The historical foundations of our public institutions are irrevocably entrenched in imperialism, European supremacy and colonial violence — our museums are no exception. In these spaces, artworks, artefacts and relics are deliberately estranged from their acquisition and native histories, allowing for their public presentation to become de-historicised into a Eurocentric nostalgia for empire. In museums as they exist today, art-historical perspectives prevail, without attempts to decolonise our understanding of the object at hand. Not only does this contribute to the global erasure of Indigenous culture, but in doing so, it upholds racist and classist structures within society. In particular, 18th and 19th century European art is the single biggest culprit of depicting empire in a deeply problematic, self-reverential light. Our galleries are filled with ornate portraits of slave owners, pillagers, and colonisers, escorted by trivial words about who they were and what they did; it is easy for the viewer to take in the glistening image of an artwork without its gruesome history.
To grapple with the problematic state of our modern museums in their totality, and understand why decolonising them is not as simple as it first seems, it is critical that we understand the origin of the museum as a symbol of white aristocracy. The early ancestor of the museum is the ‘cabinet of curiosity’, arising in central Europe in the 13th century. These cabinets were owned by royalty and aristocratic men, rapidly becoming the most prominent display of one’s power. Filled with foreign objects taken as trinkets and trophies from their conquests, the cabinet of curiosity was a place a man could bolster his wealth, knowledge and colonial expanse. As cabinets became shelves, and shelves became rooms, museums were born out of the private collections of the colonial European aristocracy, comprised of ‘exotic’ objects removed from their native place and history, just as they remain in our museums today.
So if museums were born as a byproduct of empire, made possible only by the wealth generated from colonisation, this history begs the question: is it ever possible to decolonise the museum?
We cannot fix the problem by simply removing problematic artworks from display, because they represent real people with real, troubling histories. To dismiss this history would be an act of injustice and disregard for the continued effects of European colonisation on Indigenous cultures globally. A first step instead may be to diversify our galleries beyond Eurocentric art. However, this is misguided, as it is critical to acknowledge that decolonisation and diversity are not synonymous. The inclusion of non-Western art created by people of colour in galleries is imperative, but this is not a means to an end for a gallery-space to become ‘decolonised’. Decolonisation is the process by which the canon of history is reviewed, questioned and re-constructed to do justice to the stories of those who have been oppressed by colonialism. A truly decolonised gallery must change the narrative it presents alongside colonial art in the form of labels, blurbs and information that seeks to represent the work in a non-Eurocentric and historically elucidative fashion. Simply including non-Western art in a gallery is not enough. It is interesting to note that cabinets of curiosity purposefully went without labels in order to withhold knowledge, providing the owner with more power over viewer interpretation. This deliberately exclusionary sentiment is apparent in the euphemistic (or altogether erasive) labelling of many European artworks in modern museums.
Deliberately poor and incomplete labelling is a significant hurdle to overcome in the effort to decolonize museums. Notably, sociological scholars, such as Aníbal Quijano, describe the private control of subjectivity and historical knowledge as a key pillar in the colonial matrix of power. This scrupulous control can only be dismantled through the accommodation of objects, artworks and portraits with labels that reveal the subject or owner’s identity, the source of their wealth, political contributions, purpose for commissioning the work, and the lineage of ownership to the present day — these are the keys to building a decolonised understanding of a colonial object. Though the institution of the museum cannot be removed from its colonial heritage, it is the responsibility of curators and art historians today to begin the arduous process of decolonising artworks and objects. Alongside this, greater efforts need to be made to include non-Western art, historically dismissed from art-history as less extraordinary and unfit for gallery display. Acknowledgement and understanding through the decolonisation of the art-historical canon must be the road undertaken to transform museums into cultural institutions that reclaim and represent our collective histories — unpleasantries and all.