Essay: Decolonising Museums


Re-Opening the Belly of the Beast: reflections on The Past Is Now and the (im)possibility of decolonising the museum.


words Sumaya Kassim


2018 presents a fascinating case study for historians of the future: in a time of resurgent colonial nostalgia and far-right white nationalism, colonial centres are ‘reopening the colonial machinery’ by re-examining objects kept in museums which were stolen during the colonial period. Notably, the V&A faced significant backlash when they exhibited the Maqdala collection – treasure plundered from Ethiopia in the 19th century. The Ethiopian government demands for the objects’ return. It is in the apparently innocuous language of ‘loaning’ that many take issue. The language of museum bureaucracy mirrors colonial logic, loaded with ideological undercurrents, not least the intimation that Britain continues to view itself as a benevolent custodian of ‘world culture’, superior to the primitive, uncivilised ‘natives’ of the colonies. In the argument over history’s role in the present, there are essentially two camps: there are the decolonial activists who are demanding for institutions to confront their former (and continued) complicities, who find the notion of a colonial centre ‘loaning’ stolen artefacts paradoxical at best (hypocritical and arrogant at worst). Then there are the those who believe that change should not be radical, but gradual, that Empire should be examined with an even-keeled, ‘rational’ outlook that considers the ‘benefits’ of imperial endeavour.

It is in museums that fraught issues - morality, national identity and the role of history – take on a performative role. In 2017, I was excited to join a team of co-curators to contend with Birmingham’s colonial history using Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery’s (BMAG) existing collections. The team consisted of activists and artists who live in Birmingham. The resultant exhibition was The Past is Now, an anti-capitalist and anti-colonial exhibition which attempted to bring our knowl- edge and experience as artists, activists and as women of colour to a building steeped in stale, pale, male interpretation.

The Past is Now  exhibition at the BMAG.

The Past is Now exhibition at the BMAG.

To do this, we wrote interpretations that challenged white visitors’ version of Britain and which made Black and PoC visitors feel validated. We attempted to show the global, interconnected nature of Britain’s colonial project, especially through trade and military conquests. We had long discussions and debates about what (and, indeed, who) would be in the exhibition. Rachael Minott, our Research Assistant, metabolised our discussions and created a mini-catalogue of objects.

From this, we selected items we felt best represented ‘decolonial’ storylines: turtle shells for the environment, guns to reflect on the gun trade that developed of Birmingham as a city (note: guns made in Birmingham were largely traded for enslaved women), and objects which reflected on Joseph Chamberlain, the ‘father’ of Birmingham, particularly his role as Colonial Secretary and his collusion with Cecil Rhodes during the Second Anglo Boer war.

We also explored two independence movements (Kenya and India). Graphic designer Abeera Kamran left Urdu untranslated in her interpretation to provide an irritation for English only speakers. We put mirrors on the walls to interpolate visitors into the story of Britain’s making.

In my article chronicling the process, I reflected on the level of negotiation, compromise and heartache in the curation process. Considering the legacy of the project is a similarly complicated matter. In many ways, The Past Is Now was an unmitigated success. One of the main aims was to attract diverse audiences and (thanks to Shaheen Kasmani and Aliyah Hasinah’s ties to Birmingham’s communities) the exhibition attracted a large influx of Black and PoC visitors. The exhibition’s popularity demonstrated the urgent demand from the public for an honest conversation about the violence and trauma that formed the world as we know it. Many of the people involved in The Past Is Now have been invited to give talks across the country on decoloniality and museums. What has emerged is a complex, evolving conversation on what defines decoloniality in metropolitan colonial ‘centres’ and how we can perform justice in the present. Some of us characterise the curatorial process as hopeful, whilst others focus on the unfinished work of decolonising. The curatorial process revealed the degree of inequality embedded in the heritage sector. It is all a matter of perspective. For instance, many of the key figures involved in the process have left BMAG which reflects the national cuts to arts funding. Indeed, the improper distribution of funds means the heritage and arts sector can be a hostile place for aspiring curators and artists. Another example is that BMAG is undergoing a multimillion pound restructuring – we have been told our ideas will be used in the process. Some would say this is a “success”, because the museum has taken our ideas onboard. But this, yet again, neglects to address the women of colour who provided free consultation work unknowingly.

I recently talked to a researcher who interviewed visitors and analysed data from the exhibition. He explained that there was a clear trend when talking to white visitors in particular. White visitors tended to view the room as ‘just another room’ in the museum and were not able to engage with the ‘decolonial’ object interpretations. When pushed, they relied on the rhetoric of multiculturalism and inclusion; they did not appear to have a lexicon or vocabulary to describe the historical trajectories and perspectives we had hoped were apparent. This does not surprise me. The British education system continues to perpetuate erasures and elisions. Most people have opinions that centre their own feelings about the black and brown people they encounter such as ‘diversity is good [for us]’ or ‘multiculturalism is ruining our nation’ in a totally ahistorical way. We read about ‘our economy’ but no one is taught about where the money came from. We do not hear about how colonialism impacted the environment, and current geopolitical realities. Mainstream media outlets reinforce this by focusing on ‘racism’ as opposed to structural features, as if racism were a character flaw rather than a symptom of structural inequalities.

The inability to centre opposing perspectives is also apparent in an article written in The Times which suggested that a truly innovative account of Empire would consider the benefits of Empire. It was only in 2017 that one small room in a museum questioned any of its history, couched in the terms of ‘experimental’ and ‘innovative’ and ‘perspec- tives’. The writer could not accept one critical room in an entire building that celebrates Empire. He could not imagine what it would be like to walk through institutional spaces as a black or brown woman, with all her knowledge and experience, with all her pain and understanding. He could not imagine the emotional labour that was required of the women of colour who curated this project.

This level of fragility makes me laugh. It is so very revealing. As a woman of colour, walking through a museum, I cannot turn away from history – but I know that white audiences have been trained to look away from history and museums are complicit in cultivating this ‘turning away’. Museums are not neutral. No one building or ideology or peoples can claim neutrality. The version of the past that most British people learn is structured to protect white innocence by constructing a rosy-view of Empire and of British “greatness”. Museums’ cataloguing structures, curatorial and collecting practices construct and maintain epistemological and ontological categories that celebrate and justify colonial endeavour.

Perhaps the most notorious examples of this were the human zoos of the 19th century which created a spectacle of the well-known “scientific fact” that black people were less than human…

Read the full essay in POSTSCRIPT Issue 2.