Gallery of Ontario’s J.S. McLean Center for Indigenous and Canadian Art, which they program, they have rendered wall texts for all the works first in the language of the Anishinaabe, one of the oldest North American languages. The efforts come as identity politics in the museum world has reached a flash point at several large cultural institutions that were criticized for racial and cultural insensitivity.

Germany to Fund Museum Research into Provenance of Colonial-Era Objects
Art Forum
May 1, 2018

German culture minister Monika Grütters has pledged to secure funding for museums to investigate the provenance of the colonial-era artifacts in their collections. Grütters said that the initiative aims to “motivate museums to use these research opportunities and develop new forms of cooperation with the countries of origin.” Six new positions will be created at the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation, which manages Berlin’s state museums, four of which will be responsible for researching colonial-era artworks.

Can Art Museums Help Illuminate Early American Connections To Slavery?
April 25, 2018

As the Worcester Art Museum (WAM) in Worcester, Mssachusetts is exploring, the signage that accompanies a piece of art is often the lens through which we view it. The WAM and some other US museums are exploring exhibit labels as an important means of contextualizing the wealthy patrons of art from the country’s past for a contemporary audience. For the WAM, that past includes portraits of men and women from both the North and the South depicted in antebellum art who either owned enslaved persons or benefited from the institution of slavery. While the historical labels were kept in place, a darker-colored label was added that pulled on research done by scholars studying slavery in early America. The economic benefits of slavery are now explicit on the labels at WAM.

The American Indian museum comes of age by tackling this country’s lies
January 19, 2018

The National Museum of the American Indian has mounted an exhibition that could transform how the public thinks of the institution. Other countries that have practiced what is known as settler colonialism — moving in and taking over, rather than just exploiting the resources of colonized people — haven’t embedded the displaced native populations so deeply in the collective consciousness. The material on display goes beyond that larger message to demonstrate the complexity, inconsistency and sometimes pure absurdity of how these images have been used. And that forces viewers to confront some of the thorniest issues of contemporary culture in uncomfortable and complicated ways, including identity politics, cultural appropriation and historical revisionism.

I also encourage you to download episode 26 of the Alliance podcast Museopunks. In Decolonize the Museum! Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, President & CEO of the Abbe Museum describes how the museum “will reflect and realize the values of decolonization in all of its practices, working with the Wabanaki Nations to share their stories, history, and culture with a broader audience.” But what does it take to decolonize a museum? How does it change the governance structure and the practices of the board? What kinds of frameworks and internal work are necessary to shift the balance of authority within the institution, and turn theory into actionable change?

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