This post is apropos of nothing much really, other than I did another list and I thought I would share it.
There seems to be a continuing disconnect around so called “decolonisation” work in museums and heritage. Oftentimes, this divide is between those on the ground, without status, power or seniority, attempting to change the practice and behaviours in their personal and professional capacity, and those on executive boards, trustees, advisory panels and steering groups, as well as the marketing and communications departments of heritage institutions who craft the message and brand (I wrote a bit about these behaviours last year). This of course is a sweeping generalisation, there are brilliant and effective leaders making change out there and steering groups fighting hard for equity (possibly? maybe they are just thinking hard), and I could tag this #notallexecutives, but it is something that has come up repeatedly in discussion with colleagues at all levels, across the country, across the sector, across academic and GLAM organisations, and in my own institutional and freelance experience. The grown-ups simply don’t seem to get it (but they think they do). You can have a quick look at why this might possibly be the case on this website The Colour of Power (click on See All and use the filter on the right-hand side to select CEOs of Arts and Culture Organisations in the category list).
I was asked recently to put together a list of key readings for a board and it got me thinking again about who is actually doing the work that makes a difference. For me there are three crucial and urgent responsibilities in museum and heritage work right now: unpicking and unpacking structural racism, not making the climate emergency worse, and the relevance of the modern cultural heritage project, aka “what is the point of museums?”. This last can only be addressed in the light of the first two, and is not a reference to the eternal what is the definition of a museum? debate, (waves at ICOM).
When these requests for reading on “decolonisation” or “equality” arrive, through personal and professional contacts, and they arrive often, they seem like a good idea, a chance to spread the word, but the caveats and limitations quickly follow: short reads, easily accessible (meaning both the level of complexity and open access), not too many, not too academic, only on this v. specific aspect (often not an area I actually know about), solutions focussed, not too controversial, not too critical. And I get it. People are busy and important and they want a quick fix, not more problems. They are saving jobs and art and money, they are safeguarding “our” cultcha. But this stuff (equity, ethics, the whole not promoting and propping up structural racism thing) requires serious work and thinking, and the questions of anti-racism work should surely inform those busy, important people’s highly influential decisions for saving jobs, art and money at every level? Or else why are we doing it and who is it all for?
The other issue is how to get everyone to a similar place of acknowledgement and understanding. One of the major problems for me has been the realisation that when it comes to structural racism and museums, we are really not all on the same page, or in some cases, not even in the same library. The heritage sector seems to have a particularly bad case of persistent “nice people” syndrome – a general belief that racism is the yobbish violence of flag-waving, shaven-headed BNP voters, and that lovely, liberal, public sector workers looking after all the lovely things could not possibly be perpetuating structural racism in their speech, behaviour, values, professional practice, and complicity with the status quo. But positionality work, deeper reflection and challenge reveal all sorts of misgivings, denial, anxiety, shame, and prejudice, and a simple (or self-preserving?) obliviousness to the lived experiences of black people and people of colour, both as audiences and employees.
Anyway, back to the reading and the adulting. The following list is intended for everyone, but especially for the senior decision maker in your life. I have tried to articulate the areas to be addressed in a particular order, to move towards a more ethical, equitable and anti-racist way of thinking and working, but it is specific to my own areas of interest, that is – museums and the digital cultural record. These are my top 6 areas to think about:
- Definitions, contested meanings, and preferred terms
- Personal position and approach
- Institutional position and histories
- Engagement and co-production
- Cataloguing & interpretation
- Digital and digitisation
The sections have been arranged in order to progress logically through the issues. However, it’s arguable that these sections cannot be separated out and the divisions are quite arbitrary. When I add in the articles and other materials under each section title, most of the research cited addresses multiple interconnected issues within each paper or publication.
Sections 1, 2 and 4 are crucial to understanding the contexts of equitability and white advantage within which this work should be situated. They are the really big and complex ones and deserve separate consideration; without them, the rest is just window dressing, so I will add and revise them in a subsequent part 2 blogpost. The “useful” and pragmatic sections for the grown-ups are numbers 3, 5 & 6 which I have listed in full below.
This is very much a work in progress, and as you will see woefully incomplete. It was originally put together (
dare I say curated?) as a selection of key reads for the arts exec-on-the-run interested in online access, but I have fleshed it out a bit here. There is a bit of history and practice, and some controversy. For ease of retrieval each section is further divided into material that is easily accessible online or published as open access (links provided), suggested books and book chapters (links provided where possible) and lastly academic journals that are paywalled or limited access (citation provided and links to abstracts where available).
These readings look at the museum as a colonial structure and how this plays out in institutional, bureaucratic, and organisational behaviours; addressing issues such as representation, authority, and value systems
Cocotle, Brenda Caro. 2019. “We Promise to Decolonize the Museum : A Critical View of Contemporary Museum Policies.” Afterall, 2019. https://www.afterall.org/online/we-promise-to-decolonize-the-museum-a-critical-view-of-contemporary-museum-policies#.XyboIfj0mu4
Montserrat, Jade. 2020. “We Need Collectivity against Structural and Institutional Racism in the Cultural Sector.” Arts Professional, 2020. https://www.artsprofessional.co.uk/magazine/article/we-need-collectivity-against-structural-and-institutional-racism-cultural-sector
Lynch, Bernadette. 2011. “Whose Cake Is It Anyway? A Collaborative Investigation into Engagement and Participation in 12 Museums and Galleries in the UK,” 26. http://ourmuseum.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/Whose-cake-is-it-anyway-report.pdf
Giblin, John, Imma Ramos, and Nikki Grout. 2019. “Dismantling the Master’s House: Thoughts on Representing Empire and Decolonising Museums and Public Spaces in Practice An Introduction.” Third Text 33 (4–5): 471–86. https://doi.org/10.1080/09528822.2019.1653065.
Harper, Radiah, and Keonna Hendrick. 2017. “Doing the Work: A Discussion on Visioning and Realizing Racial Equity in Museums.” Journal of Museum Education 42 (2): 163–68. https://doi.org/10.1080/10598650.2017.1306665 .
Goskar, Tehmina. 2020. “Top 10 Tips To Start Decolonising Your Practice”. Curatorial Research Centre https://curatorialresearch.com/top-tips-in-curating/top-10-tips-to-start-decolonising-your-practice/ .
Vawda, Hassan. 2020. “A Statement from a ‘ National Public Cultural Institution ’: BLACK LIVES MATTER.” Medium, June 2020. https://hassanevawda.medium.com/a-statement-from-a-national-public-cultural-institution-black-lives-matter-893d76d3b133
Books and Book chapters:
Lynch, Bernadette, and Samuel J.M.M. Alberti. 2010. “Legacies of Prejudice: Racism, Co-Production and Radical Trust in the Museum.” Museum Management and Curatorship 25 (1): 13–55. http://www.artsmanagement.net/b880fe82372955750451f07be8daecfb,0fm.pdf
Lynch, Bernadette. 2016. “Challenging Ourselves: Uncomfortable Histories and Current Museum Practices.” In Challenging History in the Museum: International Perspectives, 87–99. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781315571171-12.
Mears, Helen, and Wayne Modest. 2012. “Museums, African Collections and Social Justice.” In Museums, Equality and Social Justice, edited by Richard Sandell and Ethnie Nightingale, 294–309. Routldge. https://doi.org/10.4324/9780203120057 .
Sandell, Richard. 2007. Museums, Predjudice and the Reframing of Difference. London: Routledge. https://www.routledge.com/Museums-Prejudice-and-the-Reframing-of-Difference/Sandell/p/book/9780415367493
Wajid, Sara, and Rachael Minott. 2019. “Detoxing and Decolonising Museums.” In Museum Activism, edited by Robert R. Janes and Richard Sandell, 25–35. https://doi.org/10.4324/9781351251044-3 .
Restricted access (abstract only):
Hall, Stuart. n.d. “Whose Heritage? Un‐settling ‘The Heritage’, Re‐imagining the Post‐nation.” Third Text 13 (49): 3–13. https://doi.org/10.1080/09528829908576818 .
Minott, Rachael. 2019. “The Past Is Now: Confronting Museums’ Complicity in Imperial Celebration.” Third Text 33 (4–5): 559–74. https://doi.org/10.1080/09528822.2019.1654206 .
(5) Cataloguing & interpretation
These readings address collections and documentation practices; cataloguing, data information and knowledge capture and presentation
Reed, Caroline, and Paul Hamlyn Foundation. 2013. “Is Revisiting Collections Working?” Collections Trust. London: Paul Hamlyn Foundation. 2013. https://www.phf.org.uk/publications/revisiting-collections-working/
Odumosu, Temi. 2019. “What Lies Unspoken: A Remedy for Colonial Silence(s) in Denmark.” Third Text 33 (4–5): 615–29. https://doi.org/10.1080/09528822.2019.1654688 .
Turner, Hannah. 2017. “Organizing Knowledge in Museums: A Review of Concepts and Concerns.” KNOWLEDGE ORGANIZATION 35 (3). https://www.academia.edu/35960629/Organizing_Knowledge_in_Museums_A_Review_of_Concepts_and_Concerns
Turner, Hannah. 2015. “Decolonizing Ethnographic Documentation: A Critical History of the Early Museum Catalogs at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History.” Cataloging & Classification Quarterly Volume 53 (5–6). https://hannahtrnrdotcom.files.wordpress.com/2018/03/ko_44_2017_7_b-2.pdf
Lawther, Kathleen, 2021. “Decolonising the Database – Part 1” Acid Free. http://acidfreeblog.com/documentation/decolonising-the-database/ .
Lawther, Kathleen. 2019. “Developing Practice, Adapting Tools – Acid Free”. Acid Free. http://acidfreeblog.com/documentation/developing-practice-adapting-tools/ .
Rutherford, Ananda. 2021. “Documentation and Decolonisation”. Museums Data Laundry. https://museumdatalaundry.com/2021/03/24/documentation-and-decolonisation/.
Furner, Jonathan. 2007. “Dewey Deracialized: A Critical Race-Theoretic Perspective.” Knowledge Organization 34 (3): 144–68. https://citeseerx.ist.psu.edu/viewdoc/download?doi=10.1.1.987.3072&rep=rep1&type=pdf
Books and Book chapters:
Turner, Hannah. 2020. Cataloguing Culture: Legacies of Colonialism in Museum Documentation. Vancouver: UBC Press. https://www.ubcpress.ca/asset/46790/1/9780774863940_excerpt.pdf.
Restricted journal access:
Chilcott, Alicia. 2019. “Towards Protocols for Describing Racially Offensive Language in UK Public Archives.” Archival Science 19 (4): 359–76. https://doi.org/10.1007/s10502-019-09314-y .
(6)Digital & Digitisation
These readings address the promise of the digital a tool for democratisation and issues of access, algorithmic bias in cultural heritage information.
Taylor, Joel, and Laura Kate Gibson. 2017. “Digitisation, Digital Interaction and Social Media: Embedded Barriers to Democratic Heritage.” International Journal of Heritage Studies 23 (5): 408–20. https://doi.org/10.1080/13527258.2016.1171245 .
Pavis, Mathilde, and Andrea Wallace. 2019. “Response To the 2018 Sarr-Savoy Report.” https://www.jipitec.eu/issues/jipitec-10-2-2019/4910.
Odumosu, Temi. 2020. “The Crying Child: On Colonial Archives, Digitization, and Ethics of Care in the Cultural Commons.” Current Anthropology 61 (S22): 289–302. https://doi.org/10.1086/710062.
Books and Book chapters:
Noble, Safiya Umoja. 2018. Algorithms of Oppression: How Search Engines Reinforce Racism. New York: New York University Press. https://www.degruyter.com/document/doi/10.18574/9781479833641/html
Thylstrup, Nanna Bonde. 2018. The Politics of Mass Digitisation. Cambridge, Mass., USA: MIT Press. https://mitpress.mit.edu/books/politics-mass-digitization
Restricted journal access:
Mihelj, Sabina, Adrian Leguina, and John Downey. 2019. “Culture Is Digital: Cultural Participation, Diversity and the Digital Divide.” New Media and Society 21 (7): 1–21. https://doi.org/10.1177/1461444818822816 .
Ali, Syed Mustafa. 2016. “A Brief Introduction to Decolonial Computing.” XRDS: Crossroads, The ACM Magazine for Students 22 (4): 16–21. https://dl.acm.org/doi/10.1145/2930886 .
Morgan, Colleen, and Pierre Marc Pallascio. 2015. “Digital Media, Participatory Culture, and Difficult Heritage: Online Remediation and the Trans-Atlantic Slave Trade.” Journal of African Diaspora Archaeology and Heritage 4 (3): 260–77. https://doi.org/10.1080/21619441.2015.1124594 .