Ethics of contested heritage and decolonial practice

Let’s take a long hard look at our automatic attitudes and behaviours. This is about the ethics of how you use your power and privilege.

This post was updated on 5 October 2021.

I’ve been having some interesting ethical discussions recently, particularly with colleagues from the Museums Association. The conversations have moved on from dilemmas of displaying and collecting certain kinds of things or selling items from collections to people, their public statements and behaviour–including politicians and Government.

Specifically the UK Government, albeit it is complicated as culture and heritage are devolved responsibilities across the four UK nations and the prevailing political attitude to so-called contested heritage (see also our Decolonising Glossary) is quite different in Northern Ireland, Wales and Scotland, compared with England. For example, in Scotland, there is an ongoing wide-ranging and generally politically-supportive conversation going on about Empire, Slavery and Scotland’s Museums; and in Wales at Amgueddfa Cymru (National Museum Wales) the Sub-Sahara Advisory Panel Youth Leadership Network is publicly addressing the currently-elevated context of the 18th-century slaver Thomas Picton within the formal setting of the national museum. In Northern Ireland, the complexity of contested heritage within the territory has a long and painful history which is finding oxygen and space within museums, now also confronting being both the coloniser, and the colonised.

I suggest those of us who can work and curate with more freedom offer our support to those who cannot speak out at this time.

Will decolonising stop?

Last month, as a response to the discussions and debates about how systemic racism, underpinned by colonial legacies in society, is reflected in our heritage, the UK Government decided it would take a public position. On 22 September the Secretary of State for Culture published a letter aimed at museums and other bodies directly funded by central government. I was puzzled at first. It has been hard enough over the years to get junior Arts ministers to remember that museums exist in the creative and cultural sectors, so why now did the Secretary of State feel compelled to state his position on contested heritage, and what are the ethics of such an unprecedented move? How will it affect our decolonising efforts when the Government are clear they do not want it?

The letter’s main concern is a reaction to public calls for the removal of contested statues particularly of prominent figures in the British Transatlantic Slave Trade and other colonial oppression and violence, e.g. causing serious famines in India. This included British war leader and hero Winston Churchill. The outrage from the parts of popular press was clearly resonating in certain politicians’ ears––much the same as when the National Trust published a report with a gazetteer of information on the Transatlantic slavery and colonial links of its properties and former owners. The latter was partly prompted by the child-led Colonial Countryside Project led by Professor Corinne Fowler.

The removal statues and other representations such as portraits from the public realm, and the wide but unsubstantiated argument that they are better off in museums, makes some sense but the letter goes much further: “Government does not support the removal of statues or other similar objects.”

Other similar objects? What kinds of objects are similar to statues of slavers and colonial leaders? What does removal mean? Is this a dig at repatriation requests? Probably. Can things never be moved or disposed of or transferred or repurposed? How do we decolonise how our collections are represented and who gets to have that final say? If we can’t interrogate museums, so many of which are the product of colonial exploitation, how can we proceed with decolonising practice in an open, public and transparent way?

I sympathise with the Secretary of State in a way. He doesn’t know how museums have run themselves for 200+ years, and that they have already changed a lot, removed and moved things, even summarily thrown artefacts (and human remains) away, because they became inconvenient unaccessioned presences. It’s just that until now, few have cared.

Curators must be impartial*

Perhaps most concerning from an ethical standpoint is this statement:

It is imperative that you continue to act impartially, in line with your publicly funded status, and not in a way that brings this into question.

Letter from Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden to DCMS Arm’s Length Bodies to outline the Government’s position on contested heritage, 22 September 2020.

What do the decision-makers and curators make of this? For about a decade and more the idea, globally, that museums are not neutral and certainly are not impartial*, has resonated in our seminars, conference rooms, books, articles and social media. Editorial integrity is a cornerstone of the Museums Association’s Code of Ethics, and central to the MA’s response to this letter.

How can we curate with integrity when the Government is stating its intention to censor any content or moves that threatens its sense of what ‘a nation’s’ heritage is and should be? We have never had to deal with such a shadowy presence before, one that is unsettling in the extreme. So while our colleagues from arms-length institutions figure out how to respond under threat of loss of funding and pressure to suppress, not respond and certainly not decolonise, I suggest those of us who can work and curate with more freedom offer our support to those who cannot speak out at this time. This is the ethical thing to do.

The situation sparked by the growing weaponisation of heritage and reflecting on the ethical implications of decolonisation minds me most of Principle 3 of the MA’s Code of Ethics.

Museums and those who work in and with them should:

  • act in the public interest in all areas of work
  • uphold the highest level of institutional integrity and personal conduct at all times
  • build respectful and transparent relationships with partner organisations, governing bodies, staff and volunteers to ensure public trust in the museum’s activities.

The idea that integrity is important in our ethical behaviour has never been so critical as now. I expect that this Principle in particular ought to be updated significantly particularly in the light of:

— providing support and succour for colleagues particularly those who are censored, ignored, in hardship or undertaking emotional labour

–– the desperate need for better/good/responsive communication between museums, stakeholders, employees, individual practitioners, colleagues for whom you are responsible

— taking an ethical stand against politically-motivated censorship and interference such as the Culture Minister has implied above – and this is being experienced in other countries with populist governments too

— being aware and alert to the weaponisation of culture and heritage (e.g school curriculum)

— ensuring decolonising practice is led by open and transparent aims that serve people, communities and cultures that have been systematically marginalised.

Decolonise ethically

Let’s take a long hard look at our automatic attitudes and behaviours. This is about the ethics of how you use your power and privilege. It’s worth remembering that ethics stretch out somewhere between personal and cultural mores and morals, and the Law. They form a code of conduct and expected behaviour.

Decolonising work is emotive and an emotional burden for many. The speed at which organisations and practitioners have leapt on decolonisation as the next hot thing needs tempering. You can’t consume your way to decolonisation. Take a breath and think about the ethical implications of what you are doing. I shared this advice recently with the Social History Curators Group:

–– Conflating diversity and decolonising work is not a good idea. One is a constructive process (diversity), the other is a diagnostic and dismantling process (decolonisation). They both speak to the need for museums and practitioners to better understand where they power and privilege lie and how this has routinely marginalised people and stories for decades

–– We see manifestations of colonial and narrow approaches most in the contents of our collections and in the ways they are described but this doesn’t just relate to ethnographic or world cultures collections and it’s nice we are seeing more recognition of this particularly in the realm of social history and natural history

–– Decolonising is anti-racist at its heart but there are many intersections that lead to exclusion and misrepresentation so nuance is critical–try as hard as you can to avoid singular labels related to race, class, gender, etc.

–– Don’t rush into or feel pressured to ‘do something’ with interpretation and collections as simple ways you can just ‘start to decolonise’ because everyone else seems to be doing it. You need to understand the specific context of your museum’s origins and its current communities and try and narrow that gap; you also need to understand your own starting points and lived experiences (this is so rarely done and yet self-reflection and awareness are critical)

–– There are serious ethical implications surrounding decolonial practice including hidden effects such as compassion fatigue and the emotional labour involved for the individuals undertaking the work; consider undertaking an ethical impact assessment of before you go decolonise

–– Museums need to be totally aware of the oppressive nature of their systems while decolonising their practice – it isn’t enough just to talk more openly about colonialism or about slavery, for example.

Updating curatorial integrity

Decolonising is not just about giving stuff back and doing more stuff for/with marginalised people–or being the host and venue for exciting webinars. It’s about committing to letting go of power and control and actively seeking ways to share them, whether decision-making or money or space or skills. We seek to dismantle processes that squeeze out human experiences and impact and systems which perpetuate the privilege of one over the other. Practically this manifests most in recruitment, the commissioning of work and volunteering where people become commodities or assets of the system, to be used for the benefit of the institution without due care for the deleterious or assistive impact on those people. Isn’t this what institutional and individual integrity is all about?