Introduction - Museums Association

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Colonialism has profound human consequences. It is an expression of power that relies upon oppression, extraction of resources and silencing other ways of being and knowing. Many museums in the UK are part of the legacy of British colonialism through the collections they steward, their institutional histories, structures and wealth, and the stories they tell.

Throughout history museums have helped to make the case for colonialism by collecting and cataloguing empire, and by advancing racist and prejudiced views of the world. Such views and attitudes still exist today – museums can and must play their part in righting past wrongs and creating a better world for all those affected by colonialism.

“Museums… which are so part of our national life refuse to engage honestly and sincerely with the question of how they obtained their imperial artefacts. The way we fail to acknowledge we are a multicultural society because we had a multicultural empire makes our national conversations about race tragic and absurd.

“The manner in which our imperial history inspires a sense of exceptionalism results in dysfunctional politics and disastrous decision-making. Our collective amnesia about the fact that we were, as a nation, wilfully white supremacist and occasionally genocidal, and our failure to understand how this informs modernday racism, are catastrophic.”

Sathnam Sanghera (2021) Empireland: How Imperialism Has Shaped Modern Britain, Viking, p. 208

Historical context

Historically the word ‘decolonisation’ referred to the political processes –including varied forms of anticolonial resistance – that ended direct colonial rule. In this context, decolonisation was about people subjected to foreign domination actively taking control of their lives, territory, and institutions as well as their cultural and national identity.

Today decolonial thinking and practice recognises that, despite the formal end of colonial rule, the legacies of empire remain with us in many current political struggles and everyday experiences, from the land rights campaigns of dispossessed Indigenous peoples, to campaigns for reparations for those whose ancestors were enslaved. Decolonising practice challenges legacies of oppression and calls for an honest and accurate reappraisal of colonial history.

What decolonising means for museums today

Decolonising involves creatively reimagining the way museums work, who they work with and what they value. It covers all areas of practice and creates a framework to better support people and institutions. Decolonising is a collective activity, which can be messy, thoughtful, imaginative, and emotional.

It is driven by the desire for justice and equity in that it aims to rebalance power and representation away from the coloniser narrative of history and society. This work is intersectional, as it challenges structural inequalities across the board to redress forms of historic and ongoing harm.

Intersectional refers to how various forms of discrimination based on race, gender, class, disability, sexuality, gender identity and other forms of identity, do not work independently but interact to create particular forms of social oppression and exclusion. Definition from Oxford Reference

Decolonising is often confused with other areas of practice, such as repatriation or work on equality, diversity and inclusion. Both of these areas overlap with decolonising and are an important part of it. But decolonising encompasses all areas of practice, and seeks long-term structural change in museums.

This document supports decolonising practice in each of the nations of the UK. It recognises that England, Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland each has its own complex historical and political relationship to colonialism, and that alongside this, nuances in local contexts, from different regions to rural and urban settings, can all impact upon decolonising priorities. It is important to recognise that decolonising practice is about facing up to histories of racism and exclusion – and this practice is necessary wherever you are in the UK.

Your role

Decolonising begins with respect and care for all. Museums need to meet the basic human needs of all who visit and work in and with them. This includes physical access and the ability to communicate and affect change. If museums get this right we create the foundations for change.

In the present moment conversations about decolonisation attract intense interest. You might choose to engage in this work because you have felt misrepresented, absent or marginalised by colonialism. Alternatively you might understand decolonising practice as an exercise in allyship. Rather than being self-defined, allyship is about amplifying the perspectives of the people you hope to support and being recognised as an ally by those you work with. Everyone will have different motivations for doing this work, but for all of us decolonising depends on a long-term commitment to the practice.

Allyship: an active, consistent, and challenging practice of unlearning and re-evaluating, in which a person of privilege seeks to work in solidarity with a marginalised group. Definition from PeerNetBC, under a Creative Commons License

Although this is essential work it may not always be possible to engage explicitly in decolonising practice in the institutions you currently work in or with. When in this position remember that decolonising is about the practice itself, taking steps where you can and connecting with those, inside and outside the museum, who can support your journey in this work.

What this guidance is for

Our 2019 Empowering Collections report found there was a growing interest in decolonising museums, but there was a lack of confidence in how to put this concept into practice. This document is intended as a prompt for thinking, discussion and action on decolonising.

It offers tools for those who want to improve their practice through decolonial thinking and suggests initial steps for those who are committed to this work, but don’t know where to start. It also aims to give strength and support to those already doing this work.

In creating this document, we are taking steps to reflect on our own structures and ways of working. We are on this journey with the sector.