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  • Jingshu Helen Yao

What Am I Talking About When I Use the Word Decolonization?

By: Jingshu Helen Yao



A word so frequently brought up during my studies as an MMSt student, with much research, so many theories and discussions associated with and derived from it. A word that reappears again and again in training, during day-to-day operations, volunteering, conferences… Sometimes I wonder if the concept still has any meaning when it is often brought up to check a box, or fill a space. What am I talking about when I use the word “decolonization”?

When I first joined the Toronto History Museums, I wasn’t aware that my position, Historical Interpreter, is traditionally costumed at work. Since my site, Fort York, is a historic site for the War of 1812, the bright red British military uniforms are important interpretative tools. During my training, a visitor once asked me, pointing at my colleague in a red coat, if I would wear a costume once I started giving tours by myself.

“Maybe,” I said. The costuming of historical interpreters was under review at the time and no one was sure what might happen next.

“Who wouldn’t want to wear a costume like that?” She responded as if surprised by my unenthusiastic reply.

I wouldn’t.

I don’t remember the first time I saw the red coat in a history book but I remember the historical photo well.

A roomful of people, most of them British gentlemen in red coats, with black collars and golden buttons, elegant and proud, and scattered among them, a few Chinese men in robes wearing the signature Liangmao- the dome-shaped red hat worn by government officials of the Qing dynasty. It was the illustration for the Treaty of Nanjing, a treaty between the British Empire and the Qing government that marked the end of the First Opium War, that ceded Hong Kong to Britain for over a century. This became the first of many unequal treaties signed between Chinese and Western imperial powers that took place in Nanjing, which is the city I was born and grew up in 150 years later.

Treaty of Nanjing (Picture from Wikipedia)

Does it seem reasonable that I’m not the biggest fan of the red coat? Does it make sense that some of us may never want to wear the costume?

Despite this, I do recognize the value of these objects in interpretation. I like to talk about what the choice of the colour red entails. Muskets at the time used black powder to fire, which created a lot of smoke that made objects in the battleground difficult to see, so unlike today’s military that prefers to stay hidden, soldiers during this time needed to be obvious. At the same time red dye, created from brick dust and carmine, was cheap, and Americans chose blue as their colour, which was much more expensive, so they eventually switched to grey for economic reasons. Objects reflect the technology of their time that in turn influenced military strategies, which further reveal stories of the past.

It is true that period clothing is a practice utilized by many historic sites over the years. It is also true that it is an interpretative tool. But to argue that it should be because it always has been, or that because it has advantages the disadvantages should be overlooked, are not valid reasons to justify their existence.

Toronto History Museums began to offer free admission in May 2022. Many visitors I interacted with said things like: “I’ve lived in the neighbourhood for many years and never visited, but now we come because it’s free,” and “I’m visiting Toronto and found out that Fort York doesn’t require a ticket so I came.” They came not because they are big fans of military history, not because of the Fort York Guards or Fife and Drum Corps, not because historical interpreters wear period clothes. They came because we are accessible, and they could come anytime, bring their kids, and learn about history without a price.

Fort York (photo by Jingshu Yao)

This was the first sign of decolonization for me: that visitors could enter a space freely without any barriers. Often times, the new visitors were the ones who were previously excluded from the space, such as newcomers, people with limited English, and children whose parents didn’t see the value of paying the admission fee. Many times I encountered visitors who did not have the language to navigate the museum space. I had a few tours where a younger member of a family was trying to translate for others, but other visitors on the same tour soon became impatient, and I couldn’t give enough time for the translators to provide their family members with a full experience. I offered several aunties a short tour in Mandarin Chinese because they reminded me so much of my own family in a space without their own language. The aunties thanked me, asked to take a photo with me, and tried to add my contact information. One of them returned with her older sister, another with her husband, and another donated to the museum donation box. It was surprising what a small improvement in the accessibility of the space could do to improve the visitor experience.

These visitors are the ones museums try the hardest to reach out to. Very often, these people are from cultures that were colonized and heavily influenced by history. I could imagine that many of them share the same sentiment as me about the red coats. I wouldn’t feel comfortable approaching them in a costume.

Removing the practice of wearing period clothes from interpretation is now recommended at Toronto History Museums. Yet I couldn’t help but ask myself, if costuming was still regulated or recommended, would I refuse to wear them? Probably not. As an international student with limited career options, I felt extremely lucky to have a job, and the fear of losing it gives me the incentive to compromise, even though it might make me uncomfortable. However, I have seen colleagues who have strong opinions and would not give in, ones who would fight for their ideal of decolonization in museums. Their work is truly inspiring and forms a force that is slowly but surely transforming the field. In this article, I hope to become more like them.


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