Found  /  Dispatch

The Fight to Decolonize the Museum

Textbooks can be revised, but historic sites, monuments, and collections that memorialize ugly pasts aren’t so easily changed.

Museum professionals can now turn to a sudden plethora of books, symposia, workshops, and advice blogs about “creating conversation, not controversy,” “future-proofing” a museum, and handling protesters. The main problem, of course, is that so many monuments and museums were built a century or more ago by people who took colonialism, racial hierarchy, and slavery (or at least a benign Gone With the Wind view of the American South) for granted. You “can easily rewrite a textbook,” Lonnie Bunch, the founding director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture (and now the secretary of the Smithsonian Institution), has said, “but you can’t rewrite a museum.”

Sometimes, though, you have to try. Of course, new museums can be built from scratch, and the African American museum, which opened in 2016, is the country’s most impressive in decades. With nearly 2 million visitors a year, it is arguably more influential than any textbook. But what if your existing museum already has even more visitors, sits on hundreds of millions of dollars’ worth of real estate, and owns more than 100 years’ worth of collections? Should you tear the place down? And what should you do with the stuff in it, especially when some of that stuff was booty gathered from conquered peoples at gunpoint?

More than 90 percent of sub-Saharan African items housed in museums, for example, are held outside that continent. This is the Elgin Marbles controversy writ large. Should art or cultural objects taken from somewhere else be returned to the territories they came from? Even if that makes moral sense, it doesn’t always work out. The Royal Museum for Central Africa, in fact, gave a small portion of its magnificent African art collection to a museum in the Democratic Republic of Congo some 40 years ago. But the country’s long-term dictator at that time, Mobutu Sese Seko, was famously kleptocratic, and within a few years many of those same objects began appearing for sale in Europe, some in the shops of Brussels antique dealers.

Nowhere in the United States is a museum controversy so heated as at New York City’s venerable American Museum of Natural History. Its 5 million annual visitors have included, for four years now, hundreds of demonstrators who have trooped through the museum on an Anti–Columbus Day Tour. They chant, drum, dance, and unfurl banners: rename the day. respect the ancestors. decolonize! reclaim! imagine! They deliver speeches demanding changes, a few of which the museum is slowly making.