Wednesday, 11 April 2018

'Decolonising the Museum in Practice'

Over the next two days, the Pitt Rivers Museum will host over one hundred delegates for the Museum Ethnographers' Group conference. The theme of this year's conference is 'decolonising the museum in practice' and was chosen by colleagues who actually do want to change their practice. The conference comes after several in-house workshops earlier this year at which PRM staff reflected on legacies of colonialism affecting ethnographic museums in general and PRM in particular.

Pitt Rivers Museum

While many PRM staff have worked with collections in postcolonial ways over the years, most of that work has been behind the scenes and seldom articulated in the museum's famously Victorian-looking displays. We need to engage the public and the displays in the kind of work we've been doing with Indigenous and other communities of origin, and to shift the image of the museum as a colonial space. And as is typical in ethnographic museums, certain staff tend to manage these projects and associated relationships. The process over the past six months leading up to this conference has been different, involving a much broader range of staff engaging with difficult issues.

Learning involves making mistakes. We have already made some in this process: one of our long-standing and greatly respected Indigenous colleagues called us on the fact that we expected all conference delegates to pay registration fees. Given that we are trying to increase the involvement of Indigenous community members in the museum, we should have thought well ahead and found funding to pay speakers' registration fees to increase diversity. That is a lesson learned. I am looking forward to speaking about the Museum's long learning (and mistake-making!) process with Indigenous people at the conference and to the lively dialogue that this set of issues, in this particular context, will undoubtedly generate. 

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