June 26, 2020

Decolonization in Museum, Gallery and Heritage Sectors: Lessons Learned in a COVID-19 Era, 6-26-20, Danielle B.

As a museum and gallery professional, it feels rather strange, and nearly unbearable, not to be able to physically engage with museum and gallery spaces. When analyzing the importance of these spaces, regarding the experience of entertainment, being physically inside a museum or gallery is essential. From my own experience, I don’t think a true, encompassing level of entertainment could have ever been achieved if I didn’t enter the grand doors of a place like the British Museum. As you ascend the Tube station, walk along Great Russell Street and face the iron-clad gates, the experience has already begun. As you pass through the immense, aged and historical columns of the main entrance you can’t help but feel you have stepped into an old era.

This visceral experience is what keeps the public and international visitors coming. Without these moments, it would be near-impossible to be entertained. However, for the sake of entertainment, national museums and galleries (and many local and/or private ones too) have forsaken the necessity to create a space of education that addresses its full-fledged capacity for contention. Moreover, they have blatantly placed the element of entertainment-based experience at the forefront of their ideologies. This blatancy is at the expense of education, more importantly, the ability for culturally relevant agents to teach, speak and share on behalf of the main characters of these spaces: objects.

As a woman of Indigenous origins, an anthropologist and (at the time) a newcomer to the museological sector, the contention surrounding colonialism was (and still is) a topic of great discussion. Shortly upon entering places like the British Museum and other national galleries, you soon realize a hyper-focus on entertainment was the most grandiose facade throughout the space – not its columns or doors or decor. How can such a fine, elegant space hold the memories, histories and evidence of the world, yet we can only understand the world through the lens of (primarily) U.K.-based museum professionals? How has professionalism overpowered artistic and cultural agency?

Colonialism hasn’t died. It has been reborn. Re-birthed in the halls, rooms, courts and gift shops of national museums and galleries. To entertain the world, at the deep-rooted and painful expense of the colonially seized material culture of others. To entertain the world, we can now buy miniaturized Māori totems glued to cheap magnets and Frida Kahlo sticker pads to slap on our laptops and lunchboxes. However inauthentic and caricaturized museums and galleries can be, we have learned in the global COVID-era that physical distance and quality experiences are achievable. If we can embrace, and normalize, virtual contact with museums and galleries, we could possibly create opportunities for repatriation, collaboration and other realized decolonization measures.

“We never have to leave home to do anything – ever!”. Here’s a statement I have heard for weeks now. COVID-19 has taught us the value of experience through the utilization of technology and the virtual world. Although adapting to these methods has evidently been a challenge, and we have recognized as a society these methods cannot totally replace the experience to go places, we are still able to identify its overwhelming value and support for our day-to-day lives. This concept has been extremely evident among museum, gallery and heritage sectors.

According to a recently published report from the International Council of Museums, between April 7 and May 7 of this year, 94.7% of their worldwide survey participants stated museums within their country were closed (ICOM 2020). Furthermore, ICOM reported that “We witnessed a surge in virtual tours, social media posts, remote interactions with the public, and much more” (ICOM 2020, 9). Although museums responded digitally, at a very efficient pace, it was soon realized the stark reality of museum sectors worldwide are seemingly underfunded and understaffed in communications departments (with 17.8% of communications departments making up 1% or less of the museums total budget).

Based off of museums being able to quickly adapt to COVID-19-related regulations by utilizing digital platforms and resources, we at least can identify the possibility of these methods becoming a strong candidate for how we can practice display in the future. It would take a huge shift in allocating funds, and a perhaps a greater shift in the way we think of museums and galleries as institutions. But its possible. By shifting towards digital and virtual display as primary methods, we can begin to exist in societies that operate “objectless” museums and galleries.

What would an “objectless” museum look like? Traditionally, museums and galleries have been entrenched in an aura of exclusivity. It’s a relatively modern concept that these spaces “belong” to everyone in the world. Furthermore, exclusivity extends to the way in which museums construct displays, research cultures and educate the public. Not too long ago, museums and galleries were the domain of (primarily) white, wealthy and/or educated men, where they called the shots of how, what, who and when. Now we are in an age of recognizance: we have collectively identified these spaces were structured to benefit and uphold colonial ideologies, and we have now been summoned to atone for this structure that we have held on to. By utilizing digital platforms, we can make that huge leap of repatriation by returning objects to their rightful homes, owners and stewards. By formulating a more centrally incorporated digital catalog of objects, we can refocus museum, gallery and heritage sectors towards virtual spaces.

Key elements need to be instated, enforced and honored:

  • Collaborative efforts to exhibit objects and art can be performed nationally/internationally. By using virtual platforms, we can exchange information, research and notes between professional bodies AND cultural agents.
    • Material culture and art need to be shared, expressed and learned without the consideration of boundaries
      • E.g.: I can’t afford a trip to London; I am severely immobile; My child has a cognitive/social setback; etc.
    • We can shift the culture behind museums
      • There would an opportunity to discontinue emphasizing the die-hard NEED to display “things”
      • Normalizing the virtual world can be achieved
    • YES, THERE WILL STILL BE MATERIAL CULTURE/ART IN THESE SPACES:
      • There are still ethical and culturally/personally respectful opportunities to display; however, these forms of display must be totally agreed upon
        • Thoroughly discussed, designed and displayed between all parties (experts, cultural reps, educators, managers, artists etc.); with primary emphasis on those who culturally represent the materials
        • Display methods must be nuanced and inclusive
        • Ultimately, this option must be mutual, where the balance of professional power doesn’t counteract artistic and/or cultural rights and interpretations

The impact COVID has had on global museum and gallery sectors is immense, especially regarding their ability to survive. However, when we sift through the damage it has caused, we also can identify the potential for cultural and artistic spaces to take on a more digitized presence. By embracing technological methods to display objects and art, we can offer real solutions to the decolonization movement. With things digitally on display, we no longer have to assume stewardship in a physical sense. This can offer international opportunities to implement mass-repatriation programs; therefore, objects and art would be removed from the hands of its captors and into the homes of its rightful owners and stewards. Although most of us can agree upon the feeling that COVID-19 has been socially, culturally and economically destructive, we could try to embrace the ideas of revelation, revolution and rebirth among sectors involving object, art and heritage handling.

Bibliography

ICOM – International Council of Museums (2020). Museums, museum professionals and COVID-

19. 1 – 21.https://icom.museum/wp-content/uploads/2020/05/Report-Museums-and-

COVID-19.pdf

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