Decolonizing the Museum

Above: The Pitt Rivers Museum. Photo: Emily Friesen

Museum objects, artefacts and collections have a long and complex history. Before an artefact arrives at a museum, it’s usually had a whole lifetime being A Thing: a thing someone used in their everyday life, a thing someone made and cared for, or a thing someone created to bring spiritual or religious meaning into their life. The backstory - or provenance - of an object is extremely important when interpreting the object to museum visitors. What story of an object’s long life do you choose to tell? The way an object comes into the museum can also be a very important part of that narrative, as we’ve seen in recent news concerning some of the British Museum’s most infamous objects.

Museums as we understand them today originated in the Wunderkammer, or cabinets of curiosities. As foreign travel made the globe much smaller, European “explorers” collected objects from their travels abroad to display in their homes that they would then show off to their colleagues. As time passed, these collections were donated to what we now see in Museums; Sir John Sloan’s collection became the foundation of the British Museum, for example, and Sir Augustus Henry Lane Fox Pitt Rivers’ collection became the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. Indeed, the very language we used to describe collections, such as historical, ethnographic, or anthropological, alludes to this Western/Global divide. Western material is generally referred to as historical, while “collected” material from around the globe is generally referred to differently as if the concept of history is purely western, and as if these two worlds didn’t coexist during the same centuries, decades, or days.

As much as museums can tell us about the world, and people and cultures from every corner, it is imperative that we recognize the inherent power differential these intuitions possess. Since their inception, museum objects and their interpretations have been from a European/Western perspective – which may be fine if the objects are European/Western in origin, but may be more problematic if they are not. The core message of the move to decolonize the museum is to give the original owners of the object a sense of agency in the treatment and interpretation of their own historic objects. Those who have cultural ownership over the objects should be the ones directing how they are displayed. This represents a systemic change in who holds power and influence in the museum, and a complete paradigm shift in the way museums treat these objects, or choose to repatriate them.

Several museums have already begun to redefine their policies and made efforts towards decolonization, while others have continually pushed against it. Articles in recent publications show both sides of this debate: the British Museum consistently argues for keeping objects, such as the Rosetta Stone, the Elgin Marbles, and Hoa Hakananai'a (the statue from Easter Island); meanwhile, the Pitt Rivers Museum has recently taken their shrunken heads – originally from Peru and Ecuador - off display, citing that the display of human remains reinforces racist, stereotypical discourse by inadvertently suggesting these cultures were ‘savage’ or ‘primitive’. However, the display of human remains, and adjacently the repatriation of remains and artefacts are both equally important intersections in discussions of decolonization, yet the heart of the matter remains in agency and power.

The Great Box

The Pitt Rivers Museum has a strong history of communicating and collaborating with the historic owners of the objects they display. One example of this is the relationship the Pitt Rivers Museum established with the Haida people of Haida Gwaii on the west coast of Canada. Led by Laura Peers, the Great Box project welcomed master carvers and artists, curators of the Haida Gwaii Museum, Elders, language speakers, and hereditary Chiefs from Haida Gwaii to Oxford to access their collection of Haida Artefacts, and learn more about the way the pieces were originally made.The Great Box came to England in the late 1800s, a time in which colonialism was displacing and erasing Indigenous peoples, languages, cultures, and ways of life. It is during these times that many of the pieces in European museums were “collected” across North America, some of which under rather precarious circumstances leading to some missing or inaccurate information reported by the collector as the object’s only history and provenance. Likewise, as these pieces of cultural heritage left their communities of origin, and as colonialism continually banned and attempted to extinguish all practices of culture, language, and livelihood, there became gaps in the knowledge of craftsmanship and making. By bringing together the steward of the artefacts and the source community, both can learn more, as well as have more accurate knowledge about the object’s history. This context and acceptance lead to a more authentic display of the artefact and its story within the Pitt River’s original ‘cabinet of curious’ display style. In fact, they’ve recently launched a re-labeling project “Labeling Matters” to address the colonial language and representation of their artefacts while still keeping their overall gallery aesthetic uniquely theirs. You can read more about the project here:

The Great Box, label addendum

Though the online world has given us visual access, for carvers and artists, their need is three dimensional. Defined by the project webpage’s summary, “The project sought to understand the importance of historic collections for indigenous communities, to improve the latter's access to collections, and to learn together about the collections. Most importantly, its goal was to build long-term relationships between Haida people and museums in the UK holding Haida treasures.” Master carvers Jaalen and Gwaai Edenshaw returned in 2014 to re-create the Great Box, as well as to study and re-learn the intricate techniques used to make such a masterful piece of work. Free access was given to the Haida delegation upon their arrival to Oxford, 7,483 kilometers away from Haida Gwaii, as they were able to tangibly reunite with objects sourced, made, loved and used by their ancestors. To read more about this project, please see the following links:

As society becomes increasingly reflective and history is understood with greater criticism, museums have a responsibility to engage with changing narratives and promote a practice of inclusion and collaboration. Museums need to engage with their legacy regarding colonialism; not only does it build better professional, cultural, and respected collaboration with Indigenous people, it reflects the paradigm shift in museology itself, and the shift between the singular voice of The Museum to the many voices of The Artefacts and their often duplicitous stories. As museums grapple with decolonization, they must be aware of the expanding role they play in shaping Indigenous culture, understanding the contempt of history within their very organizations, and actively return the power to the Indigenous community they have the privilege of representing.

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Emily Friesen

Emily Friesen is an Interpretation Assistant working in Exhibition Design and writes for her own blog, Exhibits Etcetera ( She completed her Master’s degree in Museum Studies from the University of Leicester in 2018, and has previously worked in Visitor Services, Education, and Collections Management in Vancouver. Follow her on Twitter @EmilyMarisa__ and Instagram @EmilyMarisa__