When I was asked last year if I would like to join, and chair a working group to create guidance for the museum sector on decolonial work, I admit I had reservations. I was nervous about the possibility of being a part project that was co-opting decolonial thinking, that we would be reducing it to something two dimensional: a tick box, and that I was not the right person for the job.
Despite my reservations, I accepted – because I believe in decolonisation: that it is something we must all strive to do, and I believe working towards a decolonial sector will make museums more inclusive, more engaging and will equip all those work in them and who visit them to fight for equality for all.
It was clear that I wasn’t alone, and that many in the sector want to know more about this area of practice. But I knew that I could not do this alone and advocated for other members who had not initially been included to be part of the process.
I wanted to use my privilege as the chair of this group and as a Museums Association board member to make more seats at the table that would ensure that others would be able to speak to things I could not and to represent lived experiences I could not.
Since the end of last year, the working group has met a number of times. We began our work by discussing decolonial practice in and beyond the sector, what areas we felt our guidance should speak to, and how we might deliver it. We were clear that decolonising practice cannot be confined to any one type of museum, collection, or specialisation – every museum in the UK has stories of colonialism to tell, and we want to make sure that people have the tools to address these stories.
We want to produce guidance that is holistic, scalable, practical, creative, critical and useful. We want to avoid focusing on official titles such as curator but to focus instead on areas of practice, such as holding collection items, displaying them, describing them. These are areas or practice which are carried out by people in every type of institution and at every level of seniority.
We do not want to define decolonising. Indeed, it felt like a colonial act to define what had already been defined. Instead, we wanted to share a collection of definitions by those who already spoke about it and lived its principles. And we knew that even though we were in a room full of exciting ideas and amazing thinkers and practitioners, we needed more perspectives.
We agreed to create a survey to understand perspective of others working with the sector on decolonisation. We also wanted to identify potential case studies to pull out unpack critically and to use to support a practical and active form of guidance. We wanted to ensure we were always working collaboratively, transparently, and democratically.
And then the world locked down. A planned workshop with stakeholders from across the sector was cancelled and the question was asked: Can we and should we carry on during this time? What the pandemic made clear was that things are unstable, that our mental health is fragile and that working toward one goal – a piece of guidance – was not something we felt able to deliver in a rush.
This became all the more obvious at our most recent meeting, which was held during the first days of the recent Black Lives Matter protests on what was deemed Blackout Tuesday.
It was clear to us that decolonising museums is a vital part of the wider campaign for anti-racism. So in the face of the murder of George Floyd and the public outcry it inspired, we decided to slow down, rather than to speed up. We revaluated and we made a commitment to be more transparent and more open as we work towards producing decolonising guidance for the museums sector.
We decided to work toward a series of smaller goals and outcomes that we could revise iteratively. So this guidance is still very much a work in progress.
I and the other members of the working group are considering how we can reflect the decolonial work and ideas that have flourished inside and outside the sector in recent months, and we want to hear from you if you are also working on these issues.