When traveling to Europe, museums are usually at the top of the list of recommended places to visit in a particular city. For example in Paris, art and history lovers could easily spend a day in the Louvre. Similarly, it’s recommended to carve out dedicated time for the Hermitage in St. Petersburg or for the British Museum in London. These houses of antiquity and culture are famous for their collections, but dig a little deeper and you are faced with a reckoning: how to balance the experience and educational opportunity associated with rare artifacts with the likelihood that these same items were treasures of war, or simply stolen by occupiers. Museums are not neutral institutions and it is incumbent upon visitors to recognize this fact when frequenting any sort of museum during their travels.
Museums have found themselves in some contentious arguments of late, centering on the concepts of museum “neutrality” and decolonization.
Let’s unpack the idea of museums as “neutral” institutions. To be neutral, by definition, is to be impartial or unbiased. The idea that museums are above social or political influences or are mere vessels of information is antiquated and, quite frankly, wrong. Museums have been (and some continue to be) symbols of power. Take, for example, the aforementioned British Museum. There’s a joke that recently circulated on Twitter: “What’s the least British thing in the British Museum?” Answer: “The exhibits.” The British Museum has been embroiled in a number of controversies regarding its exhibits over the years — from the Parthenon Marbles, to Ethiopia’s tabots, to the human remains of some Aboriginal communities. The museum’s position is consistent: “Finders Keepers.” As “keepers of civilization,” the British Museum asserts that the objects in its care should remain so because it alone is able to properly care for, display, and interpret those objects. Therefore, whether the British Museum intends to or not, it is making a political and social statement through its exhibitions: “We are civilized and, therefore, best positioned to tell visitors — any visitor — about the origin, history, and importance of the objects in our care.” This is where the idea of “decolonization” arises …
To “decolonize” museums means to recognize that there is not just one version of events, told from the perspective of the “winning side.” What prompted the decolonization movement? For one thing, the recognition that marginalized peoples also have a story to tell. At the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery in Hobart, Tasmania, poignant placards acknowledge that the exhibits tell only one side of the story. They also recognize why only one story is told: because no accounts or artifacts survived after the extermination of a specific people. While sometimes only one side of a story can be told, museums and visitors need to recognize there are multiple sides to a story.
Another aspect of decolonization is repatriation. Repatriation efforts encompass returning sacred or important objects or human remains to their ancestors. Quite different from the British Museum is the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. It is undergoing a multi-year effort to decolonize its collection by repatriating objects and human remains, as well as reexamining its collections — including labels — to remove derogatory terms and provide more context to the objects. Decolonizing museums is not an easy undertaking — multiple entities could claim an object or set of remains. and affected parties are often adamantly opposed to such efforts. But, as with most things, the first step is recognizing the problem. Only then can solutions be constructed.
As travelers, we need to recognize, first, that museums are not neutral institutions. They choose which stories to tell, and each story takes a position. Are you hearing from the conqueror or the conquered? The dominant or the marginalized voice? Second, decolonization efforts are not something that can be done in the blink of an eye. Hundreds of years of exploitation and silence do not vanish with the adoption of a buzzword. As visitors of museums, look for encouraging signs of decolonization efforts — attempts at repatriation of artifacts, or descriptions that include various viewpoints. Voice concerns with museum staff — either in person or electronically. As Dr. Martin Luther King said (July 1953), “We are not responsible for the environment we are born in, neither are we responsible for our hereditary circumstances. But there is a third factor for which we are responsible, namely, the personal response which we make to these circumstances.”
Written by Angela Cavallucci
Angela is a travel enthusiast, history nerd, and animal lover that works in the utility regulatory space to pay for her pricey habits. She obtained a Masters of Public Policy from American University, then later pursued a Masters of Museum Studies and a Certificate in Nonprofit Management from Johns Hopkins University. She is also an Ambassador volunteer at the National Museum of American History where she helps visitors find their way through the museum’s collections and DC’s streets. An eastern PA native, she lives in Washington, DC, with her husband, two cats, and two dogs (and many suitcases). Living in DC gives Angela extensive exposure to the things that she loves: great food, amazing wine, and interesting people with fascinating stories. She loves sharing her love for her city with others, and seeks out similar folks when she travels. RISE is a new opportunity for her to share her experiences and learn from others so that everyone can enjoy the wonders of travel.