Why are we talking about this?
On 22nd September 2020, the Culture Secretary wrote a letter outlining the UK Government’s position on contested heritage. The letter stated that the Government “does not support the removal of statues or other similar objects” because of the important role they play in teaching us about our past.
Furthermore, museums and art galleries were reminded that, as publicly funded bodies, they should not be taking actions motivated by activism or politics.
What’s the issue?
The Black Lives Matter movement shone a light onto racial inequality and injustice globally and demanded fresh scrutiny of anything believed to uphold legacies of slavery and colonialism. Cultural institutions, such as museums and art galleries, were at the forefront of calls to confront their colonial past.
Western museums have a long colonial legacy. A large number of their artefacts were obtained through colonial collecting practices and are now displayed under Western classification systems.
Art galleries are not free from scrutiny either. The history of European art is also the history of imperialism and one which disguises privilege, oppression and injustice.
For this reason, museums and art galleries are under increasing pressure to decolonise their collections.
But what exactly does this mean?
Firstly, it should be noted that decolonisation is not another word for diversity. It does not mean including more collections and exhibitions from under-represented groups.
In its most abstract, decolonisation concerns the proactive identification, interrogation, deconstruction and replacement of hierarchies of power that replicate colonial structures.
So, what does this look like in practice?
No one seems quite able to agree. Although, there is general consensus that decolonisation would include repatriation of artefacts to their country of origin. It might also require curators to ask questions, such as: who makes decisions about exhibitions? Whose story is being told and how is it being told?
The question is...
Given our sensibilities today, and our desire to dissociate ourselves from our uncomfortable past, calls for museums and galleries to address contested heritage are to be expected. However, is decolonisation the best strategy?
Museums play an important role in our recollection of history. Through our engagement with displays and exhibitions in the museums, we paint a picture of what the past might have looked like.
A museum’s account of history is subjective.
Just as history has been told by the winners of battles and the conquerors of countries, the way that artefacts are displayed reflects the perspectives of curators and often the full story hasn’t been told. It is this power to select, name and decide the meaning of items that makes European curators the authors of another country’s history.
Art historian and anthropologist Alice Procter pointed to the Hoa Hakananai’a at the British Museum. She recognised that the gallery label didn’t say anything about how the British got hold of it, it simply said that it was donated by Queen Victoria. Procter’s response: “That’s not lying, but how did she get hold of it to donate it?”
The absence of colonial narratives in museums led Procter to launch ‘display it like you stole it’ — a project which asks museums to be honest about their acquisitions history and how objects arrived at their collection in the first place.
The British Museum has since updated the acquisition note adding that this artefact was “removed from original location during the HMS Topaze expedition to Rapa Nui”.
We can see that decolonisation encourages transparency because it recognises that there are two sides to every story, and the prevailing historical narrative has so far been dominated by the powerful.
What happens if we decolonise an exhibition?
We attach political meaning to art and the emphasis shifts. Instead of focusing on an object’s aesthetic properties, we focus on what the object represents or the identity of the person who created it.
The narrative surrounding the object becomes more important than the object itself and while this narrative may undoubtedly be important, it is not in itself a work of art.
Les Demoiselles d’Avignon (1907) is a painting by Pablo Picasso, currently displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. This painting was revolutionary and marked a radical departure from traditional European painting.
If you are familiar with this painting, you will likely have noticed the close resemblance it bears to tribal art. Indeed, Picasso was largely influenced by African masks that are worn by two of the female figures in this painting.
This begs the question....
If we are serious about decolonisation, should we view this painting as an appropriation of African culture and art?
By doing so would completely transform the meaning of this painting.
What is striking about this painting is not its content but its form — its harsh angles, two-dimensional conception of space and complete distortion of reality are what make it so unique and radical. Art critic Jonathan Jones has argued that Picasso wanted to show that “originality in art does not lie in narrative, or morality, but in formal invention”. So, to add a colonial narrative to this painting would make this painting ‘about’ colonialism, which would be seriously misguided.
This example suggests that works of art should be free from political and ideological narratives which otherwise distort meaning and divert attention away from aesthetic value.
No matter which side of the debate you sit, you will undoubtedly have realised that decolonising cultural institutions is no small task. Furthermore, in the face of acute cuts, many smaller museums and galleries are simply unable to invest in the research that is necessary to translate calls for decolonisation into practical initiatives.
A question for you: In light of this, is there a more effective way to respond to contested heritage?