What it means to be a stronger postcolonial museum

After discussing the changing face of museums in societies and its need for inclusiveness to become a stronger postcolonial museum, I think it is time to elaborate a bit more on what it means to be a stronger postcolonial museum. This blog introduces the ‘postcolonial museum’ as an academic concept. In my next blog will provide industry advice on how to become a stronger postcolonial museum grounded in the fundament of inclusiveness. Both blogs are based on an article that I published in the International Journal of the Inclusive Museum in October 2018.

Origins of the Concept

The development of museums with respect to our changing western societies is already explored by various authors, for example, Hooper-Greenhill, Black, Lord, Maleuvre, MacDonald, Thomas, Aldrich, Sandell. In these explorations, authors recurrently address the necessity for museums to adjust to changing societal climates in their exhibition making and interpretation of display. Aspects such as social inclusion, audience involvement and co-creation, dialogue, media & interaction are all playing a prominent role in this new museum-making, to achieve and ensure an inclusive national identity. This is also one of the aims of the postcolonial museum; a concept that has been non-existent in academic literature until recently.

Trends and developments around new museum-making

The ‘postcolonial museum’ originated as an independent academic concept in my research in collaboration with the School of Heritage, Memory and Material Culture of the University of Amsterdam (personal communication, Dr I.A.M. Saloul, February 2017). Discussing trends and developments around new museum-making from a postcolonial perspective, which means in relation to societal discussions and issues around diversity, inclusion, multiculturalism, was not much exposed in existing literature. Hence, the need to address the implications of such discussions and issues on museums grew.

Purpose of the postcolonial museum

As described in the article, the postcolonial museum links audiences to current cultural and societal matters by using the collection for contemplation purposes and by stirring thoughts and feelings on current societal conditions. It invites audiences to exchange and share thoughts and feelings by means of dialogue and interaction (Van Slooten, 2018). The Museum Association (2013) adds to this by claiming that the most effective museums of these times connect to sociocultural issues such as inequality and intolerance and emphasise mutual understanding and respect. Museums cannot simply portray a dominant perspective in a postcolonial, multicultural society and vital discussions on sociocultural issues should be provoked.

Why is it important?

While the postcolonial museum focuses on difference and intends to foster social change and mutual respect, much criticism is received on ways museums still represent a hierarchy in the display (Van Slooten, 2018). As further elaborated in the article, Macdonald (2003) confirms this criticism as she believes that collections are commonly charged with forming a utopian image of society. Museums serve as instruments of power to pursue this utopian image and dominate certain knowledge and values that sustain a white-colonising Western identity. Hence, audiences from diverse cultural backgrounds remain feeling excluded and underexposed in the museum’s narrative. The need to create an exhibition of stronger inclusive nature, as a fundament of the postcolonial museum, is therefore needed.

This fundament will be discussed in more detail in my next blog, in which I provide advice on how to become a stronger postcolonial museum. This blog is based on an exploration of two Dutch National museums: the Tropenmuseum and the Rijksmuseum.