This post is substantially based on a webinar discussion with Cornwall Museum Partnership Engagement Network on 20 October 2020, called ‘Decolonisation – where do I begin?’. It was delivered with Shreya Sharma, restorer and archivist from Dehli India, and Chloe Phillips of Kresen Kernow, and organised by Celine Elliot.
Don’t be afraid to ask and be prepared to be asked lots of questions. Barriers to starting include fear of being judged, fear of offending, thinking you have nothing to offer or that it isn’t relevant to your museum or organisation. I hope by the time you read this you will be encouraged to try something out. Our silence speaks volumes.
Decolonising practice needs to be slow and deliberate, building block by block until you end up with the kind of museum or organisation you always wanted to work in.
Do it for yourself as much as for the excluded and marginalised.
I want you to think about a time or times you have felt excluded from something, from a group, or felt anxious about stepping into a new space. Actively reflecting on those deeply personal moments of 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. By centring a moment of your own rejection you can start to build up empathy with others who have felt excluded from the events you have organised, your building, your art, your programmes and your decisions.
1. Check your understanding
Decolonising practice is relatively new to museums but its origins lie in the independence movements of the former colonies of European empires and pertains to the dismantling and reconstruction of colonial institutions and laws.
Put simply, decolonising 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.
2. Language matters
Particularly the language you use to describe others. Have a browse of this decolonising glossary to understand what I mean. Be specific, try to avoid short-hands like BAME or BME. They can feel meaningless and degrading. Race is a modern cultural construct as far as the history of humanity is concerned so to lump all people from non-White European ancestry together may even serve to perpetuate structural racism by pitching one against the other.
3. Find your organisational origins
A good place to start is to research and understand the origins of your own museum or organisation (or one you like or even one you don’t like). The history of our institutions can help reveal the flaws in public understanding of why they were created, and more critically, for whose benefit. Are you noticing a pattern of decision-making of previous curators, directors and boards that privilege one kind of person over another? That listen more to one group over another?
4. Critique your mission
What is your museum’s mission statement or charitable purpose? Are these sympathetic to decolonising tropes such as sharing, being open and transparent, being responsive, being a good host and a responsible member of your communities, collaborating?
5. Identify your automatic behaviours
Make a list of your automatic behaviours – the things you say and do and don’t question e.g. I am hosting this school group and telling them all about the Tudors, it’s great fun! But have you included non-White Tudors in your activities? How do you present Egypt – is it Agatha Christie or Excavated Egypt style where Egyptians are put at the centre of the story? You have participated and amplified stories for Black History Month, but what are you doing to continue the momentum? How are you cataloguing your backlog? Are you being mindful of the information that you are leaving out that could be helpful to those wanting to discover colonial history in your museum?
6. Dig into your collections
Dig into your collections data. How are people, documents and objects described? How easy would it be for you to find stories of Caribbean or Indian people? A great example of this is the work Kresen Kernow has been doing to improve its records to make it easier to discover Black history.
7. It’s never just local history
Even if your collections have nothing from another country it doesn’t mean that decolonising practice isn’t relevant to you. It is easy to think that a museum concerned with ‘local’ history is disconnected from global events in the colonial period and its aftermaths. In a UK and European context literally no place was untouched by colonial wealth. You can see it in philanthropy (ask where did the money come from?) and the foundations of public buildings, libraries, gardens, parks. Use it as an opportunity to question and explore the themes of your museum and its communities. If your organisation is concerned with industrial history it is inevitable that colonial events and phenomena will be relevant to your storytelling.
8. Be self-aware and take care
Undertake an exercise in self-awareness. We are all a combination of our lived experiences, learned behaviours and personal preferences. This can help build your confidence and understanding. Decolonising research and conversations can be emotionally draining particularly as it is more likely you will be undertaking it as an individual rather than as an organisational effort. Find a friend inside or outside your organisation to whom you can off-load.
9. Diversify your network
Seek out and talk to colleagues outside your organisation and outside your sector. Finding new people to talk to will help you check your understanding and to break away from talking cyclically about the same things.
Beware of tokenism when you ask people of colour to help you with your decolonising work. How are you rewarding their labour? How are you acknowledging it? Is it just for Black History Month or are you trying to establish new long-term relationships?
10. We don’t have time
I don’t have time as I’m busy with keeping the museum functioning. It doesn’t take long to start a new conversation. Decolonising work is as simple as starting a new conversation.