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Museopunks Episode 38: Decolonization and its Discontents

Category: Collections Stewardship

As decolonization moves more firmly onto the agenda in museums, so too does its critique. In this episode, we speak with Sumaya Kassim, author of the essay ‘The Museum Will Not Be Decolonised’, and Nathan “Mudyi” Sentance to ask whether museums can dismantle the colonial gaze. We also find out more about the kinds of structural changes inside museums that may be necessary to fully support First Nations people and People of Colour working in our cultural institutions.

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Sumaya Kassim is a writer and researcher best known for her essay “The Museum Will Not Be Decolonised” which chronicled her experience working on an exhibition with Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery as a co-curator. Her recent article “The Museum is the Master’s House: An Open Response to Tristram Hunt” challenged the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum to question his assumptions about what it means to live in colonial aftermaths.  Follow her at @SFKassim.

Nathan “Mudyi” Sentance is a Wiradjuri man from the Mowgee clan, who grew up on Darkinjung Country, NSW. Nathan works to ensure that First Nations stories being told in cultural and memory institutions, such as libraries, archives, and museums are being told and controlled by First Nations people. Nathan talks about critical librarianship and critical museology from a First Nations perspective on his blog, the Archival Decolonist [-o-].

Show Notes

Decolonization: we aren’t going to save you

‘Museums are dangerous places’ – challenging history

The museum will not be decolonized

Should museums return their colonial artifacts?

The Museum is the Master’s House: An Open Letter to Tristram Hunt

Archival Decolonist [-o-]

A Community of Relations: Mukurtu Hubs and Spokes

Episode 26: Decolonize the Museum!

2020 Call for Proposals Topic Suggestions

Tristram Hunt and the de/recontextualisation of museum artefacts

Presenting Sponsor

Museopunks is presented by the American Alliance of Museums.
Graphic Design of the Museopunks logo is by Selena Robleto.
Twitter: @museopunks


Ed Rodley: Hello and welcome to Museopunks the podcast for the Progressive Museum. I’m Ed Rodley.

Suse Anderson: And, I’m Suse Anderson and together we’ll be digging into another important issue driving conversation and practice in our field, decolonization. Now, this is a topic we’ve actually covered on Museopunks before. Back in Episode 26 I spoke with cinnamon Catlin-Legutko about the work of the Abbey Museum in Bar Harbor Maine which has had decolonization as part of its strategic plan and its work for several years now. I’m going to pop a link to that episode in the show notes for those who want to know more about that work to see how some of these ideas play out in practice. But, today we wanted to complicate the discussion a little more.

Ed: That’s right. In recent years decolonization has started to move from peripheral discussions within the sector to more mainstream conversation. It’s even listed as one of the topics suggestions for AAM’s 2020 conference but there are legitimate concerns that the practice is being co-opted by museums as a way to reinforce their power rather than as a practice to dismantle it.

Suse: Absolutely. In many ways decolonization seems to still center the colonizer.

Ed: We’ve both also been interested in the concept that we encountered through the work of Puawai Cairns a Maori curator from the National Museum of New Zealand, Te Papa Tongarewa, whose recent essay about the distinction between decolonization and indigenization or in their context remaurification has offered her some language and some different insights into thinking about the subject more deeply.

Suse: Absolutely. We’ve also been really influenced by the work of a few other thinkers two of whom we’re going to speak with today. It’s the Sumaya Kassim and Nathan “Mudyi” Sentance.

Ed: Let’s get into it.

Suse: Sumaya Kassim is a writer and researcher best known for her essay “The Museum Will Not Be Decolonized” which chronicled her experience working on an exhibition with Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery as a co curator. Her recent article The Museum Is The Master’s House, an open response to Tristram Hunt challenged the director of the Victoria and Albert Museum to question his assumptions about what it means to live in colonial aftermaths. Sumaya welcome to Museopunks.

Sumaya Kassim: Hi, it’s great to be here.

Suse: It’s so lovely to have you here. Ed and I have both been big fans of your work and have found “The Museum Will Not Be Decolonized” a really influential essay for both of us.

Sumaya: Thank you.

Suse: You wrote that essay following your experience as you mentioned as a co-curator at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’s exhibition “The Past Is Now”. Can you give us a little bit of context for where that article came from and tell us a little bit about that exhibition and your experience?

Sumaya: Yeah. That’s quite a big question because I mean a lot of people I think always think that I want to start by just starting with the exhibition itself and the co-curation process. I like to say that I have lived in the UK my whole life. This is where I was born. In a sense most of my interactions with memory institutions in particular, so museums also art galleries, a lot of those things went into that piece in a way. I think that one of the reasons that piece resonated with so many people was because it got at the fact that this wasn’t really an exceptional thing that happened. In fact, it could actually be the rule because I think we’re reaching the stage particularly because of social media I think where people have a language to talk about those experiences where you have these unequal power relations going on and museums, are these performative spaces where these things they’re not only happening in real-time but that you have these resources that are making them happen.

I think it’s important to say that my education, primary school, secondary school but also just as somebody who is raised and someone who’s visibly Muslim interacting with these institutions it’s like that’s all part of that piece, in a way. When I went into Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, I was invited by Shaheen Kasmani who is a Islamic artist and she was approached by Sarah Wajid who is I think she works at Museum of London now. It was part of a program called Change Makers that was meant to highlight the work of people who might not have been … How can I put this who also has all been overlooked since Sarah Wajid has been working for many years in the museum sector because it’s kind of been overlooked. We were, me and five other people, all of the who were women of color were asked to come and do a project. The project was totally wide open.

We had a very short amount of time to do this totally wide-open project to look at the collections and make some kind of a story, I suppose, about what our interpretation of what de-colonial meant I guess.

Suse: It’s really interesting to hear that. These kinds interventions have I think become seen as being a way forward for a lot of institutions and the way you’re describing it there’s clearly some real challenges and we’ll get into them a little bit further in this discussion. Out of that experience, what prompted you to then write about it and write that “The Museum Will Not Be Decolonized”?

Sumaya: What prompted me? I mean for me I’m a fiction writer and an essayist. For me it’s like that’s just what I do. It’s like if something happens I have to put it on paper otherwise I don’t really understand what’s happened if that makes sense. That’s why I want to put words to an experience. With that … The specific challenge with that article and with the whole experience was the fact that there were so many different voices. All of the women of color, four of whom I’m relatively close to there was just a … It was very much capturing our conversations and our emotions and the things that we were going through in the moment. I also wanted to take back a bit of control and take back a bit of … I wanted to cause a bit of… to reflect the actual experiences I experienced.

I think I was very aware that this was being seen as a progress for the museum and progress for the nation. I was very resistant to that and I felt like it made more sense to give a more … A fuller perhaps truer picture. That’s why. When I wrote it, I cried. When I published I thought, “My God I ruined everything. Everyone’s going to hate me.” I was totally … People are so nice about that article now. When I wrote it I got the sense that I was making a massive mistake if I’m honest with you.

Suse: That’s really upsetting.

Sumaya: No, no, no. It’s not. We’ll come on. This is all part of being human. No, it’s fine.

Suse: I think Ed and I have both written things that well I certainly have in the past that I’ve gone … am I allowed to say this?

Sumaya: That’s the thing. Those are the things that you have to write. That’s what I realize now. When you get … When you’re not even sure you should be doing it that is when you have to do it.

Ed: Yeah. It’s usually the minute after I hit the send button on anything important that I think, “I just ended my career.”

Sumaya: Yes, exactly.

Ed: Sumaya, decolonization strategies. One of the reasons I resonate so much with the “Museum Will Not Be Decolonized” is you can clearly see the extent to which the organization is trying to do the right thing. Yet at the same time the actual lived experience of trying to work differently winds up being a lot messier. Many of the people I know that are critical of institutional decolonization strategies raise concerns about the practice being co-opted as a way for the museum to basically reinforce the existing voice of the institution rather than challenging the entrenched systems. My question to you is do you think that decolonization itself is a colonialist enterprise in some way? Is decolonization even a thing that we should be working towards?

Sumaya: Is decolonization even possible? I feel like one of the most controversial things that people get annoyed with me about is because I often say that I think decolonization is impossible. One of the reasons I often say this is I believe it first. I also think it’s a really interesting way to get people to be honest about what they think decolonization really is and really for them people to reveal themselves and what hopes they’re pinning on this word. One of the things I’ve been become very interested in is watching how this word has entered institutional spaces, art spaces. I am very, very ambivalent about its ubiquity. I’m very ambivalent about how it’s being used. On the one hand, firstly I think that we live in a colonial moment. Colonialism has never ended. That is something that we are constantly being taught to look away from.

We’re trained by the media to look away from. The thing that is really difficult is that when you are … Especially I live in the UK I know this is the case in the US for certain people as well. It’s almost like you’re living amongst people who are living in a completely different world to you. I think that the problem is that people are coming at this from different positions but are pretending that those differences don’t exist. I live in a “colonial center” but the issues that I think may be important in terms of decolonizing are going to be completely different than an indigenous person living on Turtle Island. I think that my belief is that we need to hold on to the idea that we cannot contain all this pain and all this trauma. We must hold onto that and think about how we haven’t even grieved. We haven’t given people place and time to grieve and we haven’t really figured out how to live together properly or like really understood how we can do this together.

The fact that this word has entered our culture and it’s become so popular. To me, it represents this sense. People use the word hope but for me, that’s like a point in the future. For me, it’s like what about the present moment? What about right this second? All the things and all the tragedies that happen because one group of people think they’re more superior than the other. For me, it’s very much about holding onto impossibility as something that we must really face together. That we can’t do this. Then what do we do if we can’t do this or how do we … What’s the exit strategy then? That to me is my preferred way of going about things if that makes sense.

Ed: Completely. One of the things that I have I’ve often reacted to when I listened to colleagues talk about decolonization work is that it often sounds like it can be done without involving any indigenous voices at all. It’s just something that well meaning white people need to do better and without actually having any conversations outside of the normal realms in which conversations happen in the field.

Sumaya: Totally. This issue with progress like this issue. Because the thing is if we think about museums they are evaluations, there are targets to be here and I understand that. That’s to me is opposing to what something like decolonizing or the word decolonizing could represent.

Ed: One of the more interesting things I read recently was a piece by Puawai Cairns who’s a Maori curator at Te Papa Tongarewa with the National Museum in New Zealand where she was talking about for her the importance of the distinction between decolonization and what she called ramaurification or indigenization and how they’re not the same thing which hadn’t really … Sometimes you read things and suddenly the world makes sense differently than it did before you read them. I had one of those moments of, oh yeah, do you think there is an important difference in where the centering of voices happens in decolonization versus indigenization?

Sumaya: I’m going to answer this as much as I can because I do not consider myself an expert. I’ll give you like my thoughts about it in terms of people in the UK. In the UK we have varying different migrant communities and people. There have been generations who are black, people of color. I think that what’s very interesting for me about these conversations to do with decoloniality is that it becomes very much about who can get the most resources from institutions in terms of who can be the voice of authenticity. I think that there is a huge … There’s always been this huge divide in terms of those who have been left behind back home, those who exist in the indigenous space and “diasporic voices.” There is a lot of tension there. There is a huge amount of tension between groups here and it’s really that’s one of the things that just in my own life that I try and think about is just that we’re all trying to talk to one another but the backdrop is white supremacy.

To me, it’s like the question of whose voice is centered. Well, we’re all trying to talk to one another but our imaginations are entirely different. The language we speak in our own minds, the stories that we bring to the table are entirely different. For example, I actually spoke to a researcher who researched The Past is Now, the exhibition of having a museum and art gallery. They talked about how they spoke to different people and their impressions of the exhibition. He was very struck by how all the white people he spoke to didn’t understand the room and they saw it as just another room in the museum. They really couldn’t engage with it except to use words like multiculturalism or diversity. They just didn’t have a language to even think about it. That’s really important. We’re not even that … Again when I say decolonizing is impossible. When we think about the public, like I talk to a lot of people that you guys who read lots of books and stuff like that.

This is not patronizing to the public. This is an indictment, not only to our education system but the way that museums they’re funding is being cut and the way that our libraries are shutting. There are no places where people can truly come together. Free places where people can come together and actually speak to one another. There isn’t based on some kind of a financial transaction essentially. I think this issue of centering a voice but what are the structures that need to happen for the voices you want to hear to be heard if that makes sense? It’s a deep issue.

Suse: That makes complete sense. Speaking of … Thinking about whose voice gets heard and whose voice doesn’t, you and I actually started corresponding initially on Twitter. Before I reached out about this piece you were writing a response to a piece by VNA director Tristram Hunt which asked whether their museums to return their colonial artifacts. Hunt was arguing against decolonization practices and in particular restitution of objects suggesting that decolonization is de-contextualizing, that decolonization activism has an agenda and that museum objects live beyond or outside cultural and ethnic identities I think was the term he used. Why did you feel the need to respond to this piece so directly?

Sumaya: God. Well, let’s just get into it. It hasn’t been serious enough. Well I think firstly I question myself. I really do. I question myself even to this day because last month was really just a very hard month for me for all kinds of reasons. The thing with that I read it. I read about … I’ll be honest I read about three or four paragraphs and I got bored and I didn’t finish it. Then I got a text from my friend and she texted going, “My God. He quoted you and he quoted you in service of his argument.” I rushed back to the article and I read the whole thing. I just was perplexed because I felt that the first half almost seemed to be not praising decoloniality but it just seemed quite a comprehensive literature review of it. Then the second half came out of nowhere and seemed to just pretend that I don’t know. Does that resonate with what you … How your impressions of that?

Suse: Absolutely. It was quite interesting. Like you I started the piece and then I left the piece and then I actually came back. I came back to read it because I first read it in the car and I was like, “This is not the time to be paying attention to what’s being said here.” In a similar way, I felt quite uncomfortable with a lot of the argument. I was interested to see the ways that different voices were being used and being I think co-opted into the argument. I think that’s some of what you’re responding to as you say. Your argument was being used within that context in a way that felt quite challenging and not what you were trying to get to.

Sumaya: No. This is the thing. I mean why I responded. I mean I think that in a way I don’t know if it was the right thing to do. I need to be up front about that because I think that on one hand, I don’t think that Tristan’s article should be taken seriously. On the other hand I think it should be taken very, very seriously. I think that that’s a very difficult thing to say. On the one hand, I don’t think that what he’s saying is genuous. I don’t think that he means what he’s saying. I think that he’s got a job and on some level I pity him but he’s got a job to do and that’s to protect the VNA from what he perceives as a threat. Then, on the other hand, I take it very, very, very seriously because if I’m honest with you I’ve had Tristan Hunt at my periphery for quite a long time because of some of the things that he said that have made me feel very uncomfortable.

I think particularly the use of the word cosmopolitanism which I’ve always had issues with because it’s a word that disappears class it’s a word that disappears race in very problematic ways. I’ve just always had this issue. Then when this article came out I felt very much I think I have to write something because even though a lot of people were annoyed with it, I feel it was quite hard to understand why it was annoying and why it was difficult. I realize then that it was the very tone and it was the very … The fact that it wasn’t being … It wasn’t directly being said, all of the actual contestation of what does history mean he wasn’t coming out and saying it. That is the problem. If he came out and actually said this is what I think and this is what the VNA stands for then there’s something that we can have an argument about. It can be a productive conversation but if you’re going to be underhanded how can we actually have some … Have a proper public conversation about this as if that makes sense?

Suse: It does make sense.

Ed: Yeah, totally.

Suse: I think one of the things that I found really interesting, one of the parts of the argument was that decolonization is in Hunt’s vocabulary de-contextualizing but that’s quite interesting because arguably museum objects are de-contextualized by going into the museum altogether. Arguably decolonization has the potential to re-contextualize objects to reconnect them to layers of meaning that have been stripped away. Often that meaning is stripped away without the participation or the consent of the object’s owners or creators. For me one of the things that I really took from your response was that the point of decolonization, in however we understand it, knowing that this term is thrown all around and used quite differently isn’t about going backward but about going forward with rights and with agency and with dignity restored to the culture of origin. Is that part of what you’re trying to get to in the way you unpack this?

Sumaya: Yes 100%. I think because the thing is it’s interesting you say museums are de-contextualizing because they are. They also stand testament to the history of colonization. I really, I get quite frustrated when people talk about a return to what. This is all we’ve known and the idea of return to me it feels a lot like whiteness because it’s all about the space that’s on the outside, a good place. We’re humans, we are messy and we need to deal with the mess. For me the way that we think about that is okay we’ve got this history that is being erased even as we speak. It’s just its we’re constantly erasing the power structures that our whole lives everything is based upon but it’s like, “Okay what are we going to do with that? How do we give rise to the power structures?” To be honest that is why I wrote the article. We need to make it clear what is actually going on. What power is at play there? The future.

How do we walk together with this? In that article, I use the example of being Muslim which is my experience in London in Birmingham as well. The sad fact is most people in England they don’t know actually … They’d actually don’t know what … How can I put this? They don’t see what I see. They don’t see that the fact that people do live together I won’t use the word harmoniously or peacefully. I mean people live together. When I moved to Birmingham a few years ago, Birmingham as a city is the second biggest city in the UK has taught me so much about what it means to love one another and be together in spite of institutions. We act like institutions are the place that culture happens and they’re so, so important. I believe all lives are really important. I believe that’s where culture actually happens. It just so happens that museums will collect a few bits and bobs of it.

I find it really very challenging and difficult because it’s like I walk through the park and people are having picnics. There are black people, there are Muslims, there are South Asian people, there are black Muslims. It’s just very normal. That is England. That is the UK and we need to … For me it’s in terms of how … The way that discourse is used as a weapon violently telling people that what you’re seeing before your eyes isn’t real. That people aren’t human. It’s very difficult because again people don’t have a vocabulary in which to divest themselves from the ideals that their leaders are giving them. That’s basically my rant.

Ed: That was a good one though.

Sumaya: Thank you.

Ed: One thing I’m interested in Sumaya is when you were working on The Past as Now you were an external provocateur. You were inside the organization but outside the organization and expected to intervene within it. Particularly for institutions that are interested in trying to engage with this work seriously. Do you think that that is an effective way for museums to try to go about doing things differently? What? If not this then what is the way forward?

Sumaya: I think of course it is important to involve people who are not why and who have a stake in it in terms of their heritage and so on. I think for me, I think about museums, I think about words like grief and I think about words like healing. I think about whether those kinds of things can happen in museums. I think about why I find it hard to imagine because when you were brought in as an external person who is of color as black that could … I don’t know I just think that the problem is that I think that museums assume that they have agency. They think they have agency and I don’t know if they do I don’t know if white people do. I don’t know if that … People have the ability to transcend their contexts in that way. That’s difficult to say because at the same time I do very strongly believe in everyone having agency but its like if you’re going to take other people’s agency away from them that means you will not have agency. That’s the reality we live in.

It’s about getting people to understand that. It’s not that I’m complaining and yet I am complaining because I don’t have agency. In a way, I’m making that complaint for you as well. You’re stuck in this as well. For me it’s much more a question about what does liberation look for all of us and thinking about really difficult questions? I spoke about in the Tristram Hunt article, which is if you’re attached to an idea like secularism what do you do with people who believe in God? How do you navigate that because that’s a very emotional subject? What do you do? I think that’s you can’t turn away from the difficulty. That’s why I believe we cannot turn away from difficulty. One of the things I think is very insidious is to tell people that their emotions are the problem. Because the emotions is where the transformation is. That’s the reason that so many people in the media go facts not feelings.

We need to be factual about it because they’re trying to turn us against ourselves, they’re trying to make the most important part of what it is to be human the enemy. I think that until we really start to understand that, it’s going to be hard. It’s going to be difficult and obviously we need to re-numerate people adequately. That’s another thing. I think that even though it’s hard I think it’s just about having an authentic conversation and having a degree of authenticity and being that in your totality I suppose, don’t know. That’s a hard question. To be honest I don’t know.

Ed: Well it’s interesting that you bring up the idea of emotion because of the emotional labor of people who are engaged in this works. The thing that seems to come up all the time and your notion that this is work that everyone is doing rather than it being passed off generally to people of color or other underrepresented audiences as this is your work to do. Where we’re seeing lots and lots of people talking about the idea that the burden of being tokenized and having to do emotional labor so that other people don’t do emotional labor is a real problem at the moment I would say in the field.

Sumaya: I think that when you brought into a context where there is exchange of capital in the end of the day the emotional labor becomes a huge issue. It’s like I think about okay let’s just leave race out of it and just be a woman. You’re expected to put some … You’re expected to be the one that feels and you’re expected to do certain things like make the tea etcetera. Then it’s when you add race to it and you add your sexuality and all the things that make it so uncomfortable to be in these institutional spaces, it’s … The thing is its traumatizing and the problem is that we think about racism as a facet of it upsets people but racism is associated with fatality. Racism is associated with chronic health conditions and mental health issues. Where is the space for things like therapy? Where is the space for things like being huge and your communities being bolstered by these things? You’re being brought in but it’s like you’re being bought in for that one specific thing.

It’s like I’m not just one thing. I’m bringing with me not only I bought a country on my back to quite go around. It’s not just … It’s very much a very … You’ve got weight. You’ve got a huge weight on you. The thing that I find difficult is more that people don’t understand that because their version of racism is I’m a good person because I don’t view you differently for what you are. That’s not what racism is.

Suse: I think that I think that’s really important and really powerful. I’ve been thinking the last couple of years a lot more about risks and the risks that we ask people to take in the traumas that we ask people to undergo to achieve things. They can be important things and meaningful things. It doesn’t mean that they’re coming without a cost. Sumaya, one of the things I had just I’m certainly aware that even in this conversation you’ve got some white people framing the way the discussion goes. I wanted to see whether there was anything before we finish that you think is really important to get across or that you’d to discuss that we haven’t put as one of the topics for discussion on that we haven’t thought of?

Ed: Yes, please.

Sumaya: Well thank you. I think that one of the things that has come out of this is that a lot of people … I mean I didn’t say at the start but I am viewed as insider outsider figure and I value that very much because a lot of people especially young people working in museums but especially young women of color have come to me and given me their stories of bullying and the microaggressions that go on. I just really don’t want those people to feel alone. I really want to emphasize that a lot of places are peddling hope and I just think that people need to recognize that the hope is with them and that they are the ones who matter and the importance of rest. You’re out there trying to change the world but sometimes a museum isn’t the place to do that and that’s okay. It’s okay to go home and change the world by looking after yourself. That’s pretty much it.

Ed: Sumaya if somebody or if people are interested in finding out more about the work that you’re doing or want to get in contact, how can they do so?

Sumaya: I’m on Twitter so that’s … I think my email address in my bio says @SFKassim. That’s the best way.

Ed: Cool. Thank you very much.

Sumaya: No worries.

Suse: That’s brilliant. Sumaya thank you so much for joining us for this conversation. It has been really, really lovely.

Sumaya: No worries. Thank you very much. Also, I’m honored that Nathan is going to be the next guest.

Ed: So are we.

Nathan “Mudyi” Sentance is a Wiradjuri man from the Mowgee clan, who grew up on Darkinjung Country, New South Wales. Nathan works to ensure that first nation stories being told in cultural and memory institutions such as libraries, archives and museums are being told and controlled by first nation’s people. Nathan talks about critical librarianship and critical museology from a first nation’s perspective on his blog The Archival Decolonists. Today we’re very happy to have Nathan talk to us. Hey, Nathan. How’s it going?

Nathan “Mudyi” Sentance: Very good. How are you?

Ed: Doing? Very well. Thanks. Nathan can you tell us a little bit about what your job at the Australian Museum looks like these days?

Nathan: What I mostly do is First Nations programs, so lectures, tours workshops events. Really what I believe my role is doing is facilitating first nation’s voices in the Australia Museum. The Australia Museum is around 192 years old. It’s got the second-largest aboriginal tourists right out of the cultural collection in the world. For a long period of that time, first nation stories had been told by other people, and that’s created different narratives. Has not given First Nations agency and has distorted what First Nations culture is. What I try to believe my role really is just facilitating first nation’s people into the space so we can tell our own stories from our own perspectives because for a long time those perspectives have been missing from that museum space.

Ed: Great. I know you’ve written previously about your work to “dismantle the colonial gaze” the cultural memories institutions were built on. At the moment, at this particular moment in time there’s a lot of discussion about decolonization in the museum sector, but it still appears to center that colonial gaze. One of the questions that Suse and I have been asking people is, is decolonization even the right framing for this work or should we be thinking and talking more about indigenization, or do those ideas need to work together somehow?

Nathan: Yeah, it’s interesting. I use the term decolonizing a lot even though I’m not well versed in de-colonial theory. I have had indigenizing remaourification of spaces a lot of people would be talking to that. There is the argument to ask, and I know a lot of people have been asking it. Can places like museums and archives actually be decolonized as colonial institutions? What I really try to do is mostly disrupt the colonial status quo. I believe that in my own ways decolonizing, just trying to disrupt this as you’re saying the colonial gaze. Just even this week I was doing tours and we have this wall of shields at the museum. I basically explained that it’s basically because of taxonomy. We’ve put all the shields together, but they’re from about 40 different aboriginal communities. They’re just all called shields once they enter the museum. Shield has a meaning attached to it then.

It actually those things when they come into the museum get a new meaning attached to them that they may not previously had. It also disrupts the meaning that they used to have, just calling a shield a shield, people think of it as something to defend themselves with. Where in like Wiradjuri language, we have at least six words of shield that I know of. One of those words is like “giren giren” which gira means like wind. Giren giren means be well, be happy. That word for shield would probably be connected the wind, or about being celebratory and happy on being healthy. Those things aren’t really defensive. Once they come into the museum and become shields, that’s what they end up becoming. That’s the narrative that’s attached to them. Same with the colonial gaze doesn’t just impose meaning and create meaning. It also shapes museum collections.

The Australia Museum, for example, has the second largest aboriginal [inaudible 00:39:04] collection in the world, but it has a predominantly male focused collection. We know from a fact working with a lot of … Working with our communities knowing our culture, we know that most communities are very gender balanced and there’s a lot of, in many communities women are some of our more … They have a great deal of knowledge that is needed for our culture to survive. Like in Sydney where my museum is, the predominant fisher people were the fisher women. Since fish were the main economy, it would make sense that probably in the Sydney region that aboriginal women were the knowledge holders. The Sydney culture was probably matriarchal. If you look at our collection, [inaudible 00:39:54] men, and because of that without even creating a narrative by just going through our collection of the second largest Aboriginal Torres Strait Islander collection in the world, you’d actually think that women were an important to aboriginal culture.

Just by the fact that how our collection is done. I have theories to why that is. I basically believe that most anthropologists were men during our main collecting periods. Like the museums collected for a very long time, but the main periods were like the 1920s, 1930s, 1940s. What I believe that’s happened is most men aren’t either unconsciously or probably intentionally collected culture from other men. That creates a narrative and reproduces western patriarchy into aboriginal cultural, how people see aboriginal culture. That’s what I mean. The colonial gaze is not just something that’s imposed, it’s something that’s reproduced by museums.

Suse: Nathan, one of the things that I found quite interesting, in a recent Museopunks episode, Craig Middleton and Nikki Sullivan spoke to me about their KINK or Knowledge Industries Need Queering manifesto. You wrote a response to this. In your response, you described how colonization has stolen the ability for first nation people to define themselves, and it’s imposed new identities upon them. It feels like some of what you’re talking about such as the bringing together of all of the shields without exploring their nuance or heavily male-focused collections would be part of this. I’d be interested to hear you speak a little bit more about the definition of identity and how that’s expressed in our collections.

Nathan W.: Yeah. Even with, I’m working on this upcoming exhibition for 2020. Part of that, one of the things I actually wanted to explore was the idea that because 2020 is the 250th anniversary of James Cook coming to the east coast of Australia. For this exhibition, one of the things I wanted to talk about was and it’s not really what happened in 1770, it happened previous to this. But 1770 is a big cultural marker of when the First Nations people of Australia when we became aboriginal. We were not aboriginal before that. We were Rajouri. We were the sons and daughters of our ancestors. We were connected to our clans and our families. During 1770 and a lot after 1770, we became aboriginal and that had a meaning to it. We became native. We became savage. Museums have really helped with that, proliferated that. One of the first things I ever did when I started at Australia Museum is I actually looked at the Australia Museum magazine. It was an old publication. They digitized old copies.

I wanted to, because I started work there, I wanted to see what previously was written about us at the museum. I went through the magazine from the 1920s to the 1960s. I started a spreadsheet where I basically cataloged all adjectives used. There was things like it’s unsurprising, but it’s still horrific to see. There’s adjectives like primitive, savage, aboriginal men have the mind of children. The Australian Museum magazine, even though it was a general publication, was still considered like a scientific publication. It was written by the experts at the time. When that was going out to the general public, that’s what people thought about aboriginal people. It disseminated this information to the general public. When those things like the stolen generations, which was I think similar things happened in Canada and America where basically aboriginal children were taken from their families.

It’s caused a lot of trauma and a lot of like cultural destruction. When that’s happening and you’re hearing about that, but then you’re also reading that aboriginal men have the mind of children, you probably don’t think it’s a bad idea. These are the policies that are happening external from the museum and external from aboriginal culture. That’s the power that museums have in almost shaping identity. Again, that’s why I want to do what I do, is have that ability to self identify, what being first nation’s person means. What our culture represents and who we are.

Suse: Yeah, I think for a lot of people who are working in museums and other cultural institutions, these conversations about decolonization can be pretty abstracted and intellectual. I think they are distanced from the stakes in a lot of ways including that pain and that trauma that you’ve just mentioned. Can you tell us what you see the stakes are of decolonization? Why does it matter that institutions, not just superficially deal with this, but actually really significantly deal with these issues and this pain and this trauma?

Nathan: Well, firstly I always think it’s good for acknowledgment. For a lot of like uncles and aunties in First Nations communities, the horrible history that’s happened and still continues to happen is often unacknowledged, and that can lead to a double trauma, or like the term that we use a lot now gaslighting. Happens on this broad scale where you basically live something and then history books, museums don’t speak about it or act like what you experienced didn’t happen. Museums do have a role in play in that. I also believe museums have a role in stopping, like one of my biggest beliefs is, last year the New South Wales government did this policy. It was basically, it’s called the New South Wales Adoption Act. It negatively affects First Nations families more than other families. Basically the acts says, if you’re in foster care for more than two years, you can be adopted by a foster parent without parental consent.

A lot of First Nations people who have been victims of the stolen generations previously have said that this will create another stolen generations. Aboriginal children getting taken away from their families without their families knowing where they are. When that started happening, I was thinking about that at my museum, at many big libraries and museums, we have a lot of dedications or plaques that come up recently that acknowledge the stolen generations. When this came out I was like … What are we going to do? What are we doing now? As a museum are we just going to wait 30 years, 50 years in the future and do another plaque to talk about this act? I think museums we have a role not just to document that history, but we should try to work … Use history to prevent bad history from happening again. By that we need to tell the true history, but we need to connect it back to the day. When I’m doing tours around things like the stolen generations, I was talking about the New South Wales Protection Act.

This teenage girl basically said, but isn’t that good? These children get to go to these adopted foster homes? I was like, but if you look at the terminology you use with the New South Whales Adoption Act and you look at the terminology used for the Aborigines Protection Act, which was what created the stolen generations mostly. They’re very similar languages. We need to connect that history to the present, and we need to prevent bad history from happening as well. That’s what I truly believe. There are real stakes. Again, even with representation and history, there was a study about … I think it’s about five or six years ago and I don’t know if these things have changed. One in five Australians does not meet a First Nations person, or they say they’ve never met a First Nations person. That’s 20% of the Australian population that’s never met an aboriginal person. Things like the media and places like the Australia Museum is actually how they come to know aboriginal people.

There’s a lot of responsibility in that. That’s a responsibility that places like the museum and other big museums and libraries, archives need to really consider because it can have negative effects on people. If again you hear this New South Wales Adoption Act and you don’t have that … You don’t really you believe stereotypes that had been proliferated throughout the years, then you’re not going to be as justifiably angry or you’re not going to want to fight it as much. I think museums do have a role to play in contemporary history.

Ed: This idea of First Nations communities being exploited by cultural institutions are treated essentially as fodder for them to tell the stories that they want to tell is a real problem. It’s understandable if there’s not a lot of trust in museums and memory institutions among First Nations people these days based on the history. How do you think museums would need to change in order to be worthy of that kind of trust? I’m particularly thinking about structural changes. How would museums look different if they were going to actually ensure that this work is more than just superficial or icing on the cake? How do you see the field needing to change in order to really do substantive work around this?

Nathan: It’s interesting question. It’s an interesting time. I do feel there’s a lot of change in museums. There is … Museums, libraries, and archives in Australia are pretty, it’s very interesting. It’s like all organizations that are filled with people that are pretty progressive, but as a field and as institutions they’re very conservative. It’s a very weird dichotomy. There’s people that are very interested in helping the change. It’s very hard because a lot of … It’s similar to like say how whiteness operates in more society broadly. It lots of colonial structures in museums and archives are so embedded and so part of the foundation of these institutions that they’re hard to critique or challenge almost because they seem like the natural way that these organizations work. I think it’s hard to say because I will think about this all the time. About how do we actually decolonize the museum, or how do we actually indigenize the museum?

We take a lot of these small steps with our latest, there’s an exhibition that we did at the Australia Museum called Maan which means official woman. It’s about senior official women. That was created with the elders. It has things that a lot of people think is decolonizing. It preferences First Nations languages first, it will do things like we’ve made the sections in it that basically you can only understand if you’re a senior fisher woman or have some knowledge of that. We’ve actually made things not for general audiences, but basically for completely for First Nations audiences. You could still experience it, but at the same time it’s still in the museum and the museum is this great sandstone building in the middle of the city that’s geographically hard to get to. Well, it’s not geographically hard to get to, it’s in the middle of the city. It’s got great public transport, but it’s only accessible for people who live near Sydney.

There’s also just the and sandstone buildings and big colonial buildings were designed almost to keep First Nations people out of them. There is that thing where it’s … Where even just being inside that building is very … Can be sometimes traumatic for First Nations people or they just do not feel welcome. One of these … A guy [inaudible 00:52:46] man Peter White. He’s been working at museums for like 30 years. I remember him telling me a story about when he worked at this museum in Canberra, and they hired another elder to from Ngunnawal country to do the … Because that’s Canberra country, asked him to do a welcome to country. It was a big event. He did the welcome to country which is a common protocol that happens in Australia. He welcomed all the guests to the museum. He welcomed them to Ngunnawal country. Then afterwards Peter goes, “Thank you for that. I want to ask you something. How do you feel in the space after you’re welcome?”

He’s like, “Its really interesting trying to welcome these people to the country when I don’t actually feel welcome in this museum.” I think that it’s hard to change that. I’m still working through how we can. I think, but we do need to flip a lot of the practices that we do on their head. We’re just taking small steps now where we basically, I know a lot of people are working in the space of co-collaboration or co-curation and that’s what we’ve been working on mostly. The idea that we don’t have really curators. Even though most of the people who curate first nation stuff at the Australian Museum now are First Nations people themselves. We do know our role is to basically facilitate community. Our role is basically to make community’s vision be what … Make the museum as much as community wants to desire and fulfill community needs.

That’s something we’ve been trying to do. It’s not really what the museum wants and then asking communities if they’re on board for this, but asking community would they need as the museum can actually help with that. Then also at the same time it’s … Especially for the Australia Museum because it’s a really large museum. Some parts of it actually believe it also be good if the Australia Museum just got out of the way. Some stories don’t belong at the Australia Museum, but the Australia Museum could help first nation’s people tell those stories elsewhere. There’s a lot of community museums that are run by First Nations people in regional or remote Australia. I think it would be better if the Australian Museum we use some of the things that we have or the skills that we have to better empower those organizations. I think if we do, we can create established relationships that will be beneficial in the future.

At the same time, we shouldn’t always focus on things that are beneficial just for the Australia Museum. We have to acknowledge our role in some cultural damage that we’ve done and as the Australia Museum. As big, and not just Australia Museum, big museum archives and libraries like historic libraries. We need to and like the role that we’re playing, Callum Dixon [inaudible 00:55:53] man says this where he’s basically the role museums play should not be a role of paternalism or like even thinking of like things that we do. We shouldn’t be, we’re not handing out grants to these community organizations. We’re actually should do these things as part of our reparations. We’ve taken so much. Just for reparation’s sake we should actually be empowering communities.

Suse: Absolutely Nathan. I want to before you were talking about when you started at the Australia Museum and you created the spreadsheet of looking at how First Nations people had been represented by the museum magazine. I thought that was a really powerful form of critique and gave you a really good mechanism for better understanding some of the impact of the work that museums have already done. Are there other tactics like that using critique as a mechanism or a way to help structure some of these conversations as well?

Nathan: Yeah. One of the things that we do at the Australia Museum too is we run these source cording digi hacks. Basically those tours were … It’s basically critiquing the museum itself. We look at colonial biases. One of the things we do is they were done by me, my colleague Bundjalung woman Courtney Marsh and [inaudible 00:57:25] curator Laura McBride. We just look through the museum in a few different spaces and just try to get people to be more critical of the museums, how things are represented in the museum. We’ll do things like … There’s one bit. There’s wallaby trap on display, a First Nations wallaby trap. We ask people, well, what do you think it is? They’ll say I don’t know. Sometimes they might guess a wallaby trap, and we asked them, “Can you tell us what it, how it works. How does it actually catch wallabies?” They’ll go, usually they don’t get it. We say, well, you should read the label and find out.

When they do, they realize they can’t because the label actually doesn’t tell them how the wallaby trap catches wallabies. Because it’s actually in this cabinet full of just about 12 First Nations objects, and basically none of them actually have full context in what they actually are, what they actually mean. We do this thing where they’re basically … Because a lot of times museums will say that we hold First Nations culture especially internationally or nationally because we are … Sites where everyone could learn from these cultures. If these cultures on … If cultures are on display like that then people don’t actually get much out of them. They actually are not a cultural sharing spot. Because the way that our cultures are being displayed is actually quite shallow. We started doing these tours. We’ll ask them, we’ll go into one of the galleries and ask them to find objects that are related to women’s culture.

We know that it’s actually in this, one exhibition where there’s about 200 things, 200 cultural objects and several taxidermy and stuff. That there’s probably only six that relate to women. We know that’s a trick. When we ask them to go find stuff, we can make them see that because that’s one of the things. It’s really hard to not see what’s not there. It’s really hard to question what’s not there, whose voice is not there, whose voice is not being privileged. Before I worked at the Australia Museum, I worked at the State Library of New South Wales. When I was really young, I started there when I was 20. When I was pretty early on when I started, we had this auntie come in to look at missionary records because we held some missionary records. She was looking at missionary records off herself. The records said that she broke her arm, and she’s like I never broke my arm. I was there. How could this missionary write that this happens? It really changed my mind.

I already knew the ideas like my dad would always say like; the history you get toward is white fella history. That day really cemented to me because I know that historians go to the archives and that’s what they used to write history. This auties voice was not part of that history even though she was part of it through missionary surveillance. It really got me thinking like whose voice is missing from history, and whose voice do we privilege? We do, do a few things. The interjact tours are our biggest one that we do where we … And I do a talk called Truth and Treaty where I examined the idea of truth and I tell that story about the museum magazine. I also tell another one when I first started at the museum was just I was wearing my museum shirt and walking through the museum. There was a big spiders exhibition on and this lady came up to me and goes, “can you tell me how to get rid of funnel-web spiders?” I was like, “Well that’s not my expertise. I am sorry. I don’t know.”

Another man came up and was like, “I’ll tell you how to get rid of funnel-web spiders.” Before he could finish his sentence, she her hand in front of his face and basically said, “Sorry, I’m talking to the expert.” Pointing to me. I was like, “No, no, no. I’m not an expert. I don’t know anything about spiders. I can’t confirm or deny what he’s saying, but I don’t know anything.” It did make me realize, when I’m wearing a museum shirt I become an expert. When we write things on museum wall they become fact. There’s that big responsibility and there’s a very big power in that. We just try to be at our best to be mindful of that but also to get other people within the museum to be mindful of that and to get the general public to question that. I don’t want people to wholesale disregard museums and disregard archives, but just to be critical of what they hear because it also happens in so say the media.

If you can get the critical thing of like who is saying what and possibly who … If there’s a vested interest in this, maybe you can just challenge some narratives that are written by people that are different to you like First Nations people.

Suse: It’s also interesting hearing you talk about expertise because in a blog post you’ve written on cultural change within institutions. You mentioned treating lived expertise as expertise. I think museums don’t necessarily do this and they certainly don’t necessarily compensate this. That whether we’re talking about people on staff or not all lived experience experts and knowledge holders often don’t receive the same level of compensation that other kinds of experts do such as academic experts. I’m sure that has an impact on power relationships. That’s part of this discussion, this structural change discussion. Would better acknowledgement of and compensation for lived experience expertise help place more value on that expertise?

Nathan: Yeah, most definitely. There’s so much knowledge that exists outside of academia, and outside of museums and it does have to be acknowledged. It does have to be valued. I think either if through financial … That’s one of the things that when you bring First Nations people in to help tell their stories, but we don’t financially show that we value those stories. We are continuing this reproduction of dis-valuing first nation’s knowledge. We do this thing too where we just … Museums are part of it as being academic adjacent especially like natural history museums where basically if it’s not published in a Peer Review Journal if it’s not part of academia it’s not legitimate. I think we need to work outside those paradigms and really acknowledge that there is knowledge outside of these spaces. Especially lived experienced. This is one of the things … I don’t think a lot of people understand and well not.

I mean I think a lot of people understand different situations. When you live as a first nation’s person you have an understanding of not just first nation’s culture, but also almost even a better understanding of white culture than a lot of white people because you need to navigate that field for your own survival. When we’re saying things sometimes like some people act as if we’re being oversensitive or that we’re not really understanding the situation, but we’re understanding it from this perspective and it’s really based on our lived experience which is experience. Sometimes it’s not even just our experiences, it’s like experience passed down to us through generations. It’s not just … I’m 31. It’s not just 30 years of my experience it’s my 80-year-old dad’s experience too. It’s 120 years experience. That I’m using to guide what I’m doing. Things that I’m suggesting is based on these experiences.

I think a lot of times people will negate it because it’s not … It doesn’t come … It’s not being produced in these academic formats or it’s not existing within academia. I think a lot of First Nation’s people and a lot of people from … People of color and people from different backgrounds they’re considered marginalized. We get frustrated with them because I even think Ken Kyle White, Native American academic basically published a paper where he was almost finding it impossible to write anything because a lot of … In academia because a lot of academics were forcing him basically to reference basically previous white anthropologists which basically feeds into their power dynamics and also feeds into the idea of what is legitimate and what isn’t.

Ed: Nathan earlier you talked about the example of cataloging shields and betting bias just in the act of cataloging them and making them a thing, shields. This idea that museum’s collections management systems or any archival system may have built-in limitations for dealing with different knowledge systems could be a hard thing for people to wrap their minds around since we’ve been taught largely that these systems they’re at their scientific, they’re uncontroversial. This is just the facts. Can you talk a little bit more about who gets to own the conversation around how archives archive and where do you see this conversation happening, if we’re going to do things differently, how is that going to happen?

Nathan W.: I think there’s lots of things where you can change processes, but first of all just acknowledging that just because the things are processed and you’re following a process does not make it objective. I think a lot of cataloging systems are created with the idea that they actually take the person out of the equation. You just follow the formula and therefore it’s objective. If you even look at like the Dewey Decimal System, the most used library catalog system in the world till just recently I think it’s being surpassed a little bit. Until probably about five years ago, aboriginal creation stories went under the number I think 398.20994 which is Australian myths and legends. Which is it’s … But for all of First Nations people, our creation stories are our spirituality. They’re our religion. A lot of First Nations people might not call it religion, but it is basically our belief system.

A long time that went into the Dewey Decimal System under myths and legends whereas Christian creation stories do not go on under Christian myths and legends. Even that creates like a system where aboriginal knowledge is undervalued, but that’s basically through a system created so you can be more objective. Even now that we’ve moved into the 200s, into the religion section still the Dewey Decimal System from 200 to 299 is all about religion. 200 to 290 I think is all about Christianity and all other religions go from 290 to 299. We all fit in there. You can see just in this system, it just reproduces what’s considered important and replicates that so it doesn’t just fit in like … Catalog systems do not just exist inside a vacuum. They’re based on existing power dynamics. There is a system called Macatu I think it’s comes from Washington State University and its pretty cool.

From what I’ve seen in a systems like Ariicha where they basically allow … Traditional cataloging usually things like doubling call settings. They allow things like community narratives which I think is really cool. Makatu allows community to basically respond to the record or to the object. You can respond either through video, audio or free text and you can respond in any way you want. You can respond in ways like my grandfather used to make these shields down by the river. Or you could respond what the designs on the shield meant or if there is a misinterpretation in anthropological records about the shield, you could correct them.

The cool thing about community narratives is you usually give the … With Makatu and I think with Ariicha as well you give the login to the community themselves and then they control who can add stuff and who can see it so they can have stuff that’s elders only or they can have stuff that’s general public or they can have stuff that’s men’s or women’s business so they can control who can see what information and what cultural objects or records about cultural information.

I’m just pretty excited about the idea of a community narrative. You can have a rider apply to what has been previously written about you or written about your culture. The cool thing about things like and think at Makatu you can have almost an ever … I’m not 100% sure, but I know you can have multiple community narratives. A space like that where you can have even as a community within themselves disagree about certain aspects, you can have both of them on display which can at least create a pluralization. We’re not just talking from the voice of God where we’re providing the information that we have and some people can see other information that contradicts that. I can at least give them an idea of the different voices out there.

Suse: That’s fantastic. Nathan, Ed and I are such big fans of your work and your blog and your writing. If our listeners want to find out more, if they want to follow the work that you’re doing and get in contact with you where can they do so?

Nathan W.: I run a blog called the Archival Decolonist. You can Google that. It’s archival normally, but I spell decolonist in the Australian way. D-E-C-O-L-O-N-I-S-T and also I’m on Twitter @saywhatnathan.

Suse: That’s fantastic and we will drop those links in the show notes as well so that anyone can follow up. Nathan thank you so much for sharing your wisdom and your time with us.

Ed: Yes thank you very much Nathan.

Nathan: Mandi Guru. Thank you for having me.

Suse: Thank you to both the Sumaya and Nathan for sharing your work and your thoughts with us about these challenging topics.

Ed: Yeah. I’ve been a big fan of Nathan’s blog for a while so it was really great to finally talk in person and Sumaya’s willingness to work so publicly to surface important issues has been really powerfully inspiring for me.

Suse: Speaking truth to power is never easy, but it’s always important. I think the interview with Sumaya made it visible that there is a cost and that people are taking personal risks when they take on this kind of important meaningful work to make our sector better. I’ve been teaching work that both Sumaya and Nathan have done in my museum studies courses for the past few years; I really appreciated the opportunity to unpack their work with them rather than me trying to interpret their intent and their meaning.

It was honestly a bit of a fan girl episode for me.

Ed: Me too. It was a little embarrassing.

That does it for this episode of Museopunks. We’d love to hear from you about the topics that you’re interested in. What are the exciting things that have been happening for you in the sector? You can connect with us on Twitter @Museopunks. Next time we want to dig into the International Council of Museums attempt to redefine what a museum is. Check out their draft text.

Suse: “Museums are democratizing, inclusive and polyphonic spaces for critical dialogue about the pasts and the futures. Acknowledging and addressing the conflicts and challenges of the present, they hold artifacts and specimens in trust for society safeguard diverse memories for future generations and guarantee equal rights and equal access to heritage for all people. Museums are not for profit. They are participatory and transparent and work in active partnership with and for diverse communities to collect, preserve, research, interpret, exhibit and enhance understandings of the world. And to contribute to human dignity and social justice, global equality, and planetary wellbeing.”

By the time this episode drops a vote will have been taken to see whether that is indeed how we’re defining what a museum is. Next episode we’ll try and follow up and see how the discussions went.

Ed: I’ve popped links to much of what we spoke about today in the show notes which you can along with transcripts of this and all our past episodes.

Suse: Museopunks is presented every month by the American Alliance of Museums. Of course, you can subscribe anytime at iTunes or Stitcher oh and Spotify. You can find us there now too. Catch you next time.

Ed: Bye.

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1 Comment

  1. This was so interesting! Thanks Suse, Ed, Sumaya and Nathan.
    I can’t seem to find more information about the systems Macatu (from Washington State University) and Ariicha Nathan mentioned, that can include an oral history narrative into object provenance. Do I have the correct spelling? Where can I read more about these systems?

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