Beginning the journey - Museums Association

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Beginning the journey

At desperate times you need your best friends, at times of hope I need critical friends.

Laura Van Broekhoven, Decolonisation Guidance Working Group Member

Decolonising practice is a worthwhile journey for individuals and institutions, even if it feels that a decolonised museum is a distant destination. Whether this work is being done individually, or with institutional backing, anyone can take decolonising practice forward. Here we explore ways to start the journey, beginning with a vision for the decolonising museum.

The Decolonising Museum is:

  • a genuinely open and inclusive space
  • a safe and comfortable space
  • a place where all the senses are engaged
  • a place to which everyone can bring their whole selves
  • a place where people are encouraged to share their experiences and their creativity
  • a place where everyone’s stories can be told.

How can museums fulfil this vision?

There is no single ‘right’ way to decolonise museums; each institution has the opportunity to identify strategies which work for its communities, collections and those who work in and with the museum. Decolonising is best done when it has the backing of the whole institution, but here’s how you can start the journey.

Who should do this work?

Everyone. Decolonising practice can be used in all areas of work and is applicable to all shapes and sizes of museums. It helps us to understand the present world and each other better. Colonialism has affected everyone and we all have an important role to play. We explore what this could mean for you and your role in the following sections.

Starting the journey

Everyone will have different starting points, circumstances and contexts, but we can all start somewhere.

We suggest working through the following questions, to consider your starting point and next steps:

  • Why are you doing this work?
  • Who do you need to talk to? Think about external organisations, networks, local groups and individuals.
  • What can you do to create meaningful relationships outside the institution?
  • What do you need to know?
  • How can you ask challenging questions within and of your institution?
  • What steps can you take as an insider or outsider activist?
  • What are your timescales?
  • How can you sustain this work?
  • How can you care for yourself and those involved?
  • What outcomes, targets or products are necessary to measure success?
  • How and by who will success be defined?

Decolonising actions in museums

Here, we’ve outlined some of the areas of activity in museums and suggested prompts for reflection, alongside actions to support decolonising. This list can be explored individually or as wider teams.

Welcoming people: How equally are people welcomed? How does this change for different groups and why? Who feels represented? How do you know this?

Engaging people: How do you engage with people in your museum? Who decides how this is done and why? Who is missing? How do you define volunteering from engagement that should be paid?

Talking/writing about/cataloguing items: What do you know about the item? Who contributed the knowledge you are using? How has this source been credited, critically engaged with and reviewed? Who is considered an expert and why? What power does this represent? When was the last time this information was updated or added to? What alternative perspectives can be offered?

We use ‘item’ throughout to refer to collection objects, artefacts and specimens, including human remains.

Displaying items: How are items selected for display? Who is involved in this process? What is the intention behind the display? How are people from the communities whose history is being shared involved in how they are represented?

Caring for, touching and moving items: What restrictions are in place to protect items or sites? How does this impact on who has the right to see, hold or know about these items?

Supporting others to interact with items: Who can interact with items and how? Who has ownership of the item? How is this communicated?

Growing and reducing collections (acquisition and disposals): Who controls collecting decisions and how are these made? How can we address who has a stake in these processes? What role does or could justice play?

Setting strategy for the museum: How are decisions made, who is part of decision-making processes and how transparent is this process?

Lived experience can be defined as the experience(s) of people on whom a social issue, or combination of issues, has had a direct impact. Definition from Baljeet Sandhu (2017), The value of lived experience in social change

Funding museums: If you are involved in funding decisions, how do you decide funding criteria? Who is involved in funding decisions? How do you decide in a competitive funding round what gets funded? How could internal processes regularly review funding decisions and assess for bias or discrimination?

The rest of this document will explore these questions in more detail.

Image caption: Volunteers at a training session on writing interpretive text, as part of Essex Museum’s Snapping the Stiletto project