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Museums Can No Longer Ignore Colonizer Narratives

On October 8, 2018 (Columbus Day for some states and Indigenous Peoples Day for others) a protest took place in New York’s American Museum of Natural History (AMNH). The protest was led by activists from Decolonize This Place. The event was their third annual Anti-Columbus Day event. While a main point of contention is the AMNH’s outdated and racist exhibitions, their position is detailed and multi-faceted. Visit this link to read more on Decolonize This Place’s  position, experience with, and request of the AMNH.

Neutrality Isn’t an Option

The continued existence of Columbus Day is just one example of the many things that still need to be addressed and amended when it comes to respecting and including traditionally underrepresented peoples in the United States, and indeed, the broader Western world. Museums are in a transitional state where their traditional claim of neutrality can no longer be accepted as reality due to obvious colonizer, racist, and white supremacist narratives present within many exhibitions. As a result, museums with outdated narratives are increasingly called upon to fix this broken and antiquated piece of their organization.

In an April 23, 2018 opinion piece for The Guardian, “Museums are hiding their imperial pasts – which is why my tours are needed”, Alice Procter explains why she gives Uncomfortable Art Tours. Procter states: “Museums are institutions of memory—they must stop pretending there’s only one version of events, and be willing to own up to their role in shaping the way we see the past.” She calls for telling a story that hasn’t been told—at least not publicly. She’s been called a sensationalist, and even UK Members of Parliament have taken the time to belittle and demean her efforts.

Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Statements

In the last few years, museums as well as nonprofits and corporations have started to adopt statements for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion (DEI). (Sometimes “accessibility” is also mentioned). Museums cannot have statements for DEI and refuse or be slow to acknowledge poor past practices, grievances, and atrocities perpetrated against the non-dominant cultural groups represented in museum collections. Museums have a proclivity for censoring catalog records and sanitizing descriptive panels, leaving only a sterile, basic description for an object. It’s a practice that’s becoming less and less tolerable as the call for transparency rises — being the first of many steps necessary toward full reparation. By exposing and confronting colonizer attitudes and practices, museums can begin to evolve.

Letting Go of Neutrality for New Learning & Engagement

Museums need to shake off their tacit commitment to presenting a biased, one-sided, and white supremacist view and acknowledge our collective, diverse, messy, controversial history. This work should be done because it’s the right things to do; however, museums are slow to evolve and unfortunately require inducements to validate any evolution. In that vein, think of the potential new learning and community engagement that will occur once efforts to address colonizer narratives are underway. These are two items that are typically very desirable for museums and their strategic plans.

Where Do We Begin?

There’s not a tried and true, nor perfect path for museums to follow that will adequately address this problem. However, that’s not to say they shouldn’t try. Here are seven things a museum should begin doing right now:

  1. Be transparent and acknowledge bad acquisition practices in object panel descriptions and catalog records.
  2. Adjust docent tours to incorporate discussions of how colonialism and racism have contributed to the artifact being on display today.
  3. Change whitewashed exhibit narratives to inclusive historical narratives.
  4. Create and adopt specific actions the museum will take to work towards true diversity, equity, and inclusion.
  5. Address concern and calls for correction from (currently) external, directly impacted groups.
  6. Hire qualified individuals from the different cultural groups and geo-political regions represented in the collection to curate and construct exhibits.
  7. Acknowledge and open the dialogue with groups who call for the repatriation of their artifacts. Actively work towards a resolution with benchmarks and a timeline in place.

Some of these items can (and should) be quickly employed, while others will undoubtedly take time. Though I caution any museum against taking too much time, as it indicates insincerity and a lack of commitment to solving the problem. This isn’t something to be metered out in a 10-year plan. There needs to be action, plans, transparency, and communication right away. As Decolonize This Place and other activist groups accurately point out, the continued existence and access to colonizer narratives is harmful, and museums should take the safety and well-being of all their patrons very seriously.

 

Image courtesy of Jasn, via Flickr’s Creative Commons (https://www.flickr.com/photos/lewishamdreamer/447537371/), and follows the Creative Commons Attribution License: https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/. Image downloaded for use November 2018, and was not purposefully altered. 

2019 Master Plan for Museum Professionals

“Winter is my favorite time to prepare for the year ahead. Regardless of when the fiscal year ends, the end of the calendar year is a natural point in time for us to take stock of the year that’s passed and prepare for the next twelve months. This is an opportune time to review goals for the year ahead and what it will take to get there. Much like we do in our personal lives with New Year’s resolutions, I advocate we should identify professional benchmarks to achieve in 2019 and the activities that need to be undertaken along the way.”

Read the full post at Lucidea’s Think Clearly Blog

RTI Digitization in the Museum

“Digitization within museums takes many forms. With the increasing accessibility of 3D digitization methods, it can be difficult to determine the point at which 2-Dimensional (2D) digitization isn’t enough and 3-Dimensional (3D) digitization is needed. However, there is an alternative option for objects that are mostly 2D, but require a more powerful form of digitization.”

Read the full post at Lucidea’s Think Clearly Blog.

How to Increase Museum Conference ROI

“Tight operation budgets mean limited conference funds and staff have to think hard about which conferences they’re going to attend that year. While there are some ways to alleviate conference attendance cost (as discussed in a previous post How to Conference on a Museum Budget) it’s still going to be a chunk of change. This is especially true if you’re attending a national or international conference far from the museum’s home base. Some museum professionals have learned through trial and error which conferences they prefer to attend. Though it’s important to note that conferences change their offerings every year, and every year you should reevaluate conference opportunities. Others commit to whichever conference opportunities come up first before the conference budget runs out. Instead, I recommend conducting a small ROI (Return on Investment) investigation into each conference opportunity to evaluate which conferences will give you the biggest ROI.”

Read the full post at Lucidea’s Think Clearly Blog.

How to Conference on a Museum Budget

“Attending museum conferences is an important facet of healthy museum operations. Museum professionals need to attend conferences in order to stay abreast of current and forecasted museum issues, learn and gather fresh ideas to bring back to the museum, and network with colleagues to build critical inter-museum partnerships. There are many conference opportunities to choose from, ranging from regional to international, as well as the one-time symposiums and workshops that may spring up throughout the year. The issue isn’t choosing which conferences the staff want to attend; instead, it’s finding the money to support museum staff attending any conference opportunity. Museum operating budgets and money to support staff development are critical issues that can’t be solved in a blog post, but these tips to conferencing on a museum budget will help alleviate the often $1000+ cost for conference attendance.”

Read the full post at Lucidea’s Think Clearly Blog.