The Spanish Minister of Culture, Miquel Iceta, has just asked himself the question that serves as the title of this article: “how do you decolonize a museum?” From its very wording, it is evident that he assumes the obligation to seriously address this issue; but also, that it seems to him a titanic task and that he does not know how or where to start.
It is no news that museums —whether they have a colonial bias or not— are under a crossfire under which they are today deciding their model, their strategy, their meaning, their name or their survival. In recent years, there have been attempts to change what they represent as well as to decide between franchise museums or those that opt for a program based on a self-developed project. The former attracts herds of tourists and save seasons in terms of visitor results, while the latter reject the Blockbuster exhibition and opt for a different relationship between the works and those who interact with them. In Spain, since the Guggenheim effect, the Malaga Model has consolidated the first option and everything indicates that it will continue to grow. That’s the thing about service economies: they end up shaping service cultures.
But, let’s get back to what concerns us. “How do you decolonize a museum?” asks the minister, and the truth is that, whether he was aiming for that or not, he has hit the nail on the head. Because this is not just another question, but the question that any former colonial metropolis must ask itself in order to establish a cultural policy consistent with the past, present and future representation of a large part of its citizens. And because this updating goes beyond the very walls of the museum and includes the use and origin of its collections to end up having an impact on millions of people who have spent decades looking at themselves in a mirror in which they do not recognize themselves. A reflection that shows a stereotyped image of themselves, as exotic beings to whom, in the best of cases, a condescending multiculturalism will be dispensed from immutable temples that speak for them, but never from them.
How does one decolonize a museum? To begin with, by starting the return of heritage to the countries of origin and, at the same time, the transfer of power in the representation and construction of the discourses and images that until now have been usurped from the communities of that origin.
In Europe there has been no lack of initiatives in these decolonization processes. One of the most talked-about was SWICH (Sharing a World of Inclusion, Creativity and Heritage), which ran from 2014 to 2018 and involved ten partner museums.
In the United States, meanwhile, the Museum of African American Culture in Washington and a dozen others with similar purposes have been emplaced since 2015 to vindicate the cultural impact of black society across the nation. From slavery to the Black Lives Matters movement (which has triggered these institutional responses), and including blues, jazz, civil rights marches, rap, literature and urban arts.
If in Europe the transformation goes through the revision of colonial horror, in the United States it goes through the revision of segregation and slavery. In both cases, the very figure of “museum” is narrow when it comes to proposing an anti-colonialist space, whose exhibition or collection function is only one chapter of a program that demands, in equal parts, archeology and pedagogy, restitution and activism, the revision of old colonial histories and the inclusion of new anti-colonial subjects.
Of course, only demagogy can be used to claim that this is an easy task. Is it urgent? Yes, but it requires an in-depth analysis that cannot be dispatched lightly or with some dramatic strokes. Is it progressive? Yes, but without a broad political and social consensus it will not succeed. In Belgium, for example, it did not take a leftist government for the Tervuren Museum to initiate a process of decolonization (which included a temporary closure to think about the way forward, taking into account specialists and civil society). In Barcelona, a City Council governed by the left has not managed to go beyond the timorous shielding of a space as outdated as the Museum of Ethnology and World Cultures.
And the thing is that, for some museums, with decolonization you get the same feeling that with the propaganda in favor of the electric car: in the end we do not know if they want to save the planet or the automobile industry. In the same way that such museums, rather than starting a real process of decolonization, only try to extend their shelf life while making what are obviously cosmetic changes.
Nor is very helpful the invasion, in activism, of the “decolonial” jargon emanating from the American academy, of which it is not clear if what it intends is to dilute anti-colonialism by way of deconstructing colonialism.
Outside these enclosed spaces, it turns out that our cities are an open-air museum of colonialism. But they are also, and increasingly will be, a museum of anti-colonialism. And that the current revisionist flow —contradictory and motley as it is— reveals wounds from the past that remain open and frontiers of the present that remain unopened.
In this circumstance, it matters little how much the institutions that refuse to rethink their place in the 21st century want to protect themselves. No matter how much they try to extend their life from a programmed obsolescence, they will not be able to avoid the collapse of a death without a program.
Originally published in El País, Babelia, November 11, 2022.