Monday, 11 June 2018

Discussing the decolonisation of museums in Portugal

Photo: Maria Vlachou

I love museums. I love them for what they are; I love them for what they are not, but can be; I love them for their potential. I especially love them because of the work developed by a number of colleagues around the world so that museums may adapt to new realities, remain or become relevant for people, and even reinvent themselves. I particularly love them lately because of the controversies they cause or face, pushing our thinking and practice forward.

The debate regarding the proposal for a Museum of the Discoveries in Lisbon is one of the best (perhaps the only one, in terms of duration and general civic involvement) I´ve had the pleasure to follow in Portugal, related to museums. I've read things that inspired me and allowed me to develop my own thinking; I've read things that disappointed me; I've read things I didn’t agree with. I valued them all.

The decolonisation of museums is something relatively new for me. When I was still studying museology in the early 90's and in the years that followed, perhaps the only reference to this concept (although, as far as I was aware of, the term “decolonisation” was not being used) was the debate around the provenance of museum objects, as well as the return of human remains and sacred objects to their communities of origin.

More recently, one of my first references regarding the concept of decolonisation came in the end of 2015, when reading about Rijksmuseum’s project of rewriting its labels in order to avoid bigoted terms. The museum decided that “We no longer want to make use of terms that reflect a Eurocentric way of looking at people or historic moments, or that are considered discriminatory because the used terms refer to race in a negative way, or contain terms that go back to colonial times”, according to curator Eveline Sint Nicolaas. In 2016, Acesso Cultura | Access Culture  invited Martine Gosselink, the Director of Rijksmuseum’s History Department, to Lisbon, to be the keynote speaker in the conference “What? So what? Relevance of contents and simple language”. There, we had the opportunity to hear why the museum decided to take into account the criticism made by some of its visitors and why this project’s aim was not “historical revisionism, censorship, or political correctness gone too far”, as it had been accused of.

In the last perhaps two or three years, the decolonisation movement has picked up in a number of countries. The cases of museums being accused of cultural appropriation (which I recently discussed on this blog) may also be considered part of this discussion. The decolonisation of museums finally became part of the public debate in Portugal once the controversy around the Museum of the Discoveries erupted. Thus, it was with great interest that I decided to attend Nicholas Mirzoeff’s talk "Decolonizing the Museum: Lessons from New York", which took place in Lisbon on 6 June, organised by the Collective Descolonizando and a group of cultural agents who are against the designation and mission of the proposed Museum of the Discoveries. I guess that I decided to attend with the expectation of getting a more structured view on what one means by museums being colonised and what may be done if one wishes to decolonise them, mainly as museum professionals.

Photo taken from Helena Correia's Facebook page.

The first thing that stroke me was the almost total absence of museum professionals in the room. I believe there were three or four of us - none actually working “in” a museum, but rather “for” museums. This raises some very serious concerns as to what kind of debate we wish to promote in Portugal and whether this will be an honest debate if we don’t come out of our comfort zone to be confronted with different views. On the other hand, the room was practically full of people I didn’t know, which was a good sign for me; a sign that there is a real interest in the decolonisation of museums, also – and especially - among those who don’t work in them. One more reason for Portuguese museum professionals to attend debates in unfamiliar territories.

My feelings regarding Nicholas Mirzoeff’s presentation and the debate that followed are mixed. There were some very interesting references in the talk, but I don’t think they were actually sewn together in order to promote a more structured discussion on decolonisation (starting by making clear what we mean by “colonisation”) or, at least, to build a clearer base for that discussion. I think this would have been fundamental, as the debate showed that most people did not have a clear view on these issues, they were rather looking for answers.

The statue of Theodore Roosvelt in front of the American Museum of Natural History, New York (image taken from 

Right in the beginning, Mirzoeff showed the image of one of the mummies at the Carmo Archaeological Museum, in Lisbon. One many Portuguese have seen, but whose presence and exhibition at the museum few have questioned. I am not sure it was clear, though, to those present (except perhaps Mirzoeff’s students) why that image was shown and how it was relevant to our discussion on the (de)colonisation of museums. 
A number of interesting philosophical and historical references were shared after that, culminating into a concrete example from New York City: the action taken in October 2017 in front of the American Museum of Natural History, with regards to the statue of Theodore Roosvelt, commissioned in the 1930s (read more here). The President of the United States is shown on a horse, with a Native American and an African man walking on either side (the controversy first erupted in the late 90's, when American sociologist and historian James Loewen argued in Lies Across America that the arrangement of the figures is meant to advocate white supremacy; it was also discussed by artist and activist Titus Kaphar in his April 2017 TED Talk Can Art Amend History?). The discussion did not go much further or deeper than the obvious racism in the conception of the statue (a bit more in this article) and the same happened with some rather quick references to Brooklyn Museum or the removal of the statue of Cecil Rhodes from Cape Town University.

Image taken from Helena Correia's Facebook page.

There is no doubt that Nicholas Mirzoeff knows what he’s talking about, but I am still wondering whether the people present actually realised how these examples relate to our subject and what they, as citizens, can do about it: what colonisation / decolonisation of museums actually means and how it affects almost every aspect of museum work (further from the discussion on what is considered today a depiction of racism; I am thinking about collections, interpretation, marketing, staff, etc.). I don’t mean to sound patronising, I consider myself a novice as well, and given that the discussion is rather recent in Portugal and in Lisbon, I think it would have been useful to offer a more solid and concrete base for discussion, instead of debating certain examples which took previous knowledge on the subject for granted.

There are two things that stuck with me from the debate that followed: a gentleman saying that it is very rare for museum authority to be questioned, identifying the last attempt perhaps in the 80´s; and a few people referring to museums in general as colonial tools, some asking for “no more museums” and a lady saying that “museums are here, we can’t erase them, we need to confront them”. This felt odd to me. As I am furthering my readings on the subject of the decolonisation of museums, I could easily say that not one day passes without an article coming up on museum authority being questioned, either from within (by staff members) or by individuals and communities. To not be aware of this kind of revolution, that is already affecting museums, as well as to see all museums as being of one kind and colonial tools, and not to recognise their wish and capacity to evolve, is to leave out an important part of this equation.

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