Decolonize the Museums by Shimrit Lee

About the Book

Decolonize the Museums begins with a series of fascinating and fraught questions:  How have museums served as historical extensions of colonial projects? How have processes of display and classification upheld a logic that views Europe, and European man, as the ideal image? How have museums enfolded the violence of conquest and colonialism into a supposedly neutral aesthetic, one that ultimately upholds a glorification of Whiteness? The book traces how the modern museum emerged alongside the fields of anthropology and ethnology, and as an outgrowth of world’s fairs and exhibitions. At the same time, it surveys efforts by museums and activists to give voice and power back to formerly colonized and Indigenous people—efforts that intend to make colonial histories more present in Western museums.  Conversations about the entanglement of museums with colonial crimes are abundant and lively. Yet, not everyone in the museum world is totally on board with the film’s depiction of a violent repatriation of stolen artifacts.

Tristram Hunt, Director of Britain’s Victoria and Albert Museum, for example, argued against returning the collection’s Maqdala crown to its original home in Ethiopia: “For a museum like the V&A to decolonize is to decontextualize,” he writes in The Guardian.  “A more nuanced understanding of empire is needed than the politically driven pathways of Good or Bad.” Other arguments against decolonization were recounted by archaeologist and museum curator Chip Colwell in a 2017 TEDx talk. Through his travels across Europe, he found that museum officials often held on to statues of (stolen) Zuni war gods by arguing that they constituted universal property. “We give all the objects to the world,” said an official at the Musée du quai Branly in Paris, insisting that the war god no longer serves Zunis, but museum visitors. Other arguments against repatriation of looted objects evoke a concern that doing so would set a precedent for bigger disputes, such as the return of the Parthenon marbles claimed by Greece. Other critics worry that artifacts would be “poorly handled by inexperienced museums in politically unstable countries.”

Rather than assess the legitimacy of these views, Decolonize the Museum focuses on the ways in which the museum has served as a crime scene— to use a metaphor proposed by Wandile Kasibe of IZIKO Museums of South Africa—one that has whitewashed crimes committed during the colonial period, including theft, murder, and genocide. The real work of colonization, Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko maintains, is an extraction of resources, and during that extraction “individuals and cultures are often destroyed and always harmed, always.” This violence is not over for Indigenous and formerly colonized people, who continue to suffer under regimes of economic and political inequality, and experience macro- and microaggressions on a daily basis. The museum, which aids in historical amnesia, often tricks visitors into believing that this violence only exists in the past. Sumaya Kassim, a co-curator for Birmingham’s Museum and Art Gallery’s decolonial exhibition, “Birmingham and the British Empire: The Past is Now,” (2017-18) argues that truly decolonizing the museum is impossible, and that British institutions are “so embedded in colonial history and power structures that they will only end up co-opting and collecting decoloniality.” The legacies of European colonialism are so deep and “ever mutating,” as she puts it, that decolonial work must adopt a variety of methods and continuously evolve. For Franz Fanon, too, the process of decolonization is one that is never finished. Decolonize the Museums will put these competing views into the context of broader, ongoing debates about rewriting dominant narratives of history, including campaigns to remove colonial-era monuments and revise all-white curricula. Lee will provide a brief outline of the following chapters, each of which deals with various efforts to decolonize, including repatriation, collaboration, formations of new museums, and active protest against ongoing colonial violence.

  • Shimrit Lee

    received her M.A. in international human rights law from the School of Oriental and African Studies in 2012 and her Ph.D. in Middle Eastern Studies from New York University in 2019. An interdisciplinary scholar working at the intersection of visual culture, performance, and critical security studies, Shimrit’s research interests relate to the cultural production of security narratives in Israel and the U.S. She is an alum of No Longer Empty’s Curatorial Lab, and in 2019 she co-curated an exhibition based on her dissertation research at Philadelphia’s Twelve Gates Arts. Her writing has appeared in Warscapes, Jadaliyya, +972 Magazine, and Jerusalem Quarterly.