Museum Debates

Looking Back, Looking Forward: Decolonising the Museum

Museums are grappling with their difficult histories. In the UK, this has been complicated by government intervention; Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden recently met with a number of leading heritage institutions to discuss ‘contested’ portrayals of British history, arguing that museums should ‘retain and explain’. After the global attention brought to the Black Lives Matter movements since summer 2020, many museums and cultural institutions have issued statements of solidarity and pledges to do better to decolonise and diversify their collections and institutions. But what is the best way forward?

This debate explores how cultural institutions can best prioritise decolonisation strategies, and where (and by whom) genuine change can best be enacted. Is it within or beyond the museum walls? DCMS have stressed the importance of impartiality, and Duncan Wilson, head of Historic England, the importance of a ‘calm’ and ‘objective’ approach. But can the complicated, difficult work of decolonisation be effectively done in a neutral way? Is decolonisation impoverished by trying to establish a homogenous approach? And is a decolonised museum even truly possible?

Dr. David Dibosa is a curator and co-investigator for Black Artists and Modernism. He is a course leader on the University of the Arts London MA programme Curating and Collections. Author of a number of critical museological texts, Dibosa has been involved in numerous public art projects. He is a member of UAL’s Research Centre for Transnational Art, Identity and Nation (TrAIN).

Dr. Nima Poovaya-Smith OBE is a museum curator, art historian and writer. She was the founding director of Alchemy until 2018, previously Head of Special Projects at the National Media Museum, Bradford; Director of Arts at Arts Council Yorkshire and Senior Curator of Bradford Galleries and Museums. She developed the Transcultural Gallery, launched in 1997, and the Connect Galleries, launched in 2008, for Cartwright Hall, Bradford. Recent projects include Black Waters Heritage (2020) for Phoenix Dance Theatre. She is a Senior Visiting Research Fellow at the School of Fine Arts, History of Art and Cultural Studies at the University of Leeds, a Trustee of Harewood House and a patron of Leeds Library.

Alice Procter is an art historian and author of The Whole Picture (2020). Under the pseudonym, The Exhibitionist, she organises the Uncomfortable Art Tours and The Exhibitionist Podcast which expose the insidious colonial legacies of many major cultural institutions in the United Kingdom and their contemporary manifestations. Procter undertook a BA and MA at UCL specialising in the history of material culture in History of Art and Anthropology.

Ben Okri is a poet, novelist, essayist, short story writer, anthologist, aphorist, and playwright. He has also written film scripts. His works have won numerous national and international prizes, including the Booker Prize for Fiction. He has also received many honorary doctorates for his contribution to Literature. Recently, his Grenfell poem, on Channel Four YouTube, has received more than 6million visits on Facebook.

Erika Tan’s practice is primarily research-led and manifests in multiple formats, with a leaning towards moving image, referencing distributed media in the form of cinema, gallery-based works, internet and digital practices. Evolving from an interest in anthropology and the moving image, her work is often informed by specific cultural, geographical or physical contexts. Her research interests focus on the postcolonial and transnational, working with archival artefacts, exhibition histories, received narratives, contested heritage, subjugated voices and the transnational movement of ideas, people and objects. She is currently the Stanley Picker Fellow in Fine Art; Decolonising Arts Institute Associate Researcher, UAL; and a lecturer on the B.A. Fine Art, 4D Pathway, Central Saint Martins, UAL. Recent curatorial projects: Sonic Soundings/Venice Trajectories and an instigator of FLOW, 3 days of events at Asia-Art-Activism, Raven Row.   

Michael I. Ohajuru is a Senior Fellow of the Institute of Commonwealth Studies and co-convener of the workshops What’s Happening in Black British History. Michael blogs, writes, tours and speaks regularly on the black presence in Renaissance Europe, and has spoken at the National Gallery, Tate Britain, British Library, National Archives and the Victoria Albert Museum. He is the Project Director and Chief Evangelist of The John Blanke Project and the co-convenor of the Institute of Historical Research Black British History seminar program and founder member of the Black Presence in British Portraiture, managing their podcast – The BP2 Podcast.

Organised by the MA Curating the Art Museum group