How do museums across the world deal with the heritage of imperialism, autocracy, totalitarianism and tyranny?
In the words of Arundhati Roy “the project of domination [is] ongoing.” In the midst and in the immediate aftermath of invasion, occupation, and genocide, the focus of museums and heritage will be on rescuing, replacing and healing. But after rebuilding and building anew what happens? Taking examples from post-Soviet Estonian museums and (nearly) post-colonial Aotearoa New Zealand we can learn about how museums can take a longer decolonial view of painful pasts that remember, reflect and reveal society and culture in all their contradictions and diversities.
In October 2022 I was honoured to join a symposium together with Ukrainian and UK museum colleagues to reflect on the practical and ethical challenges of museums and galleries during and after war. It was organised by the Ukrainian Institute, Birkbeck and the British Council as part of their UK/Ukraine cultural season. The season had already started before the Russian government’s invasion of Ukraine in February so we found ourselves in the hush of a Friday evening – Friday night in Ukraine – in an evocative, thoughtful and inspiring online event about museums, getting to the heart of why people think they matter.
What follows is a reflection on our discussion about the ethics of international solidarity, then substantially the text of my presentation for Mapping Ukraine.
Politics and museum ethics
Museums and their sector organisations have a long history of trying to ignore political context. This situation has changed considerably over the last decade where issues with strong political dimensions have come face to face with museum ethics and the dilemmas museums and their governing bodies face, where it is to do with moving historical statues, art as the subject of climate protests, or the source of money and sponsorship.
However in this case, the ethics felt a lot keener. We were a group of museum professionals who had common cause in the power and value of art, culture and heritage to be a source of hope and a site of resistance against tyranny. We talked about the muted and somewhat manicured response of ICOM, the International Council on Museums, since the 2022 invasion but also since the 2014 annexation of Crimea and the daily resistance that takes place in their museums in spite of the looting and pillaging (by the way the language was always about invasion and occupation and not hostilities and conflict as many organisations outside Ukraine have shifted to). Like in the United Nations, Russian delegations hold significant political sway in spite of the words and actions of their government, and especially in relation to Ukraine and Ukrainians. There was frustration and anger felt in our room that the words were so circumspect and the sense of solidarity so feeble from the largest museum organisation in the world.
ICOM’s first statement in February 2022 acknowledged the invasion and that it was done by the Russian Federation in no uncertain terms. However it was also quick to rally both State Parties – the invader and the occupied – to observe the protocols of the 1954 Hague Convention for the Protection of Cultural Property. As far as statements from international bodies which are traditionally compelled (by politics and diplomacy) to be equivocal, it was just on the ok side of ethical. The real work being done through the vehicles that ICOM offers are by national chapters, particularly ICOM UK (see especially the work of Maria Blyzinsky) and ICOM Poland.
After first securing their own safety, ICOM advises all its members to recall their professional obligations under the ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums to preserve, maintain and promote heritage and ensure their museums and collections are protected against all varieties of risk, including in conflict.ICOM, Statement concerning the Russian invasion of Ukraine, 24 February 2022.
For me, the cognitive dissonance came through in this part of the statement: “After first securing their own safety, ICOM advises all its members to recall their professional obligations under the ICOM Code of Ethics for Museums to preserve, maintain and promote heritage and ensure their museums and collections are protected against all varieties of risk, including in conflict.” I’m just not sure when you are faced first with preserving your own skin and that of your kin, then thinking about protecting cultural property and collections as best you can, that the ICOM Code of Ethics would be the first thing I would turn to.
Then in August 2022 ICOM issued a further statement which maintained the condemnation of the Russian invasion and acknowledged the sterling work being on the ground by ICOM members. But swiftly in paragraph three ICOM Russia’s response was both acknowledged and welcomed, both committing to the ICOM Code of Ethics and the Hague Convention… and yet the state-sponsored looting and destruction of cultural heritage was continuing, well-evidenced, but not directly acknowledged by ICOM. Instead a thickly veiled statement on the growing trend of state interference in museums and culture.
The findings of the Museum Watch Governance Management Project, conducted by the ICOM International Committee for Management (INTERCOM) and CIMAM, note a worrying trend of increased political interference in museums and cultural institutions.ICOM, ICOM will establish a protocol on respecting the ICOM Code of Ethics during conflicts, 19 August 2022.
The response? Another review of ICOM’s Code of Ethics to take into account the global scale of conflicts: “take into account the different national contexts of ICOM Committees vis-à-vis their national governments and include strategies for supporting them.”
All the while ICOM Russia remains at the top table.
Museums perceiving decolonisation after occupation
I want to continue by outlining what I understand to be the dynamics of colonial and decolonial approaches, the colonial mindset and decolonial mindset. This is also apposite considering the time that has passed since we started writing about decolonisation and museums at the CRC.
While I have been challenging dominant modes of thinking and doing in public museum curation for a long time, it has been over the last three years in particular that ideas around decolonisation have truly entered the mainstream of the UK museum sector and gathered some kind of momentum. For example the Museums Association’s Decolonisation Guidance published in 2021, the culmination of two years of working group discussions and contributions from across the UK museum landscape.
This pressure to examine colonial-era legacies – in a former colonising country’s museums – has come from outside the sector. This dynamic is important to remember. It is not possible for a former colonising country’s museums to attempt their version of decolonisation without positioning themselves in this framework first. And you have to get your history right too.
“Decolonising your practice means to both understand where your power and privilege comes from and take actions to divest some of that power and privilege to those who have been excluded, marginalised, objectified or misrepresented.”Tehmina Goskar, Decolonising Collections Exhibitions and Displays, 2021.
This is as near to a framework definition as I dare to go. Indeed we want complexity, we want fuzziness and we need to embrace contradiction, as museums perceiving decolonisation after occupation must do so in an inclusive way. The mess of colonial legacies is a very human problem.
Perhaps this is more eloquently described by Arundhati Roy (author of The God of Small Things and the Ministry of Utmost Happiness as well as several influential works questioning colonialism). Her understanding of colonialism, which is also the intellectual foundation of the Decolonising Arts Institute at University of the Arts London (UAL) says:
“Whose colonisation of whom are we talking about? Some countries have colonised other countries, some cultures have colonised other cultures, some races and castes have colonised and enslaved others, some languages have colonised other languages, some religions have eviscerated others, some ideologies have wiped out others, some genders have dominated and oppressed others. The categories are infinite, the hierarchies complicated and intersecting, the project of domination ongoing.” (2017)Arundhati Roy, 2017.
The project of domination is ongoing
The empathetic version of this paradigm requires us to think about a time or times we have felt rejected or excluded from something, or a group, or felt anxious about stepping into a new space. Actively reflecting on those deeply personal moments of discomfort and pain, feeling like you are the only one who looks, feels, sounds, thinks like you is a critical piece of work everyone undertaking decolonising work needs to do, and keep doing.
Your positionality is also important. It is an external assessment of your power and privilege in relation to others. This is not a binary but amorphous, and your position may change: on one hand as the one with the power, and on the other hand the one without the power and privilege.
So, in the midst of, and in the immediate aftermath of, invasion, occupation, genocide cultural destruction and erasure, the focus of museums and heritage will be on rescuing, replacing and healing. Any web search on museums in Ukraine and in the many other regions of the world mired by the project of domination results in story after story of the physical destruction and denuding of cultural buildings and artefacts, and the recording of that destruction until such a time as integrity can be restored or recreated.
When it comes to occupation and conflict nationalism can be a means for resistance and survival, but internationalism and transnationalism have to be the means for sustaining humanity’s collective safety.
But after rebuilding, building and branding anew what happens then?
The desire for true decoloniality will take time following occupation and conflict. There is no decolonial end point. It is not a project. It requires museums to be places of long-term recognition of hurt, and the healing of rifts, welcoming one and all.
When it comes to occupation and conflict nationalism can be a means for resistance and survival, but internationalism and transnationalism have to be the means for sustaining humanity’s collective safety.
Whatever happens in our museums in the future, when it comes to the project of domination, our history will always be part of their history, and their history will always be part of our history. You’ve got to get your history right.
This is where, perhaps uniquely in society, we might possibly perceive the museum as having the most potential to position nation and heritage in a decolonial mindset.
Let me now share two case-studies which made large impressions on me as a curator operating in the context of a former (maybe) colonising country.
Estonian museums and post-Soviet decolonisation
It is dangerous to think that the time of Stalins and Hitlers has passed.President of the Republic of Estonia Lennart Meri, 1999.
Inspiring the title of this talk, it comes from an information sign of the Exhibition of Soviet Monuments of the Estonian History Museum in Tallinn. Photographed while visiting in 2019 I was struck at the contrast between the stories inside the museum, ones of how Estonians resisted Soviet imperialism and finally overthrew it with the Singing Revolution, and the ones outside in the grounds. The severed Lenin heads and Stalin body parts were in themselves monumental and striking. They were no longer on tall plinths that glorify and dominate, but on the ground, in the grass. They are imprints where the visitor is invited to reflect at their own level, whoever they are.
The interpretation was matter of fact. It wasn’t excusing nor apologising. It wasn’t judgemental. But it was powerful. It is dangerous to think that the time of Stalins and Hitlers has passed. The message rings true and clear. The horror, just behind the horizon.
One monument reinterpreted in the Soviet Monuments exhibition was a gigantic granite and bronze sculpture showing a small group of thrusting men with out-sized fists punching out. It was dedicated to the armed coup of Estonian Communists in 1924 and was erected July 1925 near the Baltic Station. The interpretation was simple, humorous, honest and effective:
People joked in Soviet times that this was the only monument to an uprising that depicted all the participating revolutionaries at once. The group of sculptures was also mockingly called ‘Trying to Catch the Train to Moscow’ as a jab at the revolutionaries who had ties to the Soviet Union (true enough – most of those who attempted the coup and managed to flee did find refuge there.Estonian History Museum Soviet Monuments exhibition, 2019.
The 1970s were a particularly brutal time for Estonian culture surviving a tightened, Russian Soviet grip.
But I experienced this as a museum dealing head on with the nation’s complicated past, where many were oppressed, tortured and excluded simply for being who they were, and who they wanted to be, but where also some were for the cause of Soviet colonialism.
Estonia continues to deal with decolonising its public realm. Only this summer, Prime Minister Kallas said, “As symbols of repressions and Soviet occupation, they have become a source of increasing social tensions – At these times, we must keep the risk to public order at a minimum.” The removals mainly focused on the eastern town of Narva, right on the Russian border, where one particular monument became a touch-point: a replica of a T-34 Soviet tank which commemorates the Soviet soldiers who died freeing Estonia from Nazi Germany during World War II.
What is the resolution of this removal?
The monument is to be displayed in the Estonian War Museum in Viimsi north of the capital, Tallinn — this being far away from the touchpoint in the border town where 57,500 inhabitants are mainly Russian speakers. However this and other removals across Estonia have also led to protests and riots. Some Russian-speaking Estonians claimed their history was being erased.
Sensitive to the strength of feeling, not specifically to modern-day Russian Federation, but to the memory of those who fought for and defended Estonia during WW2, Interior Minister Lauri Laanemets “confirmed that the dismantling operation and transfer “will be carried out in a dignified manner”.
“For example, the flowers and the candles placed at the monuments will be taken to a cemetery, not thrown away,” Kallas also said that the common grave of the victims of World War II in the border town will now get a neutral grave marker and it will remain a dignified site for commemoration.
A neutral grave marker
So what will actually happen at the Estonian War Museum with this monument, and with these stories of protest and counter-protest, remains to be seen.
To what extent can museums be neutral places of memory and commemoration in a decolonial sense? I feel rather than neutral, which those of you who have worked in museums for any length of time will know cannot really happen, museums should embrace plurality, and the mess. Museums should take a longer decolonial view of painful pasts that remember, reflect and reveal society and culture in all their contradictions and diversities.
In many ways the new Estonian National Museum in Tartu which opened in 2016 replaced the previous National Museum dating to 1909, has arrived further on in the decolonial journey. Situated not far from Narva in the east of Estonia, Tartu – its motto “the city of good thoughts” is home to many Estonians of Russian heritage and a diversity of people from around the world thanks to the University of Tartu nearby.
The original museum was in many ways a pseudo-colonial confection dominated by Estonia’s larger neighbour, Finland. Together with the Finnish influence in how Estonian folk arts and cultures were interpreted, came the early 20th century view of Baltic German art.
Apparently some local Estonians regarded this German art as “culturally revolting.” So while the older museum was perhaps an antagonistic cultural site and collection, the new 21st-century post-colonial National Museum decided to do things differently.
The new museum was designed by an international collaboration of architects and designers. Its site is the Raadi Airfield which became a secret Soviet airbase and a site of fear that dominated the city. During Soviet times the collections were hidden all over the city, seen by hardly anyone, and not open to foreigners.
When I first visited in 2017, and spoke with curator Agnes Aljas one thing above all resonated. In the Estonian National Museum there are no stories or exhibits about famous people or events. And it is true. The people who have been elevated in this beautiful museum have unknown names, or no names. No one person or group is elevated above the other, both physically or intellectually. The museum is internationalist and multilingual with sophisticated epaper labels that can be read any many languages, including Russian.
Due to the approach of conveying all people in a similar manner, the Soviet period is highlighted by the specific challenges of many different people, including Russian Estonians. This apparently comes to the horror of Estonian ethnonationalists.
As we move from the Baltic to the Pacific let us also not forget that in August 2021 the head of the National museum, Alar Karis, was elected by Estonia’s parliament to be the President of Estonia. ?Life imitates art?
Dubious heroes and incomplete heritage in New Zealand
While researching in Aotearoa New Zealand in 2017, I spent some time at Tairāwhiti Museum in Gisborne, a small town on the eastern cape of the North Island. Both Gisborne and its museum felt familiar to me, a small museum run by a small staff, completely embedded in its community, including giving homeless people a space to sleep in during bad weather. On the one hand was the very well-endowed decorative arts gallery, on the other hand a chance to explore Maori curatorial culture in the same space.
2017 was also a year of planning for the nation marking of 250 years since British Captain Cook’s arrival on Aotearoa’s shores – a commemoration dividing public opinion and feeling across the country. The town’s very colonial name was already challenged by the museum by changing its name to Tairāwhiti – an indigenous name – some years prior. While I was visiting, there was also a debate about changing the national flag from the one with the British Union Jack ensign to one more reflective of Aotearoa New Zealand’s many diverse communities and pre-colonial past. The vote was extremely narrow, but decided to preserve the status quo.
However, in this particular moment the scales fell from my eyes. In front of a diorama of Captain Cook and the crew of HMS Endeavour arriving on the shores of eastern Aotearoa in the Moana gallery, a woman was heard saying this, to a child:
They came here in their boats and they shot our people. Gisborne wasn’t discovered by him either – we were already here. And they sent us off to war thinking we wouldn’t come back so they could steal our land. You’ve got to get your history right.Visitor to Tairāwhiti Museum, Gisborne, August 2017.
The British explorer, Captain Cook, dressed in blue, the largest figure, is surrounded by his men, and are central to the scene. Class is also alluded to in the colonial naval hierarchy – Cook’s officers are in red jackets, and the deck hands – the Jack Tars – dressed in whatever they had. As the British sailors drag their launch to shore, on the opposite bank we are drawn to the Māori figures, thinly and gracelessly painted, with no faces.
This diorama does not represent the whole story. Well-researched history and the ancestral memories of those who endured the systemic violence and marginalisation of British discovery and colonialism, from the 17th to mid-20th centuries, still struggle to find space in museums and galleries today.
The heroising of certain kinds of people and their deeds continues to be the modus operandi for museums more interested in promoting their brand and influence, and ambivalent about presenting critical heritage, than in truthfully representing history, science and art. From their earliest days, museums have been creators of pseudohistory.
The decolonial mindset expects this and responds by doing the work, trying to get the history in all of its messiness, right.
I’d like to finish by returning to the premise of my talk, can museums perceive a decolonised state once occupation is over? And if so will that museum be truly inclusive and a genuine space for narrowing gaps of understanding and experience between people?