The museum will not be decolonised

Museums are not neutral in their preservation of history. In fact, arguably, they are sites of forgetfulness and fantasy. The way exhibitions are constructed usually assumes a white audience and privileges the white gaze. The white walls signified the choices of white people, their agency, their museum collections, and the endeavours of colonialists. To many white people, the collections are an enjoyable diversion, a nostalgic visit which conjures up a romanticised version of Empire. For many people of colour, collections symbolise historic and ongoing trauma and theft. Behind every beautiful object and historically important building or monument is trauma. As the historian and writer, Nana Oforiatta Ayim has said: “In the British Museum, you have the African galleries, and it’s like, ‘This drum is from 1500 Ashanti’, but there is nothing else about it. You don’t know what it is used for, what context it’s from, how it was brought here, who stole it. The museum as it exists today is so much an imperialist project and is so much about power.” The craftsmanship, the display case, the beauty of the institution that collects and protects its imperial hoard: the way items are described, the way they are catalogued and what gets shown and what remains hidden; all work to deny, retreat, and forget (…) Decolonising is deeper than just being represented. When projects and institutions proclaim a commitment to ‘diversity’, ‘inclusion’ or ‘decoloniality’ we need to attend to these claims with a critical eye. Decoloniality is a complex set of ideas – it requires complex processes, space, money, and time, otherwise it runs the risk of becoming another buzzword, like ‘diversity’. As interest in decolonial thought grows, we must beware of museums’ and other institutions’ propensity to collect and exhibit because there is a danger (some may argue an inevitability) that the museum will exhibit decoloniality in much the same way they display/ed black and brown bodies as part of Empire’s “collection”. I do not want to see decolonisation become part of Britain’s national narrative as a pretty curio with no substance – or, worse, for decoloniality to be claimed as yet another great British accomplishment: the railways, two world wars, one world cup, and decolonisation.

Sumaya Kassim in The museum will not be decolonised (Mediadeversified)