By: Megan Mahon
I’m coming to you now to write what I think we all need, particularly in the climate we’re living in: something hopeful about where museums are going. I know that many of you, like me, spend a lot of time questioning our place in the museum world, and the place of museums within the wider world. Can we move forward, with love and decolonization in mind, after all the objectively bad things museums have done? Can museums truly change?
I will assert here that yes, they can. In fact, they’re doing so even as we speak. In the following article, I’ll show you all a bunch of examples from all over the world that prove that something fundamental has changed in the museum world, and museum professionals are more conscious of doing the right thing than they ever have been before. We’re living in a truly transformative moment for the museum world, and all of my fellow MMSt folks and I are lucky to be entering the profession at such a crucial time. Real change is happening, and we’re all poised to be a part of it.
Steven Loft and Michelle LaVallee, new leaders of the NGC's Department of Decolonization. Image courtesy of ARTnews.
Let’s start with a local example. The National Gallery of Canada, Canada’s premier art gallery, has recently taken the plunge and created an entire department dedicated to decolonization. Its director, Michelle LaVallee, and its Vice President, Steven Loft, will lead the department in guiding the gallery “to deepen its relationship with Indigenous communities and Nations, locally, nationally, and internationally.” Having Indigenous folks lead this department is a fantastic way to Indigenize the NGC, and bodes well for ensuring that modern Indigenous artists can claim their place on so-called Canada’s national stage.
South of the border (in Nebraska, as a matter of fact), objects belonging to Sioux warrior High Eagle are being returned to his descendants after a century of being displayed at the Lincoln Historical Society museum. When his great-granddaughter saw them online while looking for census records, she contacted Nebraska’s Historical Society and the repatriation process began immediately. Following NAGPRA guidelines, High Eagle’s descendent was able to file a claim and, soon, these spiritual artifacts will be back in her family’s possession. “It’s a really important part of our legacy,” she says. “We’re still here.”
Let’s go a little further afield now, to Hawaii, where many Indigenous Hawaiians are taking steps to reclaim their heritage from the oblivion of imperialism. One delegation is travelling to Europe to collect human remains looted by naturalists during archaeology’s so-called golden age. This expedition is being led by Edward Halealoha Ayau, who said that museums are being “very respectful of Hawaiian values and humanity while handling these claims.” Due to increasing societal pressure, museums that would never previously have considered repatriation claims are now taking on the task of investigation, and reaching out to communities whose lives they have affected.
Solomon Enos' work "Art and Healing 1."
Also in Hawaii, Indigenous artist Solomon Enos is engaged in some truly cool retellings of Indigenous Hawaiian stories through his artistic practice. Enos, who I had the great privilege of speaking to this summer (check out the Pitt Rivers’ Matters of Policy podcast to learn more! Sorry for the shameless plug) is a self-described “Possibilist.” This means his art deals with aspirational visions of the best the world can be, a mindset I find particularly hopeful and beautiful. He also engages in Indigenous Futurism, which imagines Hawaiian traditional knowledge and stories in a future setting. He’s also been featured in mega-museums like the Smithsonian. It’s gorgeous stuff, and everyone should go check it out. But what strikes me most about his work – and about all the stories I’ve talked about today - is that it refuses to be broken by the past. Its greatest strength is its belief in a better future.
This concept is best embodied by the words radical hope. The Pitt Rivers Museum has taken this idea and run with it, in their own decolonizing work. I think that all museums, and culture-keepers, can follow suit. It isn’t a denial of museums’ colonial past, or a rejection of the uncomfortable history that plagues them. It doesn’t posit that museums are perfect - because, as we all know, that wouldn’t be true. But it does unashamedly, unreservedly, and unflinchingly believe that museums can be more.
Radical hope is hard. It’s a lot of work. But I read something recently that talked about how it’s far easier to be a cynic, especially when it comes to the big questions of “whether or not the world can change” and “whether or not museums can be better.” It’s simple to say “no, never.” “Never” and “no” ask nothing of us. Radical hope demands we put change into action.
Never forget that good things are happening. If you the reader are like me - and I know that you are - then you came to the museum field because you wanted to be part of positive change. All we have to do is follow in the footsteps of change that’s already happening, the majority of which was led by Indigenous folks. We can get there, guys, I know we can. Listen to Indigenous peoples. Strive for the change that traditional cultures call for. And, most of all, hope radically and without reservation.