Blog | The MA hasn’t got everything right – but we’re committed to making lasting change - Museums Association

Blog | The MA hasn’t got everything right – but we’re committed to making lasting change

Sharon Heal
Director, Museums Association

It is over three years since the murder of George Floyd sent a visceral shock around the globe. At the time, many museums in the UK published statements of support for the Black Lives Matter movement and committed to becoming anti-racist organisations, as did the MA.

At the Museums Association we were part way through our work to support the creation of guidance on decolonisation, and we doubled down on our efforts to support the wider sector to address the legacy of empire, including racism, in museums.

As part of our efforts to support the work we published the Supporting Decolonisation in Museums guidance, launched online training modules on anti-racism and decolonisation, and we are now coming to the end of the first iteration of our Decolonisation Confidence and Skills programme.  

So what have we learned?  

Over the past few years we have seen a willingness among museum workers to engage with decolonisation and anti-racism; and many institutions have started to explore what it means to do the work.

Making the links between collections and systems of empire can open new ways of thinking and connecting with communities, and can unlock new narratives and the stories that need to be told. But we also know that the work can be patchy and uneven – and can sometimes only skim the surface of the deep thinking and rigorous work that needs to be done.  

And at the MA we have had to do some thinking ourselves. As an organisation that was founded at the end of the 19th century, we have to acknowledge that we are as much of a product of empire as the museums we represent. Museums have historically been at the forefront of colonial knowledge production and the ordering of the world and its peoples, and that inevitably rubs off on the MA and our ways of thinking and operating.  

Over the past 10 years we’ve shifted to become more of a campaigning and values-led organisation. We acknowledge that museums are not neutral and that we don’t operate in isolation from what is happening in the rest of society. We know that museums can be a force for good and our campaigns on social impact, anti-racism and climate justice are just some of the ways that we try to support our members to make a positive difference to people’s lives.

However, framing this work as ‘campaigns’ has led to the perception that it is short-lived and time-limited. That was never our intention and we know that the work must be embedded as we reframe museums’ role in society.

While most work on decolonisation in museums is a welcome starting point, not all decolonisation work is good. And it is this critical, rather than congratulatory, engagement that will lead to systemic change in museums.

We want to create a supportive environment in which people and organisations, including the MA, have room to grow, be honest, learn, reflect, challenge and improve. Decolonisation in museums is full of tensions and complexities that require detailed and thoughtful research and patience. 

Although we were keen to ‘get on’ and do the work, running a relatively short-term programme has given the impression of short-termism. In future we will commit capacity and budget to this work.

This year, £20,000 of core funds has been reserved for work on anti-racism; we have a staff member dedicated to anti-racism and decolonisation; we have senior leadership and trustee engagement; and we have made decolonisation a central plank of our review of the Code of Ethics.

What we have learned:

  • We need to do more to research the history of the MA and unpick what that means for how we work today.
  • No matter the good intent, we don’t always get it right; we need to be a more reflective and thoughtful organisation.
  • We are following the footsteps of those that have been doing this work for many years and they deserve acknowledgement and respect. 
  • The work must be rigorous, deep and embedded – a light-touch project-based approach won’t work. 
  • Research matters – knowing what we have, how it got there and actively seeking and valuing the knowledge of communities of origin and diaspora communities is vital.
  • There are no shortcuts.
  • There are systemic barriers to meaningful decolonisation and there has been a failure of cyclical projects and programmes, including ours, to make lasting change.
  • Ongoing investment of time, capacity and resources are needed for the work to be successful.
  • We need to take an intersectional approach – anti-racism, decolonisation, climate justice and many other issues are interlinked and we need to take joined-up approach.

Going forward we will enhance the core, long-term commitment that the MA has made towards decolonisation, by giving capacity for in-depth research and networking. We want to: 

  • Sustain and grow the Decolonisation Collective and support the Decolonisation Leaders’ Network.
  • Undertake in-depth research, inviting contributions from people with lived experience and drawing on existing research.
  • Convene networks and cross-sector expertise to reflect and challenge the museum sector. 
  • Learn from the experiences of people who have been through various cycles of decolonial work and begin to rebuild trust with those that have done the work. 
  • Build the evidence base that decolonisation is important to audiences, to help sustain and expand pockets of good practice. 
  • Develop an annual programme of events and publications to foreground leading thinking and practice.
  • Embed decolonisation in the review of Code of Ethics.
  • Commit resource and capacity.

We are determined for this work to continue and that we embed the decolonisation principles in all aspects of our work at the MA, from professional development to funding, and we are determined that this is not a passing phase for the MA or the sector. We know we have to work hard to make that a reality and we are committed to dedicating time, resource and capacity to the work.