Museums - Racist and Non-Neutral
Part 3: Decolonization and Critical Museology
So how can we fix museums?
My last two episodes have been all about how museums have gotten it wrong. This time, we’re going to focus on “getting better” through decolonization and questioning everything. Using critical museology and decolonizing theory are some ways to engage meaningfully with institutionalized racism and systems of power. Critical museology engages with museums as a place for critique; questioning fundamental building blocks of museums such as the meaning behind exhibits (Shelton 2013). Decolonizing theory criticizes the “colonial representations of the non-European “other,”’ (Kreps 2011, 71).
Museums and Decolonizing Theory
Decolonization is basically any form of undoing or undermining colonization. It is extremely important work for creating more inclusive and equitable societies because it decenters Eurocentric Western perspectives. Anthropology has historically exoticized “others” – aka non-white people (Nederveen Pieterse 2005, 163; Lonetree 2012; Risling Baldy 2018; Arvin, Tuck, and Morrill 2013), and colonial power dynamics have allowed the West to exert power and control over the lives and representations of “others” (Fanon 1961; Said 1978). Western domination over “others” has been supported by stereotyped, exoticized, and disparaging representations.
The decolonizing critique has been key to reflecting on the power of representation, acknowledging difficult truths, and ultimately decentering Western perspectives (Said 1978). Recognizing that much of Western society is dominated by the power dynamics of colonization and systematic racism is a crucial first step in decolonization. Next, institutions like museums must analyze how these power dynamics can be altered to make space for non-dominant perspectives.
The decolonizing movement reached museums during the mid to late 20th century, privileging the voices of those being represented, and challenging the Eurocentric Western voice that has dominated museum representation (and continues to do so in many museums) (Lonetree 2012, 171; Simpson 1996, 71).
Ho-Chunk scholar and badass Amy Lonetree writes:
What a great irony that places inextricably linked to the colonization process are also the sites where the difficult aspects of our history can and must be most clearly and forcefully told. (Lonetree 2012, 9).
Decolonizing museums in particular is important in changing the settler colonial narrative because of the central role museums play in colonization (Ames 1992). After hundreds of years of Indigenous activism, collaboration and partnership with source communities and other related communities have become largely expected of museums (Lonetree 2012, 16-17; Kreps 2020; Colwell 2017), although many museums with decades-old exhibits are still struggling to keep up (see my Part 1 for examples, or go to a local museum (safely) and critique the hell out of it).
(Indigenous activists have also been fighting for the repatriation of artifacts and human remains since museums and anthropologists began stealing them hundreds of years ago. FYI)
Museum professionals and anthropologists are now being held to a higher ethical standard than in the past. “Do no harm” is no longer the ethical standard to strive for – it is now generally expected that museum professionals and anthropologists actively attempt to do at least some good (Marstine 2011, 12; Fluehr-Lobban 2013, 51–52).
Many museum professionals, myself included, believe that museums as we know them (because of course there are non-Western museums) can never be fully decolonized because they will always fundamentally be Western institutions (Shannon 2014). But this does not negate the importance of decolonizing work. Museums are problematic, but they can work to do better! Museums can and should repatriate Indigenous human remains, sacred objects, and other objects that people would like returned. Museums can and should make sure that collections items have been acquired ethically, and take action to return them when they are not. Museums can and should include marginalized communities in all aspects of museum work, not just in their representation.
Critical museology arose as a response to people both inside and outside of the museum becoming more aware of hierarchies, social inequities, and the role that museums have to play in educating the public about “the other.” Museums are products of the time and place in which they exist (Shelton 2013, 15), and critical museology is key to analyzing the impact of time and place on museum representation. For example, if an exhibit opened up in Denver 2021 about Black Lives Matter, it would be different than an exhibit on Black Lives Matter in Minneapolis, or an exhibit on Black Lives Matter in 2031. Critical museology asks us to think beyond the objects, and “understand the meanings of museum objects as situated and contextual rather than inherent” (Macdonald 2008, 2). Museum curators choose how to contextually situate these objects, giving them enormous power over how exhibits are understood by the public. Because of this power, critiquing museums is central holding museums accountable!
As platforms for public education, museums can contribute to a more accurate, holistic public understanding of important issues, such as the experiences of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) communities and other marginalized peoples today. Understanding that museums hold so much social power is especially important during 2021. The world is experiencing the COVID-19 pandemic, which is disproportionately affecting Black and Brown communities due to structural racism. The genocide of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (and LGBTQ+ peoples) continues in North America. Although decolonizing work is expanding, settler colonialism continues into the 21st century. But global protests for causes such as Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate have shown that many people are up to fighting institutionalized racism. My hope for museums and other public forums is that they use their power to contribute to this fight (and the fights against ableism, fatphobia, colonization, and others), highlighting how institutionalized racism persists and how we can work to address it.
As always, I would like to conclude by acknowledging 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 of Denver is on the lands of Arapaho, 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, whether we like it or not. After enjoying this episode, 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.
And if you’re enjoying Slightly Problematic, support us too! By liking, commenting, and sharing us with your friends!
See you all in Volume 2!
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. 1992. Cannibal Tours and Glass Boxes: The Anthropology of Museums. Vancouver: University of British Columbia Press.
Arvin, Maile, Eve Tuck, and Angie Morrill. 2013. “Decolonizing Feminism: Challenging Connections between Settler Colonialism and Heteropatriarchy.” The Johns Hopkins University Press, 25(1), p. 8-34.
Colwell, Chip. 2017. Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America’s Culture. University of Chicago Press.
Fanon, Frantz. 1961. The Wretched of the Earth. Translated by Richard Philcox. Paris: F. Maspero.
Fluehr-Lobban, Carolyn. 2013. Ethics and Anthropology: Ideas and Practice. Lanham: AltaMira Press. http://ebookcentral.proquest.com/lib/du/detail.action?docID=1466956.
Kreps, Christina. 2011. “Changing the Rules of the Road: Post-Colonialism and the New Ethics of Museum Anthropology.” In The Routledge Companion to Museum Ethics, edited by Janet Marstine, 70-84. London: Routledge.
Kreps, Christina. 2020. Museums and Anthropology in the Age of Engagement. New York: Routledge.
Lonetree, Amy. 2012. Decolonizing Museums Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press.
Macdonald, Sharon. 2008. “Expanding Museum Studies: An Introduction.” In Companion to Museum Studies, edited by Sharon Macdonald, p. 1-12. Chichester: Wiley.
Marstine, Janet. 2011. “The Contingent Nature of the New Museum Ethics.” In The Routledge Companion to Museum Ethics, edited by Janet Marstine, 3-25. London: Routledge.
Nederveen Pieterse, Jan. 2005. “Multiculturalism and Museums.” In Heritage, Museums, and Galleries, edited by Gerard Corsane, 163-183. London: Routledge.
Risling Baldy, Cutcha. 2018. We are Dancing for You: Native Feminisms and the Revitalization of Women’s Coming-of-age Ceremonies. Vancouver, British Columbia. University of Washington Press.
Said, Edward W. 1978. “Knowing the Oriental”. In Orientalism, 31-48. New York: Pantheon Books.
Shannon, Jennifer A. 2014. Our Lives: Collaboration, Native Voice, and the Making of the National Museum of the American Indian. School for Advanced Research Resident Scholar Series. Santa Fe: SAR Press.
Shelton, Anthony. 2013. “Critical Museology: A Manifesto.” Museum Worlds: Advances in Research 1, p. 7-23.
Simpson, Moira. 1996. Making Representations: Museums in the Post-Colonial Era. London: Routledge.