‘Not false or copied, genuine, real’. In Eurowestern societies people of colour are continually called upon to enact a performance of how ‘real’ they are in order to justify their perspectives, and qualify why their critiques should be taken as representative of their people. Gareth Griffiths has problematised the term in relation to the discourses drawn on in popular discourses about and around Indigenous peoples in order to reinforce the ways in which discourses of “authenticity” are utilised by white-settler society in order to create a hierarchy of legitimacy amongst who gets to speak for and who gets to be trusted (by settler society) amongst Indigenous peoples .[1]

In debates over the relocation* of material culture from Euro-American museums, the demand to establish an authentic source for material can lead to institutions not wanting to engage with the very real complexities of source community politics and organisation. What’s often forgotten in situations like these is that every group or community has its own unique layers and complications. So, the demand on the part of the museum for an authentic point of origin necessarily negates the multiplicity of perspectives that obviously exist between peoples and within cultures, making the institutional infrastructure of relocation difficult to navigate and often nonsensical for communities.

Institutions are also complicit in demanding an authentic perspective within their internal conversations. Staff of colour (and other marginalised groups) are often called to take on advisory duties for programming and inclusion strategies lest they risk critical and non-dominant perspectives not being included at all, or done in ways that make no sense to our people. The simultaneous demand for extra intellectual and emotional labour whilst not materially recognising critical contributions is indicative of museums only engaging with sometimes uncomfortable questions and histories through knee-jerk reactions to obvious absences and issues in their content, staff profiles and strategies, rather than proactively seeking to widen their base and work collaboratively.

There’s lots more to say about this particular issue, so I’m going to re-direct to Griffith’s article which is very helpful as an introduction to what he terms the ‘myth of authenticity’. It’s a standard primer in postcolonial studies and still valuable as a broad introduction. For an interesting and challenging analysis of how neoliberal drivers towards ‘diversity’ in museums intersect with the demand for Indigenous authenticity in relation to the very real issue of land claims, also see Phillip Batty’s article on ‘The Tywerrenge as Artefact of Rule: The (Post) Colonial Life of a Secret Sacred Aboriginal Object ’.

[1] Gareth Griffiths, ‘The Myth of Authenticity’, in De-scribing Empire: Post-colonialism and Textuality, ed. by Chris Tiffin and Alan Lawson, (London: Routledge, 1994), pp. 70-86.

*I’m using the term “relocation” to cover all debates about the movement “home” of material in museum collections. Repatriation and restitution are two different things, and relocation seems a neat way of encompassing the broader meanings evidenced by these. You’ll have to wait until we hit ‘R’ entries to find out the difference though!

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