The calls to decolonise culture around the world are growing louder, including here in the UK.
Not only culture in the form of traditional heritage spaces such as museums and
galleries, but the way it is framed and shared by places like libraries and schools.
Olga Viso, an independent curator and museum consultant, summed it up well in an article for the New York Times earlier this year, when she said museums need to keep up with an appetite from their diverse audiences for representation and accountability.
Viso may have been referring to the US, but exactly the same is true in Britain, brought tragically to life by the recent Windrush Scandal. It’s really important to remember that ‘colonial’ isn’t just a historical concept referring to the bygone days of the British Empire.
For many, it’s a living, breathing reality inherent in all of the UK’s power structures, that their social and cultural capital and fundamental rights are still all too often intrinsically linked to their race and the colour of their skin.
But how does any organisation reconceive their mission at a time of great societal reckoning around race and gender?
On the ground, we’ve been involved in a range of projects exploring the decolonising of museums.
It’s a small step forward but hopefully it’s the beginning of raising awareness around the issues involved in decolonising museums, and a way of encouraging conversation and reflection.
One of the points Viso makes is around the importance of leadership, and having different models of leadership, and that will prove to be really key I think.
It’s difficult to see culture being decolonised while the power and influence behind it is still rooted in the same old power structures – politically, economically, creatively…
Schools play a key role in this sense, as the place where the vast majority of us first encounter history, heritage and ‘British culture’ through arts education for example.
University students are hopefully beginning to turn the tide in Higher Education, with internationally known campaigns like #RhodesMustFall in South Africa aiming to topple colonial statues. Here in the UK, British students are mobilising too with students from Cambridge University succinctly explaining what ‘decolonisation’ means: “Diversity initiatives are not decolonial initiatives. Diversity initiatives simply seek to expand reading lists to include more authors of colour whereas decolonial initiatives start from the premise that colonial power stole and destroyed land, bodies and knowledge from indigenous people. In practice, this means that diversity initiatives perpetuate the status quo of Eurocentrism whereas decolonial initiatives seek to fundamentally challenge the presumption of Eurocentrism.”
That’s one of the reasons why we’re currently working to find a permanent home for Museumand: The National Caribbean Heritage Museum. And one of the reasons why we need a range of powerful, influential Black voices to come on board as champions of the museum. We need to build new cultural
spaces that are ‘decolonial’ to begin with – created and led by people that have been underrepresented for far too long.
Decolonising British culture isn’t just about decolonising existing colonial institutions and notions, it’s about supporting the creation of new institutions and notions, that truly represent British culture and audiences from all communities.
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