Reflection 11: Museum Rant
The museum world gets away with its past too soon. Many artifacts in the museums are pillaged and forcefully given, especially the Western ones. It is considered okay, considering the educational value. Also, some people say that they are doing stellar conservation works. These two statements are true, indeed. However, the argument sounds profoundly similar to the defending idea of keeping the zoo. It certainly raises some questions about the notion behind running the museums.
In my opinion, the most problematic aspect is the attitude of the museums. As I wrote initially, they forget their colonized past; the collections are the living proof. The appearance of the account “Change the Museum” depicts how they are ignorant and irresponsible of history.
The Instagram Account 'Change the Museum' Is Doing Just That
On June 27, the Instagram account @changethemuseum posted one of the anonymous reports of the often dispiriting…
I’ve worked at one of the renowned institutions specialized in Asian art. They were tone-deaf when it comes to engaging the actual AAPI community. Most of the employees were white, especially in higher positions. They didn’t speak up actively about the Asian hate. Overall, the whole museum thought it’s okay to be indifferent. I understand that decolonization is not only about achieving racial justice and all. How I comprehend it is that pointing out the colonial frame and restructure it. What the exposé does is magnificent. It actually made some changes in removing the “bad apples.” However, is it sufficient?
I don’t want to lead the discussion too radically, such as getting rid of the museums or returning the collections to their origins. (In my wildest dream, it would be fun but not in reality.) The point is about the approach. The museums need to acknowledge how they acquired “foreign” collections. Also, they should notice the context of exhibiting them in the Western soil. For now, many of them make it a big deal about just including indigenous artworks. Considering how the art and culture industry presents itself as progressive, it is preposterous. It is deeply rooted in savior logic and hierarchy. People keep animals in an artificially formed environment, saying this is for them; they persevere the species, do research, and educate others through a zoo. When you feed them small snacks through a cage, would it make them happy?
Yes, it’s better than nothing. Of course. I love the fact that marginalized groups have a chance to be highlighted. The point that makes me uncomfortable is that the museums are still colonizing other cultures while doing so. I am not in a position to suggest a whole better system. It is unrealistic to replace it entirely. However, there must be a fundamental change. It is deceiving to display Latin American art without hiring or including any of them while curating. Institutions are meaningful and good because they can produce refined content. They have a budget (even though it is small) to do the research, invest in a broad discussion, and provoke thoughts/reactions. The focus is oftentimes set at the white cisgender first-world male, and no one seems to bother.
I think many museums in the Western hemisphere should start with this premise: “We own nothing.” They don’t own their collections. If the museums are really to be the keeper, the line should be clear. Different cultures cannot be a political-correctness gimmick that they can use once and then throw away. Also, they should be responsible that they have borrowed them for education, which should be representing the value of diversity. Plus, they should teach about colonization through the artifacts. The basic ground should change. If they don’t want to do so, it’s a pure shame. It means they will continue making history of plundering while being pretentious.
It has been a long rant about museums. I used to laugh at how they do. Other BIPOC friends in the same field and I shared the sentiment. Most of us chose to leave the scene. Talking about injustice is easy, but the actual change is hard to achieve. On a personal level, it is harder to fight these things. I don’t want to finish the writing with a resolution of making changes. (It does not mean that I am skeptical about the change) At the end of the day, not everything is up to us. This little piece is a small stone that is a part of a stone stupa. I hope this mere wish to be a foundation of future conversations about building a better system. Well, that is what a rant is for anyway.