“There is an arbitrary dimension to all systems of classification” (Dr Errol Francis, Artistic Director and Curator of Heritage Programmes at Culture&)

If one ever visits the British Museum, physically or online, they will find that the gallery of Egyptian sculptures is located in the ground floor under the name “Ancient Near East” whereas the gallery dedicated to the whole continent of Africa is placed on the lower floor.

Why is Egypt, an African country located on the continent of Africa, referred to in this way? Why is it separated from the rest of African and, furthermore, why is the rest of Africa on the basement? Let’s examine how these narratives of power are rooted in our systems of knowledge and what are the first steps to tackle them down within our sector.

British Museum Highlights

What is decolonisation?

This term relates to the action or process of withdrawing from colonial status and becoming politically independent. In the GLAM sector, it involves an awareness of the cultural and political background not only connected to objects but also to the systems of knowledge in which these are produced.

Why is it even important?

Galleries, libraries, archives and museums must be taking part in the development of this conversation because of their role in the production and conservation of knowledge. Knowledge and power, as thinkers from different periods have stated, are intimately linked so the GLAM sector must challenge the existing dominant narratives.

In that light, databases must not be overlooked. They constitute an important aspect of how we order knowledge, classify objects and organise the information about the complex world in which we live in. Rather than being completely independent, they often reflect the values of those who are compiling the information. Museums of the future will acknowledge diverse types of knowing and value multiple viewpoints.

The people who built and ran the museums of the past are not the same people who will create the museums of the future” (Siddharth Khajuria, Senior Producer at Barbican)

Gallery People Walking

How can we decolonise the institutions?

Each actor in this sector must interrogate the question of power and reorder the systems of classification in order to become more representative of the diversity of our contemporary times. The process of interpretation and description, particularly of those objects that are linked to colonialism and imperialism, must be rethought. Among the developments that need to happen, databases must get rid of outdated language and clearly identify the provenance of objects acquired under colonial distress or duress. As part of this process, relevant communities and cultural groups should be consulted with the aim to embody a critical approach towards imperial narratives and decolonise our institutions from within.

Systems collection knowledge

All systems of classification or taxonomy are not so much dependent on an essential truth about how we arrange knowledge but more about the characteristics that we choose to identify as being the cardinal signifier of a particular object, item or information” (Dr Errol Francis, Artistic Director and Curator of Heritage Programmes at Culture&)

Moving towards a more plural future…

Future museums will take into consideration more than just one perspective – other ways of knowing, skills, objects and multiple stories. Describing historical traumas is not a negative exercise per se but instead a way of enriching what the collections are showing, as Dr Errol Francis states, and how institutions explain these objects to themselves and to the wider public.

MACBA’s 2019 exhibition “Undefined Territories: Perspectives on Colonial Legacies”, curated by Hiuwai Chu, is a powerful example of this. Through the works of a variety of artists, the exhibition dealt with the imprint of colonial repression, disposession and the postcolonial condition from different angles such as language or political mapping. Please see the video below to get a sense of the exhibition and its artworks.


Coeli’s mission

We are glad you are here. Coeli Platform is in continuous learning with the aim to understand the realities of the sector and with the sound purpose to support the growth of galleries, libraries, archives and museums in the digital world. Do you want to discover our plans and solutions? We are a cloud solution for disseminating, documenting and managing heritage collections in a user-friendly way.