NEMO members joined a training on decolonisation in museums

On 16 September 2022, 11 people participated in a NEMO Training on decolonialisation in museums. The session was led by Dr Roshi Naidoo, Decolonising Programme Officer at the UK Museums Association. The training took place in Bristol, the United Kingdom, with the aim of inspiring the participants to begin or continue their decolonisation work with confidence.

Roshi opened the training by introducing some of the theories and practises relevant to decolonisation work. Decolonisation in museums can include everything from repatriation of objects, reframing objects and how they are catalogued to diversifying the museum work force. Museums are recommended to go slowly and make sure to do the groundwork properly and rethink what they think they know. After all, colonisation is not likely to be reversed quickly since it lasted for hundreds of years. To achieve long-lasting change, museums need to consider how to evaluate the impact of their work and do the “big thinking” before they start. Otherwise, this moment might pass like so many before. The topic has resurfaced in cycles of forgetting- remembering - forgetting, often following a major event that highlighted inequalities and racism. Roshi points out that decolonisation work was taking place since before 2020, but it became urgent with the Black Lives Matters movement. This time around, protests were, amongst others, highlighting on how heritage perpetuates racism which has made museums reflect on the role they play in upholding racism.

The participants in the NEMO Training got to discuss what decolonialisation in museums means to them and what kind of experience they already have. Their starting points ranged from just taking the first steps of incorporating decolonisation in their work and others had been doing it for decades without knowing the name of their work. Museums are inextricably bound up with the history of colonialism since the colonial gaze and idea of cataloguing gave meaning and shape to what was represented in the museum and shown to the public. In her lecture, Roshi recommended to not try to remove the feelings of discomfort that might arise when working with decolonisation or to oversimplify the matter since that would continue the colonial narrative.

Roshi shared how decolonisation in museums can be approached in a straightforward matter while not shying away from the controversies and reactions that it will bring. Rather than thinking it is added work, she shared her view that decolonisation practise already is a natural part of museum work and when wholeheartedly embraced, will enhance the museum’s relevance to a wider group of people and increase the individual’s sense of a shared humanity. In a way, decolonisation work is museum work since museums already observe objects, unpack their meaning and values and what they represent. A decolonising mindset impacts how museum professionals analyse an object and its meaning, but the steps are already known.

Some topics that were brought up in discussions amongst participants included what might be considered as decolonisation work and how to define it. Roshi suggested that a clear focus should be set and depending on the context, the focus could for instance be on the Americas or the impact on a country following Soviet occupation. Given that the training took place in the UK and is based on the UK Museums Association’s Guide Supporting Decolonisation in Museums, the starting point of the training led by Roshi was the British Empire and its long history in transatlantic slave trade.

After the training session, the participants got to join guided tours of the Brunel’s SS Great Britain and the M-Shed. M-Shed holds the statue of the slave trader Edward Colston that was toppled down and thrown into the harbour during a Black Lives Matter Protest in 2020. The staff at the M-Shed described the process of collecting the public’s opinions on how the statue should be handled and how it should be exhibited.

10 of the participants were connected to NEMO member organisations and one person attended as a non-member. NEMO members join the training for free and are covered by travel grants. The participants were joining from Belgium, Greece, Ireland, Lithuania, Spain, Sweden and Peru/ the UK.