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Decolonizing Museums: Dialogue as Form

Xiao Ma and Emily Tyburski

Two people talk over Zoom

Xiao Ma and Emily Tyburski on Zoom

The word “museum” comes from Greek “mousa” which means “muse,” which then transformed to “mouseion” in Greek, meaning “seat of the muses.”1 The word museum describes a place where people contemplate the muses, and not all museums employ an aesthetic model based on looking. Not all “centers of education” like to identify themselves as museums. Institutions such as the Schomburg Center in Harlem are built as community centers and put collaboration at the center of their mission. Nonetheless, all “museum” centers have something in common: They are institutions who have systemic biases. What if agency was redistributed through amplifying missing voices? 

Colonial and racist histories subjected communities of Black and brown descent to historical, political, and social oppression from the insular realm of highbrow art culture. This unveils the necessity of antiracism, equity, and decolonization within artistic practice. Based on a survey issued by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation in 2018 surrounding museum demographics, people of color make up 28% of museum staff in United States museums. Furthermore, Black or African Americans make up only 15% of leadership, curatorial, or education positions hired since 2014.2 Institutions serve to interpret identities, and therefore have leverage to address systemic oppression. Museums have a responsibility to decolonize themselves. 

Galleries would be static without the exchange with people who enter the space. Exchange has the power to redefine relationships, especially through the nonverbal language of expressive arts. When art is perceived, its meaning manifests from the interpretive space between the object and the viewer. Could we reimagine the art world as something nonexclusive? All museums should provide a bridge between community (people) and their collection. Ongoing exchange embeds reflection in discourses that otherwise favor problematic narratives. To establish a common voice exchange and collaboration are essential.

Collaboration entails constituent decision-making, and validating the presence of Black and brown identities, and rejecting whitewashed viewpoints that pander to a colonized lens. Black artists account for only 2.3% of all United States museum acquisitions and gifts.3 What does new agency look like? Power dynamics are shifted and eventually dialogue becomes inherent. An autonomous museum means to honor the following principles: Prioritizing hiring BIPOC staff and stakeholders, who are underrepresented in the museum field, installing exhibitions cocurated by the identities that show encompasses, creating programs that benefit both the museum and the local area by soliciting community feedback, and governance bodies made up of local residents to incorporate a geopolitical neighborhood perspective. Through forums that are made publicly known through outreach to other community locations (such as foundations, social services, and other key facets of the local area), institutions can identify how: 

  • They perpetuate barriers in communities. 

  • They can bridge these barriers. 

  • The public perceives the histories of interpreting and preserving culture. 

  • They can use skills cultivated in arts collaboratively. 

  • They perpetuate areas of concern. 

  • They can address the ongoing need for more guiding constituencies.  

Institutions and the artists they exhibit offer a microcosm of communal relationships. Artist Fred Wilson’s work in the Studio Museum’s 2018 exhibition Local Color posits hand-selected African and Caribbean objects with experimental meditations that converse with the public's relationship to art. The art juxtaposed objects from the museum’s personal collections with interpretive didactics and contemporary remixing, which is retold from a Black perspective. The artist has agency of the gallery.4 Fred Wilson and other Conceptual artists inspired by the neo-avant-garde movement created work that examines how all institutional purpose is dependent on the political, historical, and temporal realities of public life.5 Thus, challenging hierarchies through exchange between the museum and an art community has the power to reveal an often unchallenged Eurocentric curatorial and educational perspective. 

Rethinking power structures is a radical concept. Nevertheless, causes for radical intervention of such structures breaks apart the Westernized hegemony that pollutes the historical foundation of our institutions. As rightly suggested in Engaging Race: Teaching Critical Race Inquiry and Community-Engaged Projects: 

"There are times when 'dominant knowledge claims must be silenced' in our [learning spaces] … when … instructors give equal time to dominant narratives, we reinforce problematic discursive effects by legitimizing the idea that the conversation is equalizing only when it also includes dominant voices."6  

Some would argue that change can produce conflict. However, even conflict is a form of collaboration, and conflict often reveals the necessary need for activism. Hence, activism plays a crucial role in defining the cultural sphere. It can create a learning process: a key principle for many modern museums. By surrendering their authoritative perspective within operations, dialogue created by a constituent public has the ability to thwart “the state,” or those who perpetuate power. 

Making room for people by sharing resources is a step towards decolonization. Dialogues don’t always go as planned, but whatever form it takes, even within conflict, triggers action; that is where conflict evinces change. The ongoing conflict between the Museum of Chinese in America (MOCA) and the protestors of people against the museum’s actions and policies exemplifies free-formed dialogue between museum and community, and sufficiently shows how dialogue could be paused, avoided, or reshaped in different forms by the people.  

The most recent public dialogue addressing the conflict was addressed in the letter from Godzilla to MOCA. Godzilla Collective is an Asian American arts collective that was founded in 1990. They have been an artist protest group engaged in many protests, such as criticizing the Whitney Museum’s absence of Asian American artists. In the letter to MOCA, they addressed the reason to withdraw themselves from MOCA’s exhibition Godzilla vs. The Art World: 1990–2001. They brought up several issues of MOCA’s that they witnessed, such as the museum's leadership and their relationship with jail construction in New York’s Chinatown. A few days later, MOCA responded with explanations on the situation and restating MOCA’s mission to the collective.7  

Open letters are forms of communication. There are many open letters that “worked” in history, for example, “Letter on Corpulence” by William Banting and “Letter from Birmingham Jail” by Martin Luther King Jr.8 In the MOCA letter, the issues between the public (mostly within the community) and the museum remain unresolved. There isn’t much addressed on MOCA’s side other than an open letter to the Godzilla Collective. In this case, there’s no consistent flow between the museum and the people. There seems to be an intentional avoidance of confrontation that doesn't necessarily stop conflict from happening. Conflict here has become the form of a dialogue that doesn’t necessarily associate with either positive or negative connotation, as it becomes a form of force to push thinking further.  

To “colonize” means “to take control of a people or area especially as an extension of state power.”9 Having a dialogue puts people back on the same platform. Even though inequality still exists, it opens up a platform to reach the same goal; therefore, the original form of “state power” is taken into reconsideration. With this action taken the first step to challenging the “authority,” museums could take it one step further by balancing the power dynamic between its institutions and community.  

Therefore, museums need to abandon their definitions of dominant knowledge and implement measures that surface from the abandonment of authority and its subsequent potential conflict. There is no way to address identity politics through programming and exhibitions without agency and voice redistributed throughout their processes. To find the intersection of institution and community, decolonization must be favored over tourism and commercialism. Museums want to stay current, with accurate representations. Are we only engaging with communities on the surface by representing them? Are our representations truly effective? 

Notes

[ 1] G.D. Lewis, "museum." Encyclopedia Britannica, March 11, 2021, britannica.com/topic/museum-cultural-institution. 

[2] Mariët Westermann, Roger Schonfeld, and Liam Sweeney, Rep. Art Museum Staff Demographic Survey 2018. New York, NY: Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, 2019. 

[3]  Charlotte Burns & Julia Halperin, “Museums, Acquisitions and Artists of Color: Why Now Is the Time for Change,” Sotheby's, January 17, 2019. sothebys.com/en/articles/museums-acquisitions-and-artists-of-color-why-now-is-the-time-for-change.

[4]  “Fred Wilson,” The Studio Museum in Harlem, studiomuseum.org/artist/fred-wilson. 

[5] Frazer Ward, “The Haunted Museum: Institutional Critique and Publicity,” October  73 (1995): 71–89.  

[6] Laurie Grobman, “‘Engaging Race’: Teaching Critical Race Inquiry and Community-Engaged Projects,” College English 80, no. 2 (2017): 105–32. 

[7] Hakim Bishara, “Protesters Chant “Boycott MOCA” at Museum of Chinese in America Reopening,” hyperallergic.com/662634/protesters-chant-boycott-moca-at-museum-of-chinese-in-america-reopening/ 
 
[8] Chris Higgins, “6 Open Letters That Changed the World,” Mental Floss, mentalfloss.com/article/20427/6-open-letters-changed-world.
 

[9] Merriam-Webster.com Dictionary, s.v. “colonize,” accessed June 14, 2022, merriam-webster.com/dictionary/colonize.