Decolonizing the Modern Art Museum

Above: “Living Cities” display at the Tate Modern, 2019 featuring Kader Attia, Untitled (Ghardaïa), 2009 (foreground) Photo: Rachel Winter

No longer the subject of conversations solely in niche art publications, conversations around decolonizing the museum have gained widespread prominence. Museums are now responding to the calls of activists, museum employees, museum visitors, artists, and even governments asking for change in an effort to decolonize the museum.

However, what does it mean to decolonize the museum? To decolonize means to break from colonialism and its ways of thinking, a move that reckons with histories of imperial powers subjugating global populations. Activists and scholars have proposed several questions around decolonization in order to bring awareness to the power dynamics of museums, as well as to articulate steps for changing the museum, including: how were objects acquired? Do object labels explain the way the object was acquired, particularly in the case of those acquired through colonial means or looting? Are objects displayed and explained in such a way that does not denigrate one culture, or use pejorative language? How are various forms of cultural production organized, such as according to what chronological or geographical categories? Who benefits from the narratives a museum displays? Who has the authority to curate exhibitions, and what stories do they tell? Are all voices accounted for, both in terms of the objects on display, and curators designing exhibitions? Who has the power in museums, and whose interests are promoted? And finally, how are museums responding to colonial histories of accumulation and organization? Can the museum be changed to accommodate indigenous voices, voices of color, and others who have been marginalized in the museum? Tactics for dealing with these issues range from repatriating objects, to rehanging permanent collections, with a new organization of permanent displays being the most common first step for decolonizing the museum.

How does this work in practice? If you’ve visited an art museum before, you might have noticed that many museums are organized in a similar way. Works of art are arranged by geographic region, and then based on time period. Examples might include a gallery of Northern Renaissance art, referring to art from Northern Europe from roughly 1400-1600, or Impressionism, focusing on a specific group of painters in Paris in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries. Other displays are more broad, such as Islamic art galleries, which encompass cultural production from Morocco to Pakistan from roughly 650-1800, or the arts of Africa, also including work from an entire continent across its long history. Curating a collection in this manner can have two implications: it further reiterates the canon, or rather, the greatest hits of art history, only showing a select few works that already have significant art historical prominence; and it can imply an isolated view of art history that does not express the ways in which people and their material culture have long been entangled and exchanged.

To decolonize the museum, particularly its displays, means shifting modes of thinking and display to reflect a more integrated world order, as well as one that is no longer tied to histories written during the colonial era. Moreover, one might also disaggregate cultural agglomerations, such as by distinguishing between different groups held under the umbrella of Native Americans. For example, displays of “Islamic art” might be updated to reflect cultural production by religious and ethnic minorities made during the period in which Islam was prominent, thus showcasing the ways in which the so-called “Middle East” was a religiously, ethnically, and culturally diverse place. Galleries may no longer be named in relation to the Middle East, which is a term that came out of the colonial period to refer to the land between “Arabia” (what is now Saudi Arabia) and Europe. In other cases, the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, which is an accumulation of non-Western and/or indigenous materials, might be separated into multiple galleries to show the specific context for each group of people. Combining all three might assume that these things are all similar or related when that is not always the case, eliding over the specific cultural contexts and significance of each object.

The Tate Modern in London is an excellent example of what it means to decolonize displays of modern art, or art made after c. 1870. Many displays of modern art in the United States primarily highlight white artists from Europe and/or North America, and are sequenced to show a series of artistic movements, such as from Impressionism, to Post-Impressionism, and Cubism. This curatorial choice often excludes modern art from the non-Western world, such as Egyptian Surrealism, and also assumes that all of modern art developed in an orderly, linear progression, which misses many other developments. For example, how did the unique styles of artists cohere with or conflict with each other? What happened to artistic production that did not fit within the dominant movement? How did artists’ styles change based on travel, education, and engagement with other artists?

By comparison, the Tate Modern instead has a series of thematic displays of their permanent collection that integrates artists from around the world, making modernism a global phenomena, and highlighting the ways in which artists engaged with and exchanged visual material. The last time I visited the Tate Modern, some of the organizing themes for the galleries included “Artists and Society,” “Materials and Objects,” “Media Networks,” and “Living Cities.” Positing broad themes allows the Tate Modern to think in new ways that do not sequester artists into specific geographic or chronological categories, now considering global engagement in order to include new artists working across a variety of styles. For example, “Living Cities,” which highlights works from their permanent collection, allows for comparisons of cities around the globe, positing places like Ghardaïa in Algeria against Beijing and Bangalore, Cairo and Los Angeles, showing the ways artists have conceptualized the places they live and work in ways that traditional museum displays would otherwise miss (fig. 1). By seeing the contrasting styles of Kader Attia alongside Naoya Hatakeyama in “Living Cities,” visitors gain a new understanding not just into the idea of the city as a space we occupy, but also of the complexities of art history. You can read more about this display here: https://www.tate.org.uk/visit/tate-modern/display/living-cities/living-cities.

Decolonizing the museum is a complicated phenomena that will take a lot of time for museums to fully implement from the bottom to the top. However, early conversations are important for understanding the role that the museum could fulfill in the future as it reconsiders its past, inspiring us to think about the importance of art and museums in society today.

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Rachel Winter

Rachel Winter is a third-year Ph.D. student at the University of California, Santa Barbara (UCSB) researching contemporary artists from the Arab World, Iran, and Turkey that are prominently featured in major museums post-9/11. Her dissertation examines the relatively unknown history of curating and collecting contemporary art from the Arab world, Iran, and Turkey before 9/11 in both the US and the UK. Rachel received her M.A. from the University of Iowa in Interdisciplinary Studies: Islamic & Middle Eastern Studies in 2017, where she also received an award for Outstanding Graduate Student in Islamic Studies; in 2015, Rachel also received her B.A. with honors in Art History from the University of Iowa.