Museums for the Global Majority: Expanding the limits of museum practice

Jennifer Reynolds-Kaye, Yale Center for British Art
Maryam Ohadi-Hamadani, Yale Center for British Art

Restructuring methodologies and practices that can liberate the art museum from its colonial past is ever more urgent in the wake of our current global environment. Traditional museums are receptacles for the material traces of culture, and are inextricably linked to our pasts; in our present, they are the narrators and educators of this history. But what past and present moments are represented in the museum, in its exhibition and collecting practices?

The ‘past conditional temporality’ of ‘what could have been’ as Lisa Lowe writes, ‘symbolizes aptly the space of a different kind of thinking, a space of productive attention to the scene of loss, a thinking with twofold attention that seeks to encompass at once the positive objects and methods of history and social science, and also the matters absent, entangled and unavailable by its methods.’ (Lisa Lowe, “The Intimacies of Four Continents,” in Ann Laura Stoler, ed., Haunted by Empire: Geographies of Intimacy in North American History (Durham: Duke University Press, 2006), 208.) Is it possible to exceed or negotiate the constitutive limits of the museum? What counter-models and counter-histories might we use to rethink the museum as a space for community and inclusivity when its foundation is predicated on rendering certain histories and viewpoints as absent or othered? How might the museum share narrative authority and agency with historically underrepresented or unrepresented communities? This session offers methodological and practical methods for decolonising the museum and will co-create spaces of open dialogue, problem-solving and imaginative experimentation.

Speakers and Abstracts

Respect, Reciprocity, Responsibility: Indigenous values in curatorial praxis

Diana Tuite (Colby College Museum of Art, Waterville, Maine)

Jennifer Neptune (Penobscot Nation Museum)

Known as the ‘People of the Dawnland’, the Wabanaki have lived in what became incorporated as Maine and Canada’s maritime provinces for almost fifteen thousand years. The Wabanaki concept of Wíwənikan, or ‘portage’, applies to the deliberations that Indigenous peoples have made – and continue to make – as they navigate the waterways of their homelands. However, it also encompasses adaptive choices about transmission and retrieval made in response to the incursions of settler colonialism; it is, therefore, an apt metaphor for the implementation of a decolonising model of team-based curation.

Notably, ‘Wíwənikan… the Beauty we Carry’ represents the first exhibition of contemporary Wabanaki culture mounted within an art museum. Guest curators Jennifer Neptune (Penobscot) and Kathleen Mundell partnered with cohorts of Indigenous advisors on the realisation of this show at the Colby College Museum of Art and its accompanying publication. As the in-house consulting curator, I cultivated a space for their organisational sovereignty within the academic institution. Facilitating external Indigenous leadership entailed constantly negotiating institutional vulnerabilities while building and preserving trust.

We will examine this case study, considering hindrances to and best practices for facilitating collaborative processes and open dialogues that do not reproduce or restage structural inequalities. How might practitioners in the field reframe these ‘asks’ and reorient collaboration so that Indigenous curators are not invited in as ‘beneficiaries’ or ‘clients’ in the words of Bernadette Lynch? For, as she reminds us, ‘this in turn influences what they are perceived to be able to contribute or entitled to know or decide’ (Bernadette Lynch, ‘Collaboration, Contestation, and Creative Conflict: On the Efficacy of Museum/Community Partnerships,’ in The Routledge Companion to Museum Ethics: Reading Ethics for the Twenty-First Century Museum, [2011,148])

‘Rising to the Occasion’: Centring new models of collaboration in institutional curating

Georgiana Uhlyarik (Art Gallery of Ontario)

Wrongs, righting the
Wrongs, writing the
Wrongs, wronging the
Eve Tuck and C. Ree, A Glossary of Haunting, 2013

The recently established Indigenous and Canadian Art Department at the Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO), Toronto, is based on a curatorial model from within the framework of Nation-to-Nation treaties that govern relations between Indigenous Nations through wampum belts, as well as being the foundation of Canada. We conceived our curatorial structure working within a ‘living treaty’ relationship between the Curator of Indigenous Art, Wanda Nanibush, Anishnaabe-kwe, Beausoleil First Nation and Georgiana Uhlyarik, the Curator of Canadian Art. Together we co-lead the department, acknowledging that the AGO operates on Anishinaabe land. We uphold the key principle of non-interference along with the treaty values of mutual respect, reciprocity, honesty and integrity, as fundamental curatorial values manifest in all aspects of our work. We work as equals, together and independently yet always in relation to one another, privileging Indigenous-led collaborations.

This ‘living treaty’ centres Indigenous art in an effort to rebalance historical injustices by developing, framing and facilitating spaces for uncomfortable, generative conversations between Indigenous and non-Indigenous artists and publics. I will examine a number of our methodologies through projects as case studies and discuss key learnings in our efforts to shift systemic museological practice towards sharing narrative authority and agency.

Museums and anti-racist activism 

Adiva Lawrence (University of Hull)

We are aware that the museum space is not separate from the forms of power and hierarchical modes of relation in wider society. Even today, it is generally admitted that museums’ responses to calls for radical change and decolonization have not yet succeeded in transforming the way publics engage with the histories and legacies of slavery and colonialism such as racism, or the growing issues related to extractive economies and systemic racism.

We wish to think through some of the limitations museums tackling the issue of oppression in the contemporary world are faced with, which may be in part due to their own entanglement with colonial and oppressive structures. We are interested in devising curatorial methods that do not reproduce the colonial visual regimes and their pitfalls in dealing the lives of oppressed subjects in exhibitions. 

Additionally, museums are sometimes presented as places of anti-slavery activism in the present. How, then, do we curate the present relations of power and exploitation? What methodologies may be put in place to challenge the histories and structures of oppression and dispossession that birth the kinds of exploitation we are contending with today? What concrete uses of their materials and resources can be displayed by museums as gestures towards liberation?

Curating Communities: Co-creating a human-centred museum

Sandro (Alexander) Debono (University of Malta)

The museum institution has been, more often than not, understood as being concerned almost exclusively with the past, its care and preservation. What goes on display and the choice of narratives that museum institutions propose from time to time remains squarely within the curatorial remit, although sporadic yet significant attempts have been made to open up this exclusive realm to participatory practice.

It may well be the case that new curatorial models are necessary in order to deconstruct the exclusivity of what Laurajane Smith aptly describes as the authorised heritage discourse. Community Curation, applied with a three-pronged strategy, may be a possible way forward. Firstly, it can aspire to negotiate meaning with the community irrespective of ethnic and social background. Secondly, it can aspire to do so by acknowledging a broader definition of what heritage stands by adopting bespoke visual literacy tools. Thirdly, it can acknowledge access to negotiated meanings of culture within the context of access as a fundamental right.

This paper seeks to present the findings and outcome of a project happening over the past five years as part of the run-up to the opening of the new national community art museum in Malta called MUZA. I shall discuss the three successive phases of this project with a focus on publics considered to be outsiders to the museum institution, and the ways and means by which they become active participants in selecting their preferred artwork and sharing it with their communities.






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