Over the past year or so, I’ve led the Museums Association’s decolonisation work. I’ve developed an introductory module for museum staff, and created two networks – one to support those new to the field, the other to help people understand the contours of decolonisation as an institutional cultural policy.
It has been a heady time. The changes occurring now are the result of years of slow erosion to museums’ structures of power and the anti-racist challenges made by generations. In some quarters, terms such as “colonial violence” or “white supremacy” are becoming commonplace, with phrases such as “museums are not neutral” moving from fringe opinion to simple fact.
Given this, and given the push from so many to undertake inspirational work, it would be tempting to make this article a piece of decolonisation hagiography, where I “humble brag” about achievements and affirm that we will no longer be “space invaders”, in the words of Nirmal Puwar’s evergreen book about race and gender.
But optimism needs to be tempered with a better understanding of the contradictions of this vast area of work and the ways in which old forms of power, exclusion and racism morph and are energised. The most common conversations I have with people working in this field – and across areas such as disability and LGBTQ+ politics – are “how long will this wave of interest last?”, “will this be different from last time?”
and, sadly, “they really don’t get it…”.
Just as the museum has historically helped determine the canon of knowledge, it can also determine the ways in which we unpack and critique that canon. It can seek to manage its troubling “others” in ways that may give voice to them, but also limit those voices. It can be the means through which it manages a fear of its own loss of power and authority. Carlos Tortolero (Museums Journal Nov/Dec 2022) used the expression “Columbus syndrome” to capture the irony: “They are the discoverers of how to deal with the problem that they have helped maintain.”
Museums may feel able to challenge the outdated language on a label, but have they got the will and support to look at how the power structures that produced the outdated language live on in other forms in our organisations, and can also play out through decolonial and anti-racist initiatives? On the ground, I still hear stories of a lack of understanding of nuance, a willingness to “hear” only selective parts of what is being said about decolonisation and, as always, limited time and funding.
It’s not fun to be the person who raises concerns in the face of the freight train of decolonial enthusiasm – to be positioned as negative or creating unnecessarily over-intellectual roadblocks to getting on with the work.
We have never addressed the cost to ourselves of relentless encounters, as we raise our hands gingerly with queries that irritate or trigger passive/aggressive retorts.
But it is in this difficult place where the real work happens, and where longevity and a depth of engagement may be secured. Here, we may be able to express our full humanity.
But as my optimism is tempered, so is my pessimism. I have been energised by the network of brave people who voice concerns, and am buoyed by the friendship and solidarity this brings. This time, maybe.
Roshi Naidoo is the Museums Association’s decolonising programme officer