What a lively and productive set of discussions it has been over the last few days at the Museum Ethnographers' Group conference as we worked through issues involved in 'decolonising the museum in practice.' So many interesting presentations: Claudia Augustat got us off to a great start by considering how staff are addressing the colonial past at the Weltmuseum in Vienna--where Hitler's balcony is on the next building over--in a currently rather right-wing Austria, and pointed out that one of the things museums need to decolonise is their budgets, so they can pay Indigenous partners and experts and support their communities in various ways. Rachel Minott gave a powerful account of curating the exhibition 'The Past is Now: Birmingham and the British Empire,' which was led by an ethnic minority team. She noted the burden on Black and ethnic minority museum staff and how they often leave museums to work in arts organisations that don't carry the same historical legacies. JC Niala, an Oxford Master's student who kept turning up in my lectures all this year, gave a powerful presentation on a single photograph of her grandfather and issues of access and control over such materials.
There was a grounded set of approaches to the theme over the two days, with issues of voice, agency, power and representation at the fore. I was left with the sense that participants are grappling in honest ways with colonial legacies and feeling their ways into how to unpack and address these. And I am grateful for PRM director Laura Van Broekhoven's emotionally and intellectually honest approach to the complexities of the Pitt Rivers Museum, wondering in the final wrap-up session if the museum needs a space for those visitors who do not see the displays as inspiring, but raising legacies of violence and control, to process and clear emotions and other responses to the displays.
I note that the online Twitter critics earlier in the week were absent from these very productive discussions. Clearly, there is much to do to address colonial legacies in UK museums. In a spirit of hope, some of us have already begun to discuss those actions. One of them needs to be to let public audiences know what is happening in that direction, and then we need to do lots of other things. Watch this space.