Decolonising our practice is the single biggest change we can make to our integrity as curators and how society perceives the work we do.

In October 2019 our Director, Tehmina Goskar, was co-opted onto the Museums Association’s Decolonisation Guidance Working Group which published its Guidance in November 2021. Its aim was to provide practical advice, steps and resources to museums wishing to reform their values and practices within the framework of the Code of Ethics.

Diversify your pool for critical thought and opinion.

Sandra Shakespeare, Getting Ready for Decolonisation, 2019.

Alongside contributing research for the MA’s working group we will be publishing some ideas and examples which may provide some practical steps towards decolonising curatorial practice, working with and highlighting the work and expertise of other practitioners, particularly internationally. Decolonisation is not a process that should be undertaken without prioritising time and resources to understand the contexts of other cultural and curatorial cultures. It is also not another procedure that can be blindly followed. It requires self-awareness work, reflection, and a willingness to unlearn and think outside of the traditional ‘norms’ of public collections work.

Provenance research for repatriation

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.

Overheard in the Moana gallery in Tairāwhiti Museum, 3 August 2017.

Since February 2020 we have been working with Tapunga Nepe of Tairāwhiti Museum, Gisborne, Aotearoa-New Zealand and Royal Cornwall Museum’s Citizen Curators to research the provenance of taonga Māori in Cornwall. The research visit of Tapunga Nepe will be reported back to the Rongowhakaata (a Māori iwi of the Gisborne region). Tapunga is himself Rongowhakaata and heard about taonga Māori in Cornwall after a workshop and study visit to Gisborne and its museum community in 2017.

So much came out of both research visits and highlights the importance of building trust through generous sharing of thoughts as well as information, and the value of being a good host. This may lead to a repatriation request for certain items, particularly taiaha taken from famed Rongowhakaata leader Te Kooti.

Read Citizen Curator Tamara Moluch’s experience.

For any cultural organisation or museum thinking about decolonising their practices it must apply across the board, not just relate to collections and their interpretation. The first step must be about acknowledgement – of how the museum is the product of a colonial past that had a widespread and systematic impact on most of the world causing an imbalance of power between people and nations that is very much still in existence.

Cultural organisations need to look at their leadership and how decisions are made. If decisions are made only with some people and not those affected by colonial cultural practices then any attempt at decolonising will be superficial and not effective. That means they need to look at what they prioritise, and for whom they prioritise their resources.

Does decolonising apply to you?

We need to develop far more powerful browse-able pathways into collections, centred more on themes that resonate and connect to audiences, stakeholders and users outside institutions than those within.

Ollie Douglas, Museum of English Rural Life, 2019.

Decolonising curatorial practice is currently centred on those organisations with significant ethnographic or world cultures collections (particularly national (government-funded) ones based in cities), with restitution and repatriation remaining a key focus. Many small and medium-sized museums and cultural organisations or groups (especially outside cosmopolitan big cities) may think decolonisation doesn’t apply to them and we are looking into how to better communicate why decolonising practice applies to anyone with a responsibility towards preserving, describing and interpreting material and intangible human culture.

After acknowledgement, identify and prioritise the material that other communities may wish to see interpreted differently (especially in cases where repatriation is not requested or the logical next step). How will you identify these communities and which community has the stronger claim to be your interlocutor? It’s a thorny and knotty issue that the museum and cultural sectors struggle to address. We want neat and tidy labelled communities that all behave and think in the same way but people do not exist like this.

This also means that some cultural organisations or networks could work as pioneer organisations and lead by experiment and example or they could make decisions alongside others, e.g. a pact or common goal to establish decolonising principles that would lead to fairer practice and more truthful history telling.

Get in touch with your thoughts and questions.