- Megan Mahon
Can The Museum Be Reconciled?
Good morning museum friends, and now it’s time for another issue of Here’s How Hard It Is To Decolonize Museums. Not to depress anyone at this late stage in the semester, but I wanted to talk about a trend I’ve been noticing among Canadian museums recently and ask a vital question: do we, as participants in this program, believe that the museum can be reconciled? Not simply decolonized, but reconciled? Some might argue it’s an issue of semantics. But I believe that, in most cases, decolonization is something that follows reconciliation. In theory, once Canadian museums have reconciled with the Indigenous peoples on whose land they stand, they can continue, with their input, to decolonize the museum - that is, to reimagine and reorganize their content with justice and restitution in mind. However, I fear that “decolonization” is in danger of simply becoming another museum buzzword – a trend that quickly fizzles, rather than a way of operating that all institutions should be committing to for the future. Many Canadian museums are at risk of putting half an effort into their decolonization practices, by not putting reconciliation first. And that will involve a total re-imagination of what “the museum” actually is and should be. The Royal BC Museum in Victoria, for example, has recently closed its third floor, citing the need to completely overhaul their exhibitions in the name of decolonization. The galleries prepped to close include the “Becoming BC” exhibition and the extremely popular Old Town (which depicts the city of Victoria as it would have looked in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries). They’re also going to close their First Peoples gallery, as they want to feature Indigenous stories that are not based in white settler stereotypes from 1886 (when the museum was founded).
The outside of the Royal British Columbia Museum. Source: Michael Klajban. On the surface, this looks great. These galleries definitely need an overhaul - as Geoff Russ, a member of the Haida community and a Victoria resident, put it, the First Peoples gallery in particular “desperately needs input from Indigenous experts” before it can reopen. The other exhibits also need thorough examination to ensure that they explain history from more than one (white) viewpoint. No, I’m not against gallery overhauls. But I’m also not sure that this gets to the very root of the problem. The reason the RBCM is making these changes is that past staff members have complained about “a culture of racism and discrimination.” The resignation of Lucy Bell, who had been the head of the Indigenous Collections and Repatriation department, sparked a third-party investigation into internal practices - the results of which were, apparently, “not good.” Put simply? It’s not only the galleries that need an overhaul.
Some artifacts of the First Peoples collection at the Royal BC Museum. Source: Wikimedia Commons.
Museums are made up of people. While art, objects, and artifacts might be the public face of an institution, people make them run – and it’s the people, not the artifacts, that have to do the work of reconciliation. If the RBCM changes their exhibits and didactics, that’s great. But if the people who make those exhibits and didactics continue to participate in making the museum unsafe for Indigenous folks, then only the surface has changed. The colonial wound has not, in fact, healed at all. It’s a similar story at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Following their own – oft-repeated and studied by students in this program – blunders, their CEO was fired. They’ve since spent over four thousand hours on employee training (don’t be racist! is it really that difficult?) and instituted Robert Greene as Indigenous Elder-In-Residence. But as new CEO Isha Khan has stated, disrupting the colonial standard in museums “takes really thoughtful and deliberate work and takes a long time.” She’s right. For once, I have to think the CMHR is taking the right approach. It’s not about changing galleries - although that takes a lot of work, it can happen relatively quickly. Changing people won’t happen overnight. However, that brings me to the question which is the crux of this article: is the museum too steeped in coloniality to ever be reconciled, no matter how much the people within them may change and grow? Pondering this question led me to Sumaya Kassim’s famous article “The Museum Will Not Be Decolonized,” which I’m sure most people in this program have read. It details her experiences as a co-curator at the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery, creating an exhibition that examined the museum’s colonial history. Although her exploration into the history of the museum’s artifacts was fascinating, what’s more relevant to this discussion is her struggle with the overall structure of the museum. As she put it, white supremacy and coloniality are “so embedded in the history and power structures” of cultural institutions that she was doubtful about whether decolonization could ever be achieved. Museums are made by, for, and about white audiences. Before we can think about changing museums, we have to alter their entire structure and purpose. I’m an eternal optimist: I believe that the museum can be reconciled and, eventually, decolonized. But I think that museums have to change their definition of what that means. For the Royal BC Museum, it means more than simply changing your galleries. For the Canadian Museum for Human rights, it means more than firing your CEO and conducting staff workshops. Of course, these things are all good (especially if your CEO does nothing to combat reports of racism), and they have their place in the reconciliation process. But they also fail to fundamentally disrupt the nature of the museum, which is, I think, the true way to reconcile and decolonize. This has been a long, deep dive into what museums are doing – and not doing – that works to create safer environments for everyone and to reconcile with communities they have harmed in the past. My final point is that it must happen in layers: change the structure, change the people, change the artifacts. If everything I’ve learned in this program is true, it won’t happen quickly. All of us who work in museums will have to ensure that reconciliation is our primary focus. But, if the end result is safer and anti-colonial museum spaces, it will be worth it. And we aren't averse to hard work, are we?