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Decolonising Museums: Changing Curatorial Practices at the Pitt Rivers and Quai Branly

Carlsberg Foundation Visiting Fellowships at University of Oxford

What

Discussions about how museums can respectfully represent all parts of society and critically engage with their own colonial past have made way for new strategies of inclusion and have given previously untold stories new levels of attention. In this research project I examine the links between museums and activism and explore how recent calls for decolonisation impact museum practices in the leading ethnographic museums of the two most dominant former colonial powers in Europe, the United Kingdom and France. My main focus is the changing curatorial practices at the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford and le Musée du Quai Branly in Paris, where debates about decolonisation and repatriation have been central in recent years.

Why

For many years museums neglected their responsibility to not only cater for but also represent a more diverse part of society. Only within recent years have curators and other museum professionals begun to discuss more openly the negative impacts of previous curatorial practices and publicly engage in debates about decolonisation and repatriation. In light of the negative impact that stereotypical and racist representations of museum collections have had on society, it is urgent to study how museums attempt to decolonise and remove themselves from previous curatorial practices. With a postcolonial approach, this project focuses on how two leading institutions within the field attempt to diversify their representation and shed new light on previously neglected parts of their history.

How

Building on and expanding the research methods applied in my PhD thesis on curatorial challenges and processes of decolonisation in museums in South Africa, I will base the findings of my research on anthropological fieldwork including participatory observations of curatorial practices and visitor behaviour. My approach will also include thorough examinations of the wording of exhibition labels, the layout and content of the exhibitions as well as interviews with museum visitors, stakeholders in the public debate, curators and other museum professionals about their views on how museums attempt to decolonise and include more voices. These interviews and observations will lead to an insight into the curatorial challenges involved in meeting expectations from museum visitors and non-visitors.

SSR

This research project is cutting-edge in its focus on both senders and recipients of contemporary curatorial practices, at a time when colonial discourses are renegotiated, and demands for greater recognition of the importance of race, play an increasingly central role. The project builds upon recent interdisciplinary research dealing with postcolonial museum practices and links it with current public debates about repatriation and decolonisation. It focuses on how leading ethnographic museums, in two of Europe's most dominant former colonial powers, the United Kingdom and France, attempt to diversify their representation and shed new light on previously neglected parts of the history of their collections. Through this, the research project will build up field-based theory contributing to the knowledge on how museums reshape their curatorial practices and potentially change public understandings of the colonial past and its present legacies.