Museums as spaces and places - Museums Association

Museums as spaces and places

Museums as institutions are unavoidably bound up with the history of slavery/colonialism, so there’s a very real and material ethical impetus to deal with that history as part of their own identity as well as in wider social/cultural efforts to come to terms with what is for many people a very painful and still relevant past.

MA Decolonisation Survey respondent, 2020

People experience museums in different ways. Decolonising practice can create museum spaces that welcome, engage and empower everyone. We recognise that we cannot completely undo the colonial legacies of museum buildings, but here we explore changes to make our spaces more welcoming to more people.

Museum building names, statues and other commemorations

The names of buildings, institutions, individual galleries, streets and statues send a clear message of whose presence is considered important and whose is not. Although this issue can cause controversy and debate in the media, it is an important part of decolonising work.

Decolonising museums requires creating spaces that no longer celebrate historic and ongoing acts of colonial violence,whether through removing names, removing or recontextualizing statues, or commissioning artists to engage critically with this inheritance.

When considering these issues:

  • Question who is being celebrated through the physical infrastructure of museum buildings?
  • How transparent are museums about their origins and the sources of their funds?
  • Who are museums serving through their commemoration of certain figures and who is being left out?
  • How could naming practices related to funding and philanthropy be reconsidered?

When exploring changes in this area, ensure you are closely consulting with the communities connected to your museum, with transparency and accountability on how decisions will be made. It is also important to identify public events or commemorations that create opportunities to share your decolonising practice by recognising, celebrating or commemorating underrepresented histories.

Case study: Statues

The toppling of Edward Colston’s statue in June 2020, following the murder of George Floyd, reignited longstanding debates on the place and purpose of statues. Many organisations, including museums, were called to account on statues of those who profited from slavery and colonialism. Below we briefly consider how different organisations have approached this issue.

Shortly after the statue of Colston in Bristol was torn down, the Robert Milligan statue, which stood outside the Museum of London Docklands, was removed by the landowners Canal & River Trust, in partnership with Tower Hamlets Council and the Museum of London. The museum issued a statement advocating for the statue’s removal, recognising that the statue is “part of the ongoing problematic regime of white-washing history.”

Black Lives Matter activism reenergised the longstanding Rhodes Must Fall Campaign, calling on Oxford University and Oriel College to remove its Rhodes statue. The 2020 protests led to the governors of Oriel College voting to remove the statue and setting up an independent commission to deal with the statue’s future. However, in May 2021 Oriel College announced it would not move the statue due to “regulatory and financial challenges”. Heritage and planning consent, along with the England government’s retain and explain policy, all created obstacles.

Political pressure played a similar role in the Museum of the Home’s decision to keep a statue of Robert Geffrye in place. In a public consultation, more than two thirds of respondents wanted the statue taken down. However the statue’s removal was not supported by a majority of trustees in a formal vote. The board announced on 29 July that “the museum should reinterpret and contextualise the statue where it is.” A report by the Huffington Post indicated that the government had put pressure on the museum to keep the statue in place.

In October that year the culture secretary sent a letter directing all national museums and arms length bodies to align with the England government’s stance on ‘contested heritage’.

Local context, community relationships, governance structures and government policy all play a part in how organisations respond to calls for action on statues directly linked to colonial violence.

Case study further resources

The toppled statue of slave trader Edward Colston
The toppled statue of slave trader Edward Colston on public display in Bristol, CB Bristol Design 2021

Provide spaces and resources for different kinds of experiences and encounters

– Taking steps to meet basic human needs can play a powerful part in decolonising. How can you understand and meet the needs of communities who do and could engage with museum spaces?

– People have different expectations and needs. Provide spaces for solemnity, reverence and reflection as well as spaces for joy, playfulness and exploration.

– Create spaces for discussion and debate, but also for care and recovery. Be aware of how these spaces are created, including who decides what’s required.

– How can communities be provided with more agency and choice in how services, collections and interpretation are accessed? How can new ways of working and engaging with communities be embedded? Collaboration is key here and we explore this more in the next section.

Decolonising digital spaces

Digital spaces offer opportunities to platform decolonising work and build engagement. However, digital spaces, like physical spaces, can reproduce existing inequalities. This can be seen in how people treat each other in digital spaces but is also part of the design and function of online spaces.

Academic Safiya Umoja Noble explores this in her work Algorithms of Oppression, which challenges the assumption that search engines offer an equal playing field for all forms of ideas, identities and activities.

Put in place proactive plans to tackle hostility in digital spaces, ensuring people are cared for and protected against hate.

– Create a plan for decolonising digital spaces, with a focus on addressing inequality and exclusion. This could include social media projects, blog posts and website features showcasing decolonising activity in the museum.

– Act with sensitivity and care when using images of collection items and specimens in digital spaces, including marketing and retail content.

– Ensure digital content reflects work happening on the ground in the museum, or specific plans for the future, rather than standalone statements.

– Remember that digital access is not a substitute for physical repatriation of items, but it can be an important tool in sharing collections information and establishing relationships with communities.

– Put in place a take-down policy, when providing digital access. This is a policy that allows people to object to an item being publicly accessible online and provides a process to decide whether or not to remove it.

There are different approaches to using takedown policies. For example, the Middle East Institute in Washington DC will only give digital access if people connected to the item, such as Indigenous communities, agree. Whereas the National Museum of Anthropology, also based in Washington, will take an item down within 24 hours if someone objects to it being available digitally. Consider, which of the approaches outlined here could work for your museum?

Digital access goes beyond collections and can apply to wider engagement. In response to the Covid-19 pandemic, public events, talks and lectures became accessible in ways that disabled people had long campaigned for. As events went online, live transcriptions and inclusive production became standard. Museums built connections with audiences across the world, and those closer to home who may have not felt welcome in the physical museum space.

How can these approaches be embedded for the future? What digital platforms are most accessible? Alongside this, how can digital exclusion be addressed, recognising that people do not have equal access to digital resources, including devices and quality of internet connection, as well as literacy and confidence?

Image caption: Participants from Creating Connections at New Art Exchange, Nottingham. The project celebrated the cultural lives of young people and explored issues of racism and difference