Following the Black Lives Matter protests, and with more and more people using social media and other internet technologies during lockdown, a discussion on the relationship between social media and the decolonisation of our museum collections has never been more timely.
But in the movement to decolonise our heritage, where does social media fit in?
At a SHSMG event, Aayushi Gupta, Jeanne Coppens and Tanatsei Gambura from Ourchives, an anti-colonial grassroots project based in Edinburgh, discussed how Scotland’s museums, archives and historic properties can use their digital platforms to inquire into the ownership and representation of cultural objects in their collections.
1. Understand that museums and archives – and their social media channels – are not neutral
Ourchives explained that these buildings are filled with material history with material consequences. They stressed the importance of “honest acknowledgement and recognition” of how cultural artefacts were acquired and what they mean to the communities they belong to. They pointed out that for many people, the “coloniality of it all” can be overwhelming while walking around streets and visiting museums, especially when there’s no real effort to tell the stories of these artefacts or explore the histories they represent.
When we use social media, we need to realise that the objects which we tweet or post about all had different trajectories (e.g. donations, military looting and imperial plunder, unfair exchanges, theft of human remains) and that our organisation may have been complicit or active in contributing to this.
Museums are often described as “memory machines”. They were built for a reason – to organise the past – and digital media mediates that organisation. Museums have historically silenced and manipulated voices, and been employed to – and still do – contribute to politics. It’s important to ask how Scottish institutions and the content you produce are protecting and preserving “clear cleavages in society” and inequalities amongst People of Colour.
2. Don’t treat decolonisation as a trend or buzz word
While the momentum of the Black Lives Matter movement has continued following the murder of George Floyd in May 2020, these issues are not new, and the threat to Black lives has been an urgent crisis for a long time. Systemic racism continues to shape the everyday lives of People of Colour in Scotland.
Decolonising is about constant learning and unlearning: the British Empire may no longer exist, but its legacy continues to have a negative effect on marginalised people across world. Museums have an ongoing responsibility to educate visitors and the wider public of this fact.
3. Listen and embrace criticism
Listen – and encourage listening – to the demands of the people who are outside the walls of museums, archives, etc. People have a right to use social media to press organisations and institutions to be accountable by focusing on truth and reality.
Also, defence shouldn’t be your first reaction when your work is critiqued (not just in museums). A lot of energy and emotion is often behind these comments, so not acknowledging it can be a form of violence.
4. Move away from performative allyship and centre recognition, reparation and repatriation in all your practises
Ourchives emphasised that everything White people do works in a system of White Supremacy. It is the responsibility of benefiters of White Supremacy to work against this system, and institutions should have this posture as well. Importantly, this action needs to be centred (not taken down the route of “pinkwashing”, “greenwashing”, etc.).
They explained that performative allyship (e.g. posting black squares on #BlackoutTuesday without following that up with a meaningful action such as making a donation or signing a petition) kills efforts of decolonisation – “why not make a real effort to decolonise?”. Rather than a tick-box exercise (like using a hashtag for one day), it’s important to properly research, reflect and share which can also help you gather a more diverse audience on social media.
It’s also important to acknowledge that “marketing” shouldn’t be the only goal for your social media strategy. Your content needs to be honest and respect the people its touching and drawing on by asking “who are you for and who are you representing?”.
5. Be empathetic and evaluate your guidelines
Keep in mind that certain words, text and images can be violet and have potential to stimulate or traumatise certain communities – and that seeing objects that have been stolen, with no acknowledgement of that fact, can be a violent experience.
Recognise that people are also mistrusting of institutions partly because of their history and double narratives (e.g. saying “yes, we’re decolonising”, while also gentrifying the area and not repatriating objects) and acknowledge this in your internal guidelines.
Ourchives also noted that People of Colour face the risk of being censored or ostracised on social media if they speak up. Do your community guidelines (or ‘house rules’) protect vulnerable people (marginalised groups)? Do they target specific groups (which can also be recognised as policing)?
6. Ask “what are museums for?”
Ourchives believe that it’s time for us to rethink what museums are, which they called an “existential museum crisis”. Organisations need to ask themselves who are they for. They have a responsibility towards the people that they’re representing with objects that they’re exhibiting.
If you’re anticipating that this work will cost something (e.g. time, funding) and this is an issue, then it’s time to examine your priorities, strategy and direction.
7. Question your content
Ask yourselves and your institution: is what are we producing, curating, archiving in dialogue with present urgencies? Are we trying to draw connections between what we’re advertising and things that matter today? Was an indigenous object, for example, obtained unethically and can you link it with what’s happening now and the history of acquisition?
Other questions to ask include: Are you sharing material that isn’t one-sided (victim only the perpetrator, not the victim)? What are your goals and objectives (e.g. education)? Why do you want to engage – and how?
8. Don’t be afraid to make mistakes
They explained that first efforts are likely to be imperfect which can be scary, but it’s okay as long as you acknowledge your mistakes and you’re being authentic and genuine with your efforts to be better in the future.
Accept that this is part of the work to undo harms and dangers, and publicly acknowledging that you’re seeking help and correction.
9. Look beyond the numbers
If you’re thinking about how to “justify” these actions to colleagues who are only interested in engagements, followers, etc. (which is problematic because it assumes that your audience isn’t in favour of decolonisation), then your institution ultimately needs to decide what’s important – these numbers or influencing a necessary cultural shift?
If you’re depending on these numbers to legitimise your institution’s existence, then that institution doesn’t have longevity and is at risk of being redundant. Ourchives believes that sacrificing numbers or audience will ensure the sustainability of an organisation that is ethically driven.
10. Take it offline
They also noted that museums often use social media as a PR exercise that doesn’t necessary reflect internal politics. The work doesn’t start and stop online – social media is only a mediator of the actual work you or your institution is doing on decolonisation.
While change in heritage organisations can be slow (which can be frustrating), the sector needs to use this urgency. It’s already taken way too long, but if you say “we need to talk about this” in a meeting, the reaction will likely be different to what it would have been a year ago.
Looking to the future, the speakers introduced the idea of a “meta museum”, where object labels and social media can be used to educate people about the colonial history of these institutions rather than talking about the collection itself. They believe museums could function as a laboratory or think tank where they’re constantly critical of the museum’s own structure.
They also noted that technology is advancing at such a rapid pace (e.g. 3D printing, Sketchfab) which means that museums and Twitter feeds wouldn’t be empty if objects were repatriated. They imagined institutions across the world working as part of transnational relationships with objects going back to where they belong and institutions working in relationships based on loaning rather than owning.
FUTHER READING, ACCOUNTS TO FOLLOW, ETC.
- An Open Letter on Race and Racism in Scotland – https://equalityupdates.org.uk/an-open-letter-on-race-and-racism-in-scotland/
- Coalition for Racial Equalities and Rights – https://www.crer.scot/
- Black History Month (Scotland) – https://www.crer.scot/black-history-month
- The Birth of the Museum by Tony Bennett
- The Restitution of African Cultural Heritage: Towards a New Relational Ethics – http://restitutionreport2018.com/sarr_savoy_en.pdf
- The Museum will not be Decolonised by Sumaya Kassim – https://mediadiversified.org/2017/11/15/the-museum-will-not-be-decolonised/
- Legacies of Slavery in Glasgow Museums and Collections – https://glasgowmuseumsslavery.co.uk/
- Transnational Scotland – https://transnationalscotland.wordpress.com/
- Decolonise this Place – https://www.instagram.com/decolonizethisplace/?hl=en
- Change the Museum – https://www.instagram.com/changethemuseum/?hl=en
- Scottish Decolonisation Project (National Library of Scotland) – https://digital.nls.uk/catalogues/guide-to-manuscript-collections/inventories/acc10809.pdf
Note: Summary written by a member of the SHSMG team