In the Autumn I was pleased to see an article I contributed to the Museum X Takeover of Museums Journal published by the Museums Association as part of a seminal issue that set out its stall for a Black British Museum. Titled, ‘You’ve got to get your history right‘, this article will form the basis of a significant piece of future research on the actual, rather than imagined, history of collections and museums in Britain, particularly independent and smaller museums and those that began as literary, philosophical and scientific societies.
This was the premise of my article: Museums exist to hold collections in trust for the public, document them, research them, display and exhibit them, and make them available to others who wish to. But unlike libraries and archives, whose focuses are on recording and providing information [I know they have their moments], museums have largely failed to engage with, document and portray history as it was. Rather, through collecting and display, they portray a kind of pseudo-history of what they wish society to remember, and forget what and who they wish society to forget. The article explains the historical roots of why this is, including addressing ideologies rooted in Neoclassicism, colonialism, and the Great Chain of Being.
Why are museums the way they are, what made them this way?
In fact the research and thinking for this article began more than 20 years ago at the Textile Conservation Centre, University of Southampton, when I was undertaking my Masters dissertation in Museum Studies on the value systems shaped around classical and neoclassical collections. In essence, I have been asking, “why are museums the way they are, what made them this way?”
Over the last two years, ideas based on usually very tenuous notions of decolonisation, have run rife through the public museum and gallery sector, and the media.
Statements have been made, interim reports published, guidance has been drawn up, media campaigns for and against have emerged, individuals have sought to capitalise from the increased interest in decolonisation by attempting, mostly unsuccessfully, to become influencers of museums and their users.
There have been webinars, roundtables and workshops almost every day of the week. Short-term jobs have been recruited to enlist the help of people who have been previously marginalised by museums and their priorities, object records in collections management systems everywhere have run hot with ‘search and find’ queries to locate offensive and outdated words in an attempt to change them before anyone notices (in other words erasing the very history of museums we need to keep and study right now).
What this means in practice is doing research
I have been in the privileged position over most of this year to be a mentor to museums specifically wishing to understand or re-learn about their collections from a decolonial perspective. What this means in practice is doing research, provenance research, institutional research, history of collections research, and object research. There is no substitution, and unless you have undertaken some of this work, there is little point changing terms, words and language in your database, whether it’s published online or not. Future curators and museum users will not thank you or appreciate your efforts.
If you have been fortunate enough to acquire documentary and object research skills through your practice and/or formal study for a history or archaeology degree, for example, you will understand what I mean when I say, context is all, understanding cause and consequence, placing your subject correctly in a geopolitical and chronological sense, and being able to hold complexity in your mind while you form your conclusions.
It is, of course, deeply unfortunate that in a Twitter-dominated sphere much noise is made about decolonising museums and collections but the actual work is continuing in a hidden way, mainly unsung. Public messaging is being tightly controlled by PR, Comms and Marketing people in order to mitigate any negative responses from a supposed public.
If you are interested in adopting a methodical framework for historical research, particularly if you might be stuck at home and wanting to learn more, do look at our Guide on Doing Historical Research Online.
As curators we shouldn’t wince at the idea of saying, we definitely do not know what this is, don’t feel good about how it is currently documented, or we know we have got this wrong.
Hiding and keeping back is another habit museums and curators have got into that they have to get out of. The out-of-proportion fear of offending people or making the professionally angry, angrier, is holding far too much sway over museums and curators, to the extent that we are forgetting our purpose: to hold collections in trust for the public, research them, share the knowledge and communicate widely–then we can move onto creating the engaging experiences from collections that we crave.
I was speaking to two people yesterday who had backgrounds in libraries. They are both undertaking provenance and collections research at their museum. They commented on how their instinct is to immediately share, both their conclusions and their voyage of discovery with the public. And I’m certain the vast majority of the interested public would appreciate this too.
Another aspect to getting your history right is to be honest when you don’t know. As curators we shouldn’t wince at the idea of saying, we definitely do not know what this is, don’t feel good about how it is currently documented, or we know we have got this wrong.
However, rather than fill the gaps with spurious and disjointed research, especially when it is only conducted superficially through poor web searching, maybe it’s best to do nothing and put effort into seeking out people with both the scholarly knowledge and the lived experience to offer their expertise?
Many sector bodies have lost entirely the connection between collections research and the cultivation of new audiences, and the education of existing ones.
It is not an exaggeration to say I come across daily cases of poor practice in the name of decolonising collections. This is because museums and their people have not taken the time to do any self-awareness work first (e.g. am I really qualified to do this work, either personally or professionally?), any institutional positionality (e.g. can our museum really claim to be experts given the way we have documented or neglected these objects in the past?) or spending the hours doing the research, reading the history files, tracing donors and their stories, doing hard-core, no-apology, historical research, purposefully, accurately, and peer-reviewed.
It does not help that much public funding for collections work focuses entirely on ‘engagement’ than it does on the foundations that rely on meaningful work with audiences and communities: research and documentation. It seems many sector bodies have lost entirely the connection between collections research and the cultivation of new audiences, and the education of existing ones.
It is certainly not possible to decolonise anything without doing this research, taking time to talk with, and bring under your wing, people who know more than you (don’t forget to pay them) and taking your time to get the basics right.