By design, a museum is a place of great importance. Whether on the scale of the universal or the ultra-niche, they house stories that allow you to walk physically and marvel at a microcosm of the world. They are also important sites for cultural preservation, public history and education.
However, the museum is, has been and always will be a colonial institution. The modern museum can try to cope with this legacy, but it still has to evolve.
From the curio cabinets of wealthy 16th-century European families, the collection of art and artifacts has always been a demonstration of power and its material embodiment. During the colonial era, the Western powers celebrated their conquests by exhibiting looted objects, separated from their original context in order to impose their superiority on the colonized nations.
The museum as an institution is based on a relationship with the specifically Western world. Cultural heritage objects exhibited in large surveying-type museums such as the Montreal Museum of Archeology and History, the British Museum or the Metropolitan Museum of Art date back to the colonial period and were often obtained through what we now understand as looting. As these collections are in fact the legacy of many modern museums, they remain the testimony not only of a dominant culture, but of a culture of domination.
Museums reaffirm the disparity in which some people are invited to be the audience, while others are put on a show. When there is no perceived need for respectful representation, this will not happen. More often than not, museums will merge different cultures on the basis of their colonial past. The Arts of Africa, Oceania and the Americas Wing at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York and at Quai Branly Museum in Paris are just two examples of this particular type of otherness.
The heritage of these cultures entered the museum in the 19th and 20th centuries not as a work of art, but as objects or fetishes. And still today, that’s how we treat them: no artist name is attached – more precisely, no name has ever been collected. Understanding becomes that some cultures create art, while others are only capable of producing artifacts.
Yet it is important that these relics be part of the experience. The value of a display is not inherent, but rather in its orientation of gaze. A collection does not confer prestige on its objects, but on the structure – whether institutional or imperial – which owns it. Perhaps nothing is more important to a museum than this concept of ownership.
Ideally, tracing the parentage of an object’s ownership – known as provenance – would protect the arts of the world from looting by verifying who has had lawful custody of a work of art. But when you consider the impossible number of stolen artifacts still on display in the museums of colonizing countries, the question of custody becomes hypocritical. Even though there are some scrupulously damaged relics, the pain of this story outweighs their presence.
Countries like Egypt, Mexico, Greece, Ethiopia, and Bangladesh have systematically requested the return of their artefacts since at least the 19th century. No wonder activists like Emery Mwazulu Diyabanza are trying to run away with a Congolese statue of a French museum – does the West accept looting only when Western institutions commit it?
In response, institutions like the British Museum portray oneself also assailed from all sides by enemies that he alone tries to preserve the legacy of the empire. A number of condescending statements will be thrown In defense of these museums, more often than not that the old subjects are not able to take care of their own heritage.
Perhaps most miserably, the vast majority of their artifacts are stored, where the average visitor would never find them.
The existence of modern museums depends so much on this stranglehold on the world, yet they do not do enough to address the humanity of the cultures on display. Exoticism and decontextualization are even rife contemporary exhibitions, because they cannot escape the inheritance which physically shelters them.
Representation in the museum remains an extremely complicated reality.
It’s more complicated than guests wanting to connect with the collection or see themselves in the works on display. Rather, it is a question of how little museological decision-makers have sought to broaden their ranks to better reflect a representative sample of our modern society. The power over the museum does not exist only in its collections, but in the hands of its board of directors, of its administrators, of its curators. These positions are few and their requirements are numerous. This ranges from the graduate degree requirements for the highest positions to their reliance on networking relationships.
As a result, museums are extremely rich, extremely white the spaces. However, these institutions seem more interested in superficial gestures than in real and committed integration. In 2019, the first black curator of the Guggenheim Museum, Chaédria LaBouvier, was excluded from the panel discussion relating to her own exhibition “Basquiat’s ‘Defacement’: The Untold Story”, among a litany of other abuses.
The intermittent reopening of doors closed by the COVID-19 pandemic has also reopened old accessibility wounds. At the height of the crisis, many museums sought to digitize their collections to serve their lost audiences.
This sudden push to make collections as widely available as possible has only served to further highlight the entrenched gaps in the physical space of most museums. Architecture is often an accessibility nightmare because it is not commonly recognized as an obligation. The gap between the able-bodied and the disabled widens further if we consider visual and hearing impairments.
Walking into a museum and re-entering public life can certainly seem like a lost art, but for many it has always been a luxury. There is often the barrier of admission fees, but financial pressures within a museum will also encourage exclusion.
The Royal Academy of Arts in London had the opportunity in 2020 to save dozens of jobs in selling his Taddei Tondo by Michelangelo. This was quickly denounced and rejected by its board of directors., inflexible in maintaining the prestige of the property. This despite the obvious harm to the museum’s operations – how can the museum hope to educate the general public when it refuses to provide its educational staff with a living wage?
Unpaid internships and income disparities for positions will often deter low-income applicants from applying. The pandemic also has only aggravated burnout for an already overworked and underpaid workforce.
The pandemic has highlighted the plight of the modern museum: the cost of the lockdown could reach up to a a third of American museums close permanently. In the face of difficult decisions and the ensuing austerity, it seems unlikely that museums will be able to radically rethink their approach or how they operate.
However, this is still being done. Small museums in rural Britain were the spearhead their own decolonization initiatives while directly integrating indigenous populations has become more and more common worldwide. Community involvement and activation addresses the issue of representation by putting the works on display in context. More importantly, these practices center those responsible for these cultures and respect their management of their own heritage. Other liabilities and assets attempts to decolonization are also possible, but still require ongoing discussion. We can’t hope to address all of the colonial misdeeds in one exhibit, but we can start somewhere.
Rethinking the modern museum requires making them work for the living – a breathing room, rather than a mausoleum.