Decolonising the Museum?

Dilemmas, possibilities, alternatives

Authors

  • Vanessa Whittington Western Sydney University

DOI:

https://doi.org/10.3384/cu.3296

Keywords:

Decolonialism, museums, repatriation, neo-colonialism, cultural centres, community museums, Indigenous peoples

Abstract

As institutions that arose during the European age of imperial expansion to glorify and display the achievements of empire, museums have historically been deeply implicated in the colonial enterprise. However if we understand coloniality not as a residue of the age of imperialism, but rather an ongoing structural feature of global dynamics, the challenge faced by museums in decolonising their practice must be viewed as ongoing. This is the case not just in former centres of empire, but in settler-colonial nations such as Australia, where “the colonisers did not go home” (Moreton-Robinson 2015: 10). As a white, Western institution, a number of arguably intrinsic features of the museum represent a significant challenge to decolonisation, including the traditional museum practices and values evinced by the universal museum. Using a number of case studies, this paper considers the extent to which mainstream museums in Australia, Britain and Europe have been able to change  their practices to become more consultative and inclusive of Black and Indigenous peoples. Not only this, it discusses approaches that extend beyond a politics of inclusion to ask whether museums have been prepared to hand over representational power, by giving control of exhibitions to Black and Indigenous communities. Given the challenges posed by traditional museum values and practices, such as the strong preference of the universal museum to maintain intact collections, this paper asks whether community museums and cultural centres located within Indigenous communities may represent viable alternative models. The role of the Uluru Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre in Australia’s Northern Territory is considered in this light, including whether Traditional Custodians are able to exert control over visitor interpretation offered by this jointly managed centre to ensure that contentious aspects of Australian history are included within the interpretation.

 

 

 

 

 

As institutions that arose during the European age of imperial expansion to glorify and display the achievements of empire, museums have historically been deeply implicated in the colonial enterprise. However if we understand coloniality not as a residue of the age of imperialism, but rather an ongoing structural feature of global dynamics, the challenge faced by museums in decolonising their practice must be viewed as ongoing. This is the case not just in former centres of empire, but in settler-colonial nations such as Australia, where “the colonisers did not go home” (Moreton-Robinson 2015: 10). As a white, Western institution, a number of arguably intrinsic features of the museum represent a significant challenge to decolonisation, including the traditional museum practices and values evinced by the universal museum. Using a number of case studies, this paper considers the extent to which mainstream museums in Australia, Britain and Europe have been able to change  their practices to become more consultative and inclusive of Black and Indigenous peoples. Not only this, it discusses approaches that extend beyond a politics of inclusion to ask whether museums have been prepared to hand over representational power, by giving control of exhibitions to Black and Indigenous communities. Given the challenges posed by traditional museum values and practices, such as the strong preference of the universal museum to maintain intact collections, this paper asks whether community museums and cultural centres located within Indigenous communities may represent viable alternative models. The role of the Uluru Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre in Australia’s Northern Territory is considered in this light, including whether Traditional Custodians are able to exert control over visitor interpretation offered by this jointly managed centre to ensure that contentious aspects of Australian history are included within the interpretation.

 

As institutions that arose during the European age of imperial expansion to glorify and display the achievements of empire, museums have historically been deeply implicated in the colonial enterprise. However if we understand coloniality not as a residue of the age of imperialism, but rather an ongoing structural feature of global dynamics, the challenge faced by museums in decolonising their practice must be viewed as ongoing. This is the case not just in former centres of empire, but in settler-colonial nations such as Australia, where “the colonisers did not go home” (Moreton-Robinson 2015: 10). As a white, Western institution, a number of arguably intrinsic features of the museum represent a significant challenge to decolonisation, including the traditional museum practices and values evinced by the universal museum. Using a number of case studies, this paper considers the extent to which mainstream museums in Australia, Britain and Europe have been able to change  their practices to become more consultative and inclusive of Black and Indigenous peoples. Not only this, it discusses approaches that extend beyond a politics of inclusion to ask whether museums have been prepared to hand over representational power, by giving control of exhibitions to Black and Indigenous communities. Given the challenges posed by traditional museum values and practices, such as the strong preference of the universal museum to maintain intact collections, this paper asks whether community museums and cultural centres located within Indigenous communities may represent viable alternative models. The role of the Uluru Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre in Australia’s Northern Territory is considered in this light, including whether Traditional Custodians are able to exert control over visitor interpretation offered by this jointly managed centre to ensure that contentious aspects of Australian history are included within the interpretation.

 

As institutions that arose during the European age of imperial expansion to glorify and display the achievements of empire, museums have historically been deeply implicated in the colonial enterprise. However if we understand coloniality not as a residue of the age of imperialism, but rather an ongoing structural feature of global dynamics, the challenge faced by museums in decolonising their practice must be viewed as ongoing. This is the case not just in former centres of empire, but in settler-colonial nations such as Australia, where “the colonisers did not go home” (Moreton-Robinson 2015: 10). As a white, Western institution, a number of arguably intrinsic features of the museum represent a significant challenge to decolonisation, including the traditional museum practices and values evinced by the universal museum. Using a number of case studies, this paper considers the extent to which mainstream museums in Australia, Britain and Europe have been able to change  their practices to become more consultative and inclusive of Black and Indigenous peoples. Not only this, it discusses approaches that extend beyond a politics of inclusion to ask whether museums have been prepared to hand over representational power, by giving control of exhibitions to Black and Indigenous communities. Given the challenges posed by traditional museum values and practices, such as the strong preference of the universal museum to maintain intact collections, this paper asks whether community museums and cultural centres located within Indigenous communities may represent viable alternative models. The role of the Uluru Kata Tjuta Cultural Centre in Australia’s Northern Territory is considered in this light, including whether Traditional Custodians are able to exert control over visitor interpretation offered by this jointly managed centre to ensure that contentious aspects of Australian history are included within the interpretation.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Published

2022-02-08

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Section

Special Section: Cultural Research from Australia