Reflections on Museums history

Above: America Invertida (1943) by Joaquín Torres García

So that memories and that histories are not lost in time, like tears in rain…

Recently, I read "Museums - Where do they come from, and where are they going?", an article that Norman Sung wrote for Mainly Museums. If you haven't had the opportunity to read it, you can do so here: I recommend it, as well as those recent pieces on the state of the museum by Emily Friesen ( and Rachel Winter (

Their reflections show us the critical questions from within and from beyond the academy towards one of the main institutions in Western memory. These voices, often labeled as "non-academic", should be taken more into account by this abstract space of the academy, or institutions of higher learning and the museum if we aspire to a true democratization of scientific practices.

I was born and lived most of my life in Argentina where I was fortunate to be able to study in one of the main museums in Latin America: The Museum of La Plata. At the same time, and perhaps more importantly, I was able to travel much of the vast and varied Latin American geography, learning its infinite stories from diverse voices. These voices told me about their imposed silence, about their marginalization, about the systematic attempts to construct them as if they were permanently oblivious. This, together with my unusual hunger for history, led me to question the biographical myths in which museums are rooted (and legitimized). After all, museums are material spaces where history is constructed in ways that prioritize certain histories over others, as well as synthesize memories and chronologies into particular narratives, all through the particular gaze of the politically dominant groups that often elide details or points of view on history. From this, I developed some reflections on the history of museums and on the need to decolonize and even de-Westernize them.

The accumulation and exhibition of material culture from non-European populations is intimately and inextricably linked to the aggressive expansionist project initiated by colonial powers like Portugal, Spain and England. The birth of the first modernity, as a result of the “discovery” of Spanish America and the Hispanic capitalization of the Atlantic commercial circuit, had a dark side: coloniality, a perpetual and endless process which relied on the exploitation and subjugation of select populations. A substantial part of this experience were the expeditions which, rooted in the imperial ideology of cultural superiority, documented the spaces and individuals to be dominated and exploited, much of which is also now the subject of art historical inquiry and museum exhibitions.

The great metropolitan museums that then emerged in the eighteenth century, an ongoing period of colonial and imperial projects, were a showcase of the world's diversity. These major museums developed out of the cabinets of curiosities and exotic objects acquired and displayed in the sixteenth century. Their collections of objects and individuals were an indicator of prestige and a symbol of the extent and scope of the colonial/modern world system. Concentrated in a single place, stripped of their cultural memory, these elements constituted the material archive from which the modern world of the West could define itself and its superiority.

Exhibited in the homes of the merchant, religious, and political upper class, or enclosed in museum showcases, these objects collected from world travels and exploitations permanently materialized the message of the colonial enterprise: the negation of history of colonized populations, the dispossession of memory from its owners, and the denial of the original meaning of an object by its first possessors, all in order to construct the identity of Europe, or the West, through the display of everything that West controlled. The Argentinean thinker Enrique Dussel, who writes about the colonial project and its rationale, exemplified this wonderfully some time ago with his concept of ego conquiro or in other words "I conquer and then I exist".

Let's make a temporal shift. Although museums underwent significant structural modifications from the 18th century onwards, both in terms of their collections and public purposes, the educational and knowledge-based core that constituted their raison d'être did not change in depth. Again, in the 1980s, European and American academic spaces, were assumed to be the places which gave birth to a so-called "new" museology, or new way of thinking about museums and developing their practices. Publications, seminars and scientific meetings celebrated the arrival of this renovation (for example The New Museology (1989) from Peter Vergo, Das historische Museum. Labor, Schaubühne, Identitätsfabrik (1990) from, Gottfried Korff and Martin Roth or The Birth of the Museum. History, Theory, Politics (1995) from Tony Bennet). Remarkably, museological experiences also developed in Latin America and Africa, such as community museums or neighborhood museums, like the Round Table of Santiago de Chile (1972), or the first international workshop on Ecomuseums and New Museology in Quebec (1984). Here, the political dimension of museums were discussed, but many non-Western endeavors were not mentioned in depth, or in some cases were marginalized.

Yet there are other shifts.

In recent decades, the fundamental tenets of Western knowledge, which for so many centuries constituted the core of museums, have begun to break down as new questions emerge about the idea of the museum itself. A clear example of this is the great advances in the restitution of objects, or the process of returning objects to their rightful owner, and the repatriation (return to their countries of origin) of non-Western human remains deposited in museums. The modification of exhibitions, understood as the material form of an argument, show the fallacies of things long assumed to be true.

As with the boom of the "new" museology, long pages of specialized publications, extensive journalistic articles, fiery speeches (such as that of French President Macron), conferences and seminars celebrate museums and postcolonial thinking. These are necessary writings on the future of museums, and signify a great advance in the construction of a more democratic way of thinking that serves the public. However, and possibly due to the distrust of the defeated side whose culture has been exploited by museums, I prefer to proceed with caution in the face of the unusual enthusiasm that these changes provoke. As the song says, I am not good at forgetting.

There is a shift towards more views that probe the way we construct knowledge, but certain points deserve to be discussed in depth as we think about the past, present and future of museums.

1) Why did it take so long for Western museums and their colonial histories to come to be the subject of criticism?

2) Who funds provenance research, or the study of how objects were acquired, and why?

3) Who, for whom, why, and how are we talking about museums after colonialism (postcolonialism), or changes in the very structure of museums, also known as decolonizing the museum?

4) Why has the knowledge and experiences of indigenous peoples been neglected?

5) Why are the voices of select populations marginalized, such as women, BiPOC individuals, and LGBTQIA+ constituents?

6) In what ways is the Global South, or the populations of West Asia, South Asia, Latin America and North Africa involved in discussions about colonialism in museums?

7) Why does this discussion seem to remain locked within the pages of Western academic publications, and/or contained within the walls of Western museums? What other stakeholders should be involved?

I recognize and believe that the progress made so far in terms of rethinking museums must be acknowledged. But I believe that if we want a decolonization of museums and museum practices in all senses, it is necessary to start paying special attention to the needs and sensitivities of the many people involved in museums. Perhaps it is time to consider the de-Westernization of museums and their practices, or de-centering the Western, European ways of thinking that have formed the history of museums so far. Non-Western populations have the political, cultural and epistemological sovereignty to tell their histories and memories in ways beyond those set out by the Western world. Perhaps then these memories and these histories will not be lost in time, like tears in the rain.

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Diego Ballestero

Diego Ballestero is an Argentinean Anthropologist and Doctor on Natural Sciences by the National University of La Plata (Argentina) His Ph.D. analyzed the conditions which enabled anthropological practices in Argentina towards the end of the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century. Since 2010 he lives in Berlin and research on decolonial theory, provenance research, history of Anthropology/Museums and the construction and representation of ethnic identity in museal context. Since 2017 he is lecturer and researcher at the Department Anthropology of the Americas (University of Bonn, Germany)