News ID: 115741
Publish Date : 05 June 2023 - 23:07

Colonial Legacy of World Museums

NEW YORK (Hyperallergic.com) -- As expectations regarding the social responsibilities of art museums change, understanding the colonial foundations of the museum field is ever more crucial.
Recent studies show that progress toward genuine equity within art museums continues to be sluggish despite the field’s efforts to diversify staff and collections.
This results from the fact that, historically, Western art museums developed as cultural repositories for colonialism. The essential difficulty is that the vast majority of art museum professionals have limited training in how to identify and address contemporary manifestations of this history.
Ideas from as early as the Divine Right of Kings to the Enlightenment have been used to justify European empire and its literal re-categorization of the world.
We know the horrors of African enslavement and Indigenous genocide, but in the wake of both, European colonizers amassed a massive number of BIPOC cultural objects, which they subsequently built establishments to house and economic markets to support.
Therefore, traditional art museums and the art market substantiated a racialized visual taxonomy that literally reordered the world to construct and maintain whiteness as a system of social, economic, and political power.
Herein lies the fundamental reason why representation alone will not end inequity in art museums. Museums developed from Eurocentric notions of world ownership and domination, and there is absolutely nothing equitable about empire.
The desire for representation is not something unique to BIPOC. In fact, the art museum developed as the colonial space where Euro-descended peoples exclusively represented themselves: natural history museums, ethnographic museums, zoos, and botanical gardens demonstrated what White-male colonizing monarchs, wealthy merchants, scholars, and aristocrats believed they could do to and with the world and everything in it.
Art museums demonstrated who they believed themselves to be within that world. The ubiquity of White representation within all modern systems is the very reason why White people have benefitted the most from them.
Representation works for White people within art institutions in ways that it does not for BIPOC because White representation and White middle-class cultural mores are inherent to every aspect of the functionality of dominant society.
BIPOC representation and cultural values are not. Therefore, BIPOC representation alone seldom results in structural change in art museums because pathologizing, fetishizing, or illegalizing BIPOC culture/identity and erasing BIPOC people are essential to colonial systems.
This is why acquisition and exhibition of BIPOC work is not enough to produce genuine equity, and why art museums have taken decades upon decades to consistently implement both.
Although the aesthetic presence of BIPOC work in museums is indispensable and allows room for pure visual appreciation, genuine equity will not develop until its multivalent cultural and aesthetic patterns are fully incorporated into how and why the gallery/museum is there in the first place. The work must be contextualized through BIPOC epistemologies.
Museum history of possession and voracious accumulation is why curatorial investigations begin with Black scholars.
Writing more than 30 years apart, W.E.B. Du Bois at the end of World War I and Aimé Césaire a decade after World War II, each man exposed the colonialist psyche that led us to world war not once but twice.
Their works provided readers with poignant ways to understand colonization, its various forms, and its effects on our lives. This tradition among BIPOC cultural producers is more than 300 years old. But how often are ideas posited by BIPOC scholars being strategically applied to museum history and practice? Not nearly enough.