Public messaging - Museums Association

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Public messaging

We should not be afraid to tell the factual truth about colonial histories, whether it makes people uncomfortable or not.

MA Decolonisation Survey respondent, 2020

Talking about your decolonising practice

How will you or your museum communicate about your decolonising practice? Institutions can start by creating a clear and publicly accessible policy or plan which sets out the rationale for engaging with decolonisation. Be clear about aims, motivations, and what actions will be taken. Be honest about the journey ahead. Talk about decolonisation as an ongoing process, rather than a one-off project or event, and be careful to avoid overclaiming for individual actions or events.

Case study: National Museums Scotland – Communicating Work on Colonial Legacies

In 2020, National Museums Scotland published a detailed commitment to work on colonial histories and legacies in its collections and to engage with external partners throughout this work. Their commitment acknowledges the colonial legacies of the museum and the enormous amount of work to be done in changing narratives, engaging with others and understanding the collections the museum holds. You can read NMS’s commitment here.

A tea cup from the tea set designed, commissioned and used by the Empire Café project
A tea cup from the tea set designed, commissioned and used by the Empire Café project, inscribed with a poem by Fred D’Aguiar. The Empire Café project was a contemporary exploration of Scotland’s relationship with the transatlantic slave trade

Decolonising practice in cultural organisations has become increasingly contested in recent years as some politicians and media organisations seek to generate conflict around history and cultural issues. The potential for negative media attention should not dissuade you from doing decolonising work – but you can take proactive steps to ensure that your work is understood.

– Publish a policy that outlines why the museum is taking a decolonising approach and the planned actions.

– Consider what language is appropriate when communicating this work publicly. In some cases, it may be counterproductive or difficult to use terms like ‘decolonisation’ and alternative language may be more suitable to describe the work.

– When publishing new material about decolonising practice, plan for possible positive and negative responses from the media and other stakeholders. Develop dedicated FAQs for both internal and external use, which clearly articulate the rationale and value of decolonisation. Tailor these to specific exhibitions or projects where and when needed.

– Identify individuals within the organisation – especially those working directly on decolonising projects, those working in social media and those in front of house positions – who may be subjected to abuse or threats. Ensure that a programme of active support is in place to support them.

– Museum leaders have a particularly important role in communicating support for decolonising practice. Leaders must demonstrate their support for decolonising practice when communicating publicly. This also helps to ensure the wellbeing of staff, volunteers and collaborators.

Image caption: Mangubadijarri Yanner (Gangalidda) and Esme Ward (Director, Manchester Museum) at the official handover of 18 culturally significant objects to the Gangalidda and Nyamal Nations, Australia House, 2019 – Photo credit David Tett