Museums – Racist and Non-Neutral
Updated: Mar 26, 2021
Part 2: Western Museums
Despite what the general public thinks, museums are always biased. Why? Because people create them! Everyone, myself included, holds ethnocentric and implicit bias that shapes the way they see the world. While this may not always be a bad thing, bias becomes problematic when it hurts other people.
Unfortunately, bias in museums has both created and contributed to racism with
its representation of those outside of whitestream society. This is of course extremely
harmful, but I believe museums can work to right these wrongs by promoting equity and
supporting marginalized communities, especially the groups which museums have
overrepresented from the perspectives of white narratives and white bias.
But before we talk about how museums can get it right, we need to talk more
about how they got it wrong.
Museums are a product of the time and culture they exist in, and generally reflect
the dominant culture’s perspectives about whatever exhibits they’re showing. With
colonial and settler colonial countries like the United States, Canada, the United
Kingdom, New Zealand, and Australia, Western museums and other cultural heritage
sites have a long history of biased, racist depictions of the Indigenous peoples whose
lands they occupy. Even if museum curators themselves are aware of their bias and
know to take the steps to eliminate (or at very least, minimize) their own bias, financial
stakeholders like donors and board members, who are overwhelmingly rich and white,
have the power to influence what curators can actually say and do.
As educational institutions, museum content is generally trusted, and the average
visitor isn’t likely to analyze the impact of settler colonial bias on an exhibit about Māori
tattooing, or tā moko, for example. However, if the exhibit wasn’t created with Māori
consultants, co-curators, or partners, there might be quite a bit of bias, simply because
it was created by people who are not from that culture. If someone from Greece created
an exhibit on North Carolina style barbecue, for example, it would be a similar story,
except that Greeks as a people have not systematically and violently dispossessed
North Carolinians, and claimed their land as New Greece.
But let’s get back to talking about the history of museums.
The first public museums were created in Western Europe in the 18th century
enlightenment period (Ames 1992, 17) . These early museums were largely based on
cabinets of curiosities, a name for collections of “exotic” artifacts collected by the rich on
their worldly adventures, and placed behind glass for like-minded friends and guests to
admire (Ames 1992, 17; Lonetree 2012, 9) . In putting artifacts behind glass, museums
were able to “control and subordinate both to contemporary definitions of social reality”
from collections privately owned by the 1% (Ames 1992, 23) . While museums are no
longer only for the upper class, they are still influenced greatly by dominant culture, the
values and ideals that are typically held and followed in a society, and often dictated by
those who hold financial and political power. Problems arise when these values dictate
how other cultures are presented within cultural institutions. During the 1800 and 1900s,
countries started to want their own national museums, with private collections gradually
became public (Ames 1992, 21) . While public accessibility to museums is a work in
progress (because of the price of admission, the hours museums are open,
marginalized populations not seeing themselves represented in museums, and other
issues), but museums shifting to public-oriented institutions CHANGED THE WORLD.
Just kidding, but it did seriously change the meanings assigned to collections of
artifacts. There was a shift in creating the expectation that public collections would be
related to the public, and made meaningful to the public (Ames 1992, 21) . Museums
couldn’t just present information to the elite anymore – the public deserved to be able
to understand and relate to the stories being told in exhibits about their cultural heritage
This change had MASSIVE implications for curators presenting what were
considered to be national ideals and norms. Public museums now exist, and they can
now be used to validate and encourage settler-colonial ideals while disparaging
Indigenous cultures and perspectives. And this continues today, although some
museums are altering this status quo and supporting marginalized communities.
By now, you should have an idea of the enormous amount of control curators
have over how artifacts are presented, and thus understood by visitors.
"These values, collective representations, and models of social reality reflected the interests of the educated classes, of course – those people who, since the beginning and to this day, control and patronize the great museums of the world. Museums are products of the establishment and represent the assumptions and definitions of that establishment, just as do most other major institutional complexes" (Ames 1992, 21).
Museums today have shifted into public-oriented institutions that attract visitors
for their unique blend of entertainment and education (Falk and Dierking 2000) . They’re
also institutions that are uniquely situated to influence “the ways we think about other
cultures” (Ames 1992, 49) . Studies show that museum visitors remember parts of what
they saw, months and even years after visiting a museum (Falk and Dierking 2000) .
Pair that with the fact that museums are seen as trustworthy sources of information by
the public (Falk and Dierking 2000, 2) , and you can see how influential museums can
be. However, museums are always going to be flawed institutions that reflect the biases
of their staff, donors, visitors, and the time and place in which they exist.
All of this is to say that museums must be more thoughtful and intentional with
their decolonizing work and the representations of marginalized populations (who are
overrepresented in their collections)….!!!!!....It is their responsibility to use their position
to amplify these voices.
Fortunately, there’s now a movement to decolonize museums, to give control of
representation to the represented! Decolonization is an enormous topic that we’ll talk
about that more next time.
To conclude, I would like to acknowledge that much of North America and other
settler-colonial areas remain unceded, unjustly ceded, and effectively stolen while
European colonial settlers continue to commit genocide against the peoples that are
indigenous to these lands. My current home, Denver, is on the lands of Arapahoe,
Cheyenne, and Ute peoples – lands that were not freely given, or equitably shared. All
non-Indigenous residents of Indigenous lands are benefitting from the genocide and
forced relocation of these peoples. After reading this post, please consider donating to an Indigenous-run organization promoting Indigenous rights, sovereignty, and equity. If
you are unable to donate, it’s free to read, follow, and support them in other ways!
Next time, we’ll talk about how museums can get it right through decolonization, and
create positive social influence with their representations of non-Western peeps.
Madison Dillard, M.A., is an aspiring activist and museum professional. Her interests in social justice and decolonization are reflected in Slightly Problematic’s mission of entertaining and educating the public on anthropological topics. After switching majors to Anthropology halfway through her first Anthro class, she has never looked back from pursuing her passion for connecting with people - academically and otherwise. Her master’s research focused on Indigenous rights representation within museums, an interest she hopes to further pursue professionally. As a lifelong baker, crafter, and cat mom, she enjoys cozy nights in and long walks to the fridge. She can be reached via the Slightly Problematic Contact page, or on her LinkedIn.
Ames, Michael M. 1992. Cannibal Tours and Glass Boxes the Anthropology of
Museums / Michael M. Ames. 2nd rev. ed. Canadian Electronic Library. Books
Collection. Vancouver [B.C.]: UBC Press.
Falk, John H., and Lynn D. Dierking. 2000. Learning from Museums: Visitor
Experiences and the Making of Meaning / John H. Falk and Lynn D. Dierking.
American Association for State and Local History Book Series. Walnut Creek,
CA: AltaMira Press.
Lonetree, Amy. 2012. Decolonizing Museums Representing Native America in National
and Tribal Museums / Amy Lonetree. First Peoples (2010). Chapel Hill:
University of North Carolina Press.