Progress

The notion of a march towards “progress” is perhaps most worth investigating in scientific narratives. Across the natural, medical, physical and techno-sciences, the message that the human species is inevitably moving teleologically towards the goal of secular, techno-scientific progress firmly underscores how the history of science and scientific developments are presented publicly (nowhere more so than in science museums). The problem with this approach is that it prescribes one way of being and is focused on an idea of “progress” that is founded in ideas of capitalist growth. Science, technology and capital go hand in hand here, dismissively consigning alternative conceptions of growth based on relation-making and care-taking as antithetical to progress.

Presenting technological innovations as indicators of advancement serves to confine other practices to an imagined past. Critics of these notions of progress are often dismissed as ‘anti-science’, in an attempt to reinforce binary notions of spirituality versus science, land and water protection versus resource extraction and care-taking versus profit-making.

The way we tell stories is often underscored by these problematic binary notions and nowhere is this more apparent than in museums. Narratives about the “development of civilisation” sometimes work to confine certain peoples to an imagined collective past, rather than recognising that these lifeways will endure and be sustained far into our future. Instead of confining our ideas of growth to narrow ideas of teleological progress, by embracing and integrating Indigenous sciences and resisting entrenched binary thinking, museum narratives can plan a vital role in how we change and shape how we imagine the future.

Preservation

Many people understand a museum’s central function to be one of preserving culture for display, study and future access. However, the mission to “preserve” is sometimes at odds with communities own visions for the use and futurity of their material culture. Who decides what is “worth” collecting and preserving shapes what knowledge and lifeways museum audiences interpret as legitimate cultural knowledge.

Nathan Sentence’s blog ‘Why do we collect?’ outlines this point neatly. He states that items that are preserved in the wrong context (i.e. without respect for their vitality and community access protocols) are in fact not being “preserved” at all.

Instead of valorising museums as the sole protectors of culture against the threat of extinction, perhaps we can start to change institutional language around conservation, curation and community access to reflect that museums are but one way to preserve cultural heritage. When outward-facing and open to changing practice, museums can be an unparalleled resource for connection with cultural practice, but when we hide behind self-appointed missions of preservation and guardianship we are liable to miss richer bodies of cultural knowledge that can improve our overall understanding.

Useful reading: Nathan Sentance, ‘Why do we collect?’, Archival Decolonist blog, August 2018.

(Post)colonial

The final post in our mini-series on the postcolonial offers a version of the term that attempts to signal to the critical perspectives that have been raised by scholars and that were pointed to in the first two posts in the series.

The central tension underlying critiques of postcolonial theory comes from those that are committed to a project of decoloniality – and who consequently see postcolonialism as a predominantly theoretical endeavour that neglects the programmatic or actionable in favour of privileging the analytical – thereby reinforcing dominant structures of power. Whilst some postcolonialists have indeed concentrated on the material, the school arose from cultural critics such as Edward Said, Homi K. Bhabha and Gayatri Spivak – thinkers whose work leant more towards post-structuralism. Decolonial theory, on the other hand, arose from sociologists who ascribed more to the economic focuses of world-systems theory.

The other crucial difference between decolonial modes of thinking and postcolonialism is where the two schools locate the founding nexus of coloniality. For early postcolonialists, Said’s Orientalism identifies this as the invention of the exoticised ‘Orient’ as a construction against which the West could come to define itself. The decolonial critique of this is, as sociologist Gurminder K. Bhambra notes, that coloniality ‘starts with the earlier European incursions upon the lands that came to be known as the Americas from the fifteenth century onwards’.[1]

In light of these important critiques, alongside the tendency to read the ‘post’ in postcolonial as suggestive of a clean break with colonialism, the term (post)colonial attempts to call attention to these critiques whilst acknowledging the important contributions that have come from the field. The parenthesis are a little overly-stylised, perhaps, but neatly do the work of critiquing whether we have indeed moved past colonialism or whether we need to look deeper into de-linking ourselves from the project of coloniality altogether.


[1] Gurminder K. Bhambra, ‘Postcolonial and decolonial dialogues’, Postcolonial Studies, 17, (2), 2014, p. 115.

Useful readings: Gurminder K. Bhambra, ‘Postcolonial and decolonial dialogues’, Postcolonial Studies, 17, (2), 2014, p. 115.

Ramón Grosfoguel, ‘Decolonizing Post-Colonial Studies and Paradigms of Political-Economy: Transmodernity,Decolonial Thinking, and Global Coloniality, Transmodernity, 1, (1), 2011

Postcolonial

The second variation of “postcolonial” moves us away from the historicised connotations that the hyphen in “post-colonial” denotes. Instead of describing a historical moment following independence from official colonial rule, “postcolonial” instead turns us towards a theoretical approach to understanding literature, society, politics, art and more.

Whilst scholars are still engaged in debates around the exact parameters and meaning of the term, John McLeod, Professor of Postcolonial and Diaspora Literatures at the University of Leeds, neatly encapsulates the theoretical project and ambition of the term in his introduction to the field, Beginning Postcolonialism. McLeod conceives of “postcolonialism” as a strategy, a lens through which to think about “representations, reading practices, attitudes and values”.[1] In this way, we can see the absence of the hyphen in “postcolonial” as not confining us to thinking about strict demarcations of history and time but instead advocating for a commitment to a political, artistic and social project to “claim the right of all people […] to material and cultural well-being”.[2]

Despite this qualification, the term still divides scholars, with critiques particularly strong from those in the field of Indigenous Studies, who have taken up Mignolo’s project of epistemic decolonization and who have identified limits with an established tradition of postcolonial theory which has not been fully attentive to the specificities of Indigenous experience(s) and epistemologies.

We’ll explore some of these critiques in the third and final post in this mini-series through one last variation of “postcolonial” that attempts to call attention to the problems with the “post” in “postcolonial”.


[1] John McLeod, Beginning Postcolonialism, (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2000).

[2] Robert Young, Postcolonialism: A very short introduction, (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003).

Post-colonial

This is the first in a mini-series unpacking the various ways in which we might employ the term “postcolonial”. How the term is written changes its meaning, leading to different interpretations in different contexts.

Let’s start with post-colonial. The prefix post, accompanied here by the hyphen, suggests that we’re referring to the temporal space after the “event” of colonialism. This term works for describing the historical events that followed the roll-back of European presence in external colonies, (think when the British left India and Kenya) but there are serious critiques of this usage of this term to describe the uneven patterns of post-colonial history, ongoing repercussions of colonial domination that we have not yet transcended, settler colonialism and the ongoing project of decolonisation which we’ll go on to unpack in the next post.

Ownership

A ubiquitous, but nonetheless uncomfortable term in museum management, the idea that museums are the “owners” of items in their collection is interpreted variously. Whilst museums claim legal ownership, this inevitably leads us to questions around whose legal systems are recognised as valid in this assertion? The term ownership similarly implies a sense of legitimacy to collections. However, if items were certainly acquired under duress or looted, does this mandate an interrogation of who “owns” an item?

An interesting hybrid model that works in some specific cases as an alternative to repatriation/restitution is co-caring for collections, whereby the museum legally “owns” the material and holds it in collections, but management decisions and “spiritual ownership” are placed in the hands of source communities. This practice has been enacted by some institutions already and may be a model that UK museums can look to.

Other

Philosophically, the concept of “the Other” is used to delineate another and to distinguish them from the self. Consequently, the Other has elements that are recognisably like the self, but in order to create a sense of difference, concepts are projected onto the Other that serve to enforce boundaries between self and Other in order to protect the category of the self.

When extended to a societal level, certain sub-sections or groups are Othered in order to protect dominant society, which functions as an extended self. A clear example of this can be seen in the de-humanising language applied to refugees and immigrants, antisemitism and the ostracization of queer and trans people. In museums, Othering is often implicit in curatorial narratives and collections documentation – with language assuming particular power dynamics or failing to consider the specificities of different cultural contexts. This is why staff diversity as well as co-operative consultation is crucial.

Orientalism

Edward Said’s term, outlined in the eponymous 1978 book, is one of the most widely-quoted in cultural theory. Describing the representational system through which the Euro-American West imagines and defines its Other, (a term we’ll come to later!) Orientalism functions as a useful device for the West to come to know itself by virtue of what it is not.

Whilst Orientalism is commonly discussed in the political sphere, especially in relation to the ‘War on Terror’, Said, a literary critic by training, formulated his argument through readings and critical analysis of art and fiction. His attentive readings traced the representation of the imagined Orient through European creative and representational traditions and used these to build the contours of an ideological lens through which to re-interpret these representations. In museums and art galleries in particular, these kinds of imaginings of the Orient are often uncritically interpreted, and end up reproducing the exotifying and stereotypical imaginings that Said sought to critique.

Neutrality

This is often invoked as a way of positioning museums as neutral storehouses of knowledge, that sit outside of cultural, social, political and economic debates. However, culture does not exist in a vacuum, and is instead shaped by myriad factors in society.

Thinking about the politics of colonialism adds weight to the counter that museums are not, and never have been, neutral. The imperial project both shaped and was shaped by the natural and social sciences, and associated fields and disciplines were intimately involved with the development of museum collections as places to further research. Neutrality as a concept and distinguishing feature is perhaps most often associated with scientific research, as the sciences are “pure” disciplines solely in search of universal truths. However, for all the promise Science might offer as unfettered from biases, the disciplines remain embroiled in histories of appropriation, dismissal of other epistemologies and methods and unethical experimentation that are difficult to distance from.

For more on the idea that museums, libraries and archives are not neutral spaces, see the Archival Decolonist and The Exhibitionist blogs run by Nathan Sentance and Alice Procter respectively.

Modernity

When talking about history, museums often fall into the trap of pitting “tradition” against “modernity”. By thinking about history and the present as a binary, these narratives miss the subtleties of continuing processes whose after-effects ripple outwards from actions or events and come to characterise our current experiences. Colonialism is a good example of this. Rather than describing a historical epoch or series of events, it is a continuing process that we are still navigating.

Following on from this, by positioning some cultures as clinging tightly to so-called “traditional” practices, museums miss the fact that all cultures have traditions, drawn from the past as well as those that will be invented for the future. This distinction serves to confine certain peoples to an imagined pre-history, and ignores the fact that peoples are still here, still practicing their lifeways and can adapt and change cultural practices as they feel they need to.