Decolonise or anti-colonise or understand the system? Some more thoughts for curators

I have updated this post to share important thoughts and wisdom from Péju Oshin, a British-Nigerian curator and educator based in London, and wonderful writer. The Long Journey home to Mother jolted me. There is so much I want to share with you from it but I don’t want to, because I want you to read it all.

we are forced to pause like no other period in living memory. We are forced to see the humanity in others.

Péju Oshin, The Long Journey Home to Mother.

Having had conversations with several colleagues I also need to be more explicit about the anti-racist fundamentals of decolonisation work and the need to recognise the fundamentally racist way in which we often work/are made to work. There has been much applause and condemnation in almost equal measure for statements by big museums and arts institutions about their standing with #BlackLivesMatter – the message needs amplifying but who are they to do it given their dark past actions and inactions? There are no easy answers and often the words just aren’t there but I would encourage anyone reading this to start the conversation with someone–anyone–and go from there. I have reflected on this and updated some of the points on decolonising curatorial practice below. [End of update, 2 June 2020]

They were clearly and genuinely disturbed by what they saw as the triumph of cultural relativism over science’s universalist, humanitarian aspirations.

Excerpt from: Paul Turnbull and Michael Pickering. “The Long Way Home”. Introduction by Paul Turnbull, p.21.

I am reading The Long Way Home. The Meanings and Values of Repatriation, ed. Paul Turnbull and Michael Pickering (Berghan Books, 2010). A big thank you to Berghan Books who made many of its titles free to download at the start of lockdown to aid researchers work and minds.

Who has the power?

In the introduction Paul Turnbull shines a light on fundamental issues underlying processes of decolonisation in culture, heritage and museum contexts, including views about cultural relativism (who does it belong to, particularly in regard to ancestral remains) and scientific universalism (knowledge for the good of all–but who decides?) He also talks a lot about power, as we have been doing in the Museums Association Decolonisation Working Group and in various online discussions.

I keep coming back to the conundrum that I meet pretty much throughout my work as a curator and historian, permission, trust and control. Who gets to decide? Do our leaders (and if you are one, do you) have a diverse network to draw on? It has always been a problem with recruitment that people hire in their own image. Even the nice ones. Only this morning I exchanged some tweets with Gemma Milne who has just published a book called, Smoke & Mirrors: How Hype Obscures the Future and How to See Past It (Robinson, 2020). She is interested in curatorial notions of power too. I was immediately drawn to her thinking in an article drawn from the book on how academics can avoid succumbing to hype in problematic ways.

“tell the story of the system, not one problem and one solution.”

Gemma Milne in ‘Two rules for responsible hype’, Research Professional News, 27 May 2020.

Much like the sad problems surrounding efforts in diversity: workforce, boards, press, institutions, it is a failure of identifying and describing the system–all of the things that emerge in unjust practice–rather than single-issue ‘problems’ that have caused a mobbish backlash against any mention of the word or what it stands for. I don’t want to see the same happen to decolonising practice but I am concerned that we are headed in that direction in the arts and cultural sector if we don’t do things very differently.

Being a generous host

In February 2020 I assisted the visit of Tapunga Nepe to Royal Cornwall Museum to meet, bless and study taonga Māori held at the museum for well over a century. Tapunga, Kaitieki Māori at Tairawhiti Museum in Gisborne, New Zealand, has both a personal and professional connection to these objects which are not adequately described within anglo-western museum paradigms. Read Citizen Curator Tamara Moluch’s experience of his visit.

As part of Tapunga Nepe’s visit I was interviewed, together with the then director Alan Wallace. Tapunga’s work immediately resonated with Alan because he used to live and work in New Zealand and completely ‘got’ its context. The first thing that Tapunga remarked upon was how generous we were, not only with time and assistance but with spirit, taking an active interest in the new/rediscovered knowledge being brought by him through the objects.

Tapunga Nepe sketching in a notebook the intricate patterns of close lines on a taiaha or combat staff used by the Māori leader Te Kooti. The head of the staff also has two red eyes made from wax and the pattern resembles a face tattoo or Tā Moko.
Tapunga Nepe sketching the distinctive Te Moko or face tattoos of the taiaha at Royal Cornwall Museum.

I consider being generous and a good host an inalienable part of being a good curator. This goes beyond just providing access. Tapunga had travelled a long way not just to the UK but to Cornwall too. I know what that feels like. His visit happened because of a study visit I made to New Zealand in 2017 when I was generously hosted by Eloise Wallace and her team at Tairawhiti Museum. It included being well looked after, treated to lunch, given time, being shown around the town and told some of its history, such as the controversial alleged Captain Cook statue which has since been removed.

Eloise Wallace (right) and me after a talk I gave to staff, colleagues, volunteers about museums, Cornwall and some of the taonga Māori kept in Cornwall.

It was a natural instinct perhaps not to think twice about showing Tapunga some of Truro and speaking with him some of Cornwall’s and Cornish history, language and identity. Cornwall and the Cornish struggle with colonialism too – from both sides of the spectrum as colonisers (disguised in diaspora studies) and as colonised (by the English).

It was embarrassing that when we went into Truro Cathedral the first thing we came across was a plaque celebrating the ‘discovery’ of Tahiti by some colonial person or other. We all just laughed. Tom had come up from Penzance to join us for dinner, we fancied some fish so we headed for fish and chips, guaranteeing they would be better than Kiwi ‘fush n’ chups’. We laughed some more and chatted through dinner before walking him home to his temporary digs.

A great part of this awesome experience, is also the ‘manaakitanga’ or the hospitality and care while visiting the taonga and while visiting this beautiful part of Cornwall. Thank you Tehmina! Definitely a repercussion of events, from an unforeseen connection through your random visit to little Gisborne, and it was that visit that pulled me to RCM. Thank you for looking after me, and assisting willingly with my visit. Please, share my thank yous with both Anna Somner and Tamara Moluch for their help with my research.

Email from Tapunga Nepe following his visit to Cornwall, Feb 2020.

I learned so much from him and he too was so grateful that I had made the effort of seeking out Gisborne on the eastern cape of Aotearoa-New Zealand to share images and descriptions of taonga Māori held in Cornwall. Two of our Citizen Curators also benefited from learning from him and one, Anna Somner, has gone on to research Royal Cornwall Museum as a site of colonial practice, as a result. It was also a good lesson in appreciating that just because someone comes from another culture doesn’t mean they will automatically know chapter and verse about its material culture and history, furthermore will not always be interested in it.

Is decolonisation being colonised?

Last week Victoria Okoye posted a question about the real depth to which people are claiming they are decolonising their practice (in this instance mainly talking about academia) and felt the word had lost its power and meaning–albeit that like diversity few people really understand or agree on its true meaning (read on). More seriously she and others felt some approaches to decolonisation were in themselves colonialist in nature: appropriating, superficial, status-enhancing trendy chat, even gentrified, keeping the unseen and unheard, unseen and unheard.

Read the thread to get an idea of the insights that others gave and also suggesting that anti-colonial practice was more accurate and less sullied. I was very buoyed by this thread and also wanted to question my own understanding of decolonising practice. Why was I interested? How am I going about it? Would others view it as credible or even recognise it as decolonisation? I raised it to colleagues at the Museums Association.

What is very clear is that we are not very clear to each other what we think or mean.

In a recent online discussion about how we should navigate decolonising guidance for museums in practical and intellectual terms, as a working group, several issues we had not previously addressed at face-to-face meetings came up. The pandemic has given us all time to pause and reflect, some of us are reflecting quite hard. In no particular order these things came up:

  • How do we ensure we work together so we can be more than respected rubber stamps?
  • How will decolonising guidance relate closely and absolutely to ethics?
  • We value transparency and openness above all
  • Misunderstanding and misuse of decolonisation is already widespread
  • We need to make tangible every true implication of undertaking this process
  • How might we bring our whole self experience to bear to help change people’s minds?
  • How might we create guidance that is more than a set of statements and selective case-studies?
  • Vocabulary and narrative is too simplistic, this is about more than the British Empire and the ethnographic collections of large museums.
  • The vexed subject of definition. We have to tackle this. Maybe we should aim for definitions (plural).

A corrective to a deeply political entity.

Discussing how we define decolonising practice in a museum context.

A political intervention?

The biggest barrier to decolonising practice–whether that starts with acknowledgement, change in tone and language, prioritising provenance research and support or restitution–is that many people and agencies view decolonisation as a political intervention into a non-political space (the museum).

Despite the widespread view within the museum sector that museums are not neutral and in spite of many museums being themselves products of sometimes/often violent colonialism and power grabbing (regardless of whether they are later presented as objects of scientific enquiry), many decision makers and workers and parts of society will not accept this right now.

One colleague remarked that decolonisation is a “corrective to a deeply political entity.”

Another colleague in our discussion remarked, “I have been hidden for many years. Now I’m called the decolonisation guru.”

The same typecasting that happens with the expectation of performative diversity from decision-makers (we have hired a Diversity Officer/Manager so we’ve done our bit or we have our professional disabled person at the table) is happening with decolonisation.

Steps towards a process of decolonisation for curators

All of this compels me to move out of punditry and into practice. This is a starter attempt at putting into words and nurturing a structure to decolonise anglo-Western curatorial practice of which I am also a product: my love and priority for collections and collecting for its own sake, my fascination with things and happenings for their own sake, my appreciation for the organisation of knowledge. However I also have a strong impulse and desire that these fascinations are pluralistic, very ready to absorb and acknowledge from others and enjoy new relationships forged.

The following revolve around attitude and a code of behaviour.

  1. Acknowledgement. Acknowledge your power and your past. Recognise past work that raised your mind and attention to decolonial work – and make sure you attribute that work correctly, i.e. if you are an institution do not appropriate the work of your staff and associates.
  2. Words matter. Decolonisation, source / indigenous communities, colonial, all need careful sets of definitions. Let’s vary them and not just have one each. Check out our decolonising glossary.
  3. Ethics. How is our sacred set of values around museums, collections, engagement and conduct challenged by decolonising practice?
  4. Be self-aware. How will you and your role be perceived in a decolonising process? How can you mitigate against your own biases? Avoid superficial exercises in empathy. What is your motivation for getting involved with decolonisation?
  5. Be a good host. Make the effort to build trust in a relationship whether that starts with a request to research or repatriate.
  6. Be generous. With your time and attention more than anything. Take an interest in the process. Be also generous with who gets to make the decisions.
  7. Respond. Do not ignore and stonewall questions that are uncomfortable to you about perceived colonial behaviour. Avoid corporate and defensive responses. Welcome in the challenge.
  8. Don’t lead. Be prepared to divest your power and let go of trying to control the process: ask how you can help and assist, or prepare yourself to modify your expectation of how certain objects should be handled; tread carefully with proactive repatriation, don’t assume people want their old stuff back [“Africa has moved on” Prof Shadreck Chirikure.]
  9. Don’t exhaust. People from or close to source communities don’t know everything about everything in your collection relating to their culture.
  10. Othering. When you talk about people, art, artefacts, specimens in decolonising practice use an active voice so as not to ‘other’ or objectify them. Imagine yourself being spoken about like that. This also includes equalising gendered descriptions, e.g. invert the relationship: X was Y’s husband rather than Y was the wife of X. If really feel you have to use a short-hand to refer to non-white people e.g. BAME (Black, Asian, Minority Ethnic) and POC (people of colour) or BIPOC (Black, Indigenous and People of Colour–beware of this in European countries) please do not use it in the singular as if all of the diversity of most of the planet thinks, feels and experiences in the same way–the Global Majority. Experiences of Black/African people are significantly worse than those of other ethnic groups.
  11. Authentic language. With due consultation adopt language that is more meaningful to and resonates more with source communities e.g. taonga Māori, Cornish instead of English.
  12. Communities are plural. There isn’t always ‘a community’ to draw on for their wisdom in decolonising processes, whether that’s for repatriation, diversifying governance or workforce, democratising decision-making or collaborating. Don’t make wild claims about ‘working with the X community.’ That in itself is a colonial action (statement of unequal power or “othering”). See the person, don’t make them perform to one label. See also no. 10 about objectifying.
  13. Avoid assumptions. People you associate with one community are more than likely not all thinking and doing the same thing. Organisations and groups in source countries, regions or communities are not all thinking the same way and a representative of community may not be widely acknowledged as such. Be broad with your conversations. If you don’t know something, ask, don’t assume.
  14. Open up your decision-making. You may be the legal arbiter of decisions particularly when it comes to transferring ownership but in most processes underpinned by debate or dialogue be open to letting others decide how to manage a process.
  15. Colonial documentation. Anglo-Western methods of cataloguing and describing objects and specimens are just that, they objectify and then privilege a narrow set of descriptors over others and are written in the passive voice. Artefacts originally used for other purposes e.g. a water carrier may be classified as decorative art and not easy for others to find. This also goes for other excluding practices in catalogues such as the absence of women and medicalised language for disability. Redescribing, relabelling, restitution should go hand-in-hand with responsible rationalisation of collections.