We need to decolonise museums

Decolonising the museum is a pathway to decolonising society. We must start by providing more honest accounts of our past, says Subhadra Das

May 23, 2019 · 9 min read
The British Museum. Simon Carrington / Flickr

It has been very eloquently stated that ‘the museum will not be decolonised’. From Audre Lorde – ‘The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house’ – to Sumaya Kassim’s poignant account of curating The Past is Now at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in 2018, the people in the know are not optimistic. Museums are a tool of empire. We used – and continue to use – them to contain the spoils of colonial theft, violence and oppression, and to structure subjective knowledge in such a way as to make that knowledge appear to be the sole, objective way of looking at and understanding the world. If they are so bound up in colonial ways of thinking and doing, we must ask: is it possible to decolonise museums without getting rid of them altogether?

As a museum curator with decolonial ambitions, the question I am most often asked by my colleagues is: ‘what does “decolonise” mean?’ I could answer philosophically: to decolonise is to acknowledge the colonial past and to think self-critically about how that past operates in the present, the goal being, eventually, that we can all break away from its frame. My answer is inevitably professional. I am in charge of the Galton Collection – a collection that bears unambiguous witness to an appalling history. Despite the efforts of some excellent scientists, science communicators and historians to relate this history, most of the collection’s stories sit firmly within the colonial frame. Not only I am unimpressed by this, I think that relegating this story to a footnote of history, and ignoring its effect on our lives today, is immoral. I am determined to do better.

The histories we hide

The Galton Collection is one of several historical science collections at University College London. It contains the personal effects and objects relating to the work of Sir Francis Galton (1822–1911). In addition to his pioneering work in the fields of exploration, meteorology, criminology, biometrics, psychology and statistics, Galton coined the term ‘eugenics’. Influenced by the work of his cousin, Charles Darwin, he believed it was possible to breed better people. More specifically, he believed that it was imperative to breed better white people in order to ensure the continuing success of the British race and empire.

Galton’s ideas for improving the human species through eugenics were deeply entrenched within contemporaneous ideas of ‘race’, especially the idea that white people were superior. Galton’s racist and colonialist views influenced his science in ways that are still with us, despite the fact that genetics – a science he contributed to founding – has comprehensively disproved any scientific basis for ‘race’. The work of Galton and his contemporaries is so firmly entrenched in our common psyche that we have yet to break away from the idea that you can judge a person’s abstract traits, such as their character or intelligence, by looking at them. Calling out overtly racist scientists such as Charles Murray and James Watson remains controversial. Critiques of such people are limited to their ideas, never extending to the social and historical structures that frame them.

We are not very good at talking about Galton. While Galton was arguably more famous than Darwin during their lifetimes, the same is far from true today. Darwin is an unalloyed saint of science, a keystone of the curriculum. Contemporary scientists and science communicators consistently marvel at all the things Darwin got right. By contrast, Galton – if he is mentioned at all – is depicted either as an unsung genius or a lone crank. This popular story in the history of science makes up in prevalence what it lacks in accuracy. Darwin and Galton were not only close through their family ties; they collaborated as scientists and their influence was mutual. Galton’s book Hereditary Genius was inspired by On the Origin of Species; Descent of Man references Hereditary Genius.

We need to tell the whole story of our collections and archives in ways that do not require every new generation to rediscover what has been left out. We need to acknowledge how our reluctance to talk about ‘race’ is what keeps us racist

I have heard many scientists claim Galton as an important figure in the history of science even and apart from his work on eugenics. I think that he is an even more important figure because of that work. His contributions to the founding of mathematical biology and statistics all happened through his attempts to further his eugenic project. So it is surprising, to put it mildly, that we are taught about ‘regression to the mean’ and ‘correlation’ without ever learning where those ideas came from. Galton is easily the most important Victorian scientist most people have never heard of. We do not talk about him and his ideas because there is so much more to talk about – truths too uncomfortable to confront, a reality we would prefer was not real.

It is crucial, however, that we recognise the differences between the stories we are happy to tell ourselves and the ones we try to avoid. We need to tell the whole story of our collections and archives in ways that do not require every new generation to rediscover what has been left out. We need to acknowledge how our reluctance to talk about ‘race’ – its history in science and its consistent absence from the ways we choose to understand the past – is what keeps us racist. Like the national curriculum and countless university courses, UK museums consistently avoid this story, as if the objects and specimens they contain do not speak directly to it. This is why we need to decolonise our museums. When I voice my ambition, almost universally I am told: ‘That is a way bigger subject than museums. The world is racist. You’d need to change the world.’ 

Change the story, change the world

Museums can change the world. We already have the ‘stuff’ to do it, we just need to start telling the right stories. The easy first step is to stop telling the wrong ones.

When I became curator of the Galton Collection, its story and how we told it was on the cusp of much greater public and intellectual scrutiny, primarily due to the growing UK black British studies movement. This included the ground-breaking 2014 UCL seminar ‘Why isn’t my professor black?’, where the practice of naming university buildings and spaces was foregrounded and criticised. I developed and published a new mission in response to this conversation, to redress the balance of history in my teaching practice with the collection. That mission involves looking at the individual objects and the collection as a whole through a decolonial prism, asking: what is the story that has been consistently left out? And can we think about why?

In the autumn of 2017, incorporating the work of colleagues at UCL who had researched the history of eugenics at UCL, I launched an exhibition and walking tour podcast called ‘Bricks + Mortals’. The exhibition uses buildings on the UCL campus named after influential eugenicists to reveal the university’s pivotal role in founding the science of eugenics. The language of the physical exhibition is purposefully explicit. In it, I call racists ‘racists’ and colonialists ‘colonialists’, because that is what they were. It is important that we know and acknowledge that truth.

Historically influential scientists such as the statistician Karl Pearson and the archaeologist William Matthew Flinders Petrie, for example, centralised ideas of ‘race’ in their research that continue to shape current conceptions. I used the podcast to expand on these influential theories – from conceptualising pharaohs as light-skinned to project racial hierarchy onto ancient Egypt to proposing immigration limits as the only way to safeguard the British state – and to consider their work and legacies in more nuanced ways.

Curating Bricks + Mortals meant answering a fundamental question: which side I am on? This question flies in the face of current museum orthodoxy. There continues to be an overarching feeling within the sector that if you are not trying to be neutral, you are doing a bad job. The words of Desmond Tutu are of great value here: ‘If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.’ A museum is an institution, but it is one made up of individuals. Through our actions and inactions, we museum workers can keep the structures of society in place – or we can change them.

As a museum curator at one of the country’s leading universities, I am privileged by my job title and by dint of my association with an influential academic body. I want to put that privilege to use. My goal as a curator is to use my platform to better tell our stories and to amplify others who do the same. I am well aware the change I want to see is unlikely to come during my lifetime. I see no alternative. I am decolonial by default. 

History is not an objective truth, but a series of stories we tell ourselves. That being the case, isn’t it better to tell those stories in less racist ways? Decolonising the museum is one way to begin decolonising society. We can change ourselves by changing the stories we tell. I am encouraged that, more and more often, my colleagues are responding to this argument by saying, ‘Yes. That’s exactly what we should be doing.’

Subhadra Das is a historian, comedian, writer and museum curator of science and medicine at UCL Culture

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