For the latest instalment of our Paper Trails series, MBC’s Andrea Potts spoke with researcher and museum worker Shelley Angelie Saggar about how literature and film can be a tool for enacting decolonial practice within and beyond museums themselves.
Shelley Angelie Saggar is a CHASE-funded PhD researcher and museum worker based across the School of English and the Centre for Indigenous and Settler Colonial Studies at the University of Kent, UK. Her research examines contestations and reclamations of the museum in Native North American and Māori cultural texts. She also works as a collections researcher at the Science Museum in London, where her focus is on developing protocols for managing culturally sensitive items in the historical medical collections.
Andrea: It’s great to meet you. What is the focus of your PhD research?
Shelley: My PhD looks at reclamations and contestations of the museum space through the lens of Native North American and Māori literature and film. The particular focus is on how Indigenous writers explore the preservation and communication of their cultural heritage outside the museum in fictional spaces that move beyond that familiar heritage framework. I also work part-time at the Science Museum – and my research focus has come out wanting to explore questions around collections and their ownership in a different, more imaginative sphere, I suppose.
A: So you chose to look at film and literature because you see them as potentially more creative forms than the museum?
S: Yes, that’s right. My academic background is actually in postcolonial literature. I began working in museums in 2017 and didn’t really think I was going to work on postcolonial issues as I was based in a Communications team. But these ideas are just so pertinent even in the way we talk about and market exhibitions and events. I switched focus to working more closely with collections and began to feel that perhaps working in a museum is oddly not the best place to explore these questions! I ended up going back to my literature roots to enter a more creative, imaginative space to explore essentially the same questions around ownership, preservation, and communicating cultural heritage.
A: You used the terms reclamations and contestations. Could you expand upon how you conceptualise those terms?
S: This is something I’m still trying to work out! Even before I started my PhD, I read a lot of Indigenous literature from Turtle Island/North America – what is currently known as Australia and from Aotearoa/New Zealand. And I was really looking for any books that engaged with museums in any way. These were the two key themes (contestations and reclamations) that surfaced again and again. So first, this kind of really contested relationship between museums and indigenous peoples. It’s not an unfamiliar dynamic from having worked in museums and a lot of the museum studies and anthropological literature deals with that often tense relationship. Certainly, I think the public debate in the media is always framed around “contested” heritage. So that was the first dynamic that I saw being echoed in these texts. But the second was actually a lot more playful. I’m writing about a book at the moment – Motorcycles and Sweetgrass by Drew Hayden Taylor – which is my favourite of the texts; it features a fictional museum heist and treats the archetypal colonial museum with total irreverance. So there is this playful idea of reclamation, which obviously also has a more of a serious edge to it. These are the two broad conceptual frames in my work.
A: And within those two broad categories, what kind of ideas are coming through for you?
S: Within the theme of contestation, I’m looking at how Māori and North American writers can test the limits of the museum’s hospitality. I’m looking at how this kind of conditional invitation that the museum extends, not just to indigenous peoples, is challenged by authors. Thinking about, for example, how it’s challenged taking up invitations, and then by subverting the museum from within its walls. Whereas within the broad theme of reclamation, the critical theory I am working with led me into thinking about what the “claim” in “reclamation” consists of and how it’s defined. So I’m actually now looking more at concepts of property, including colonial claims to possession of artefacts as well as the dispossession of Indigenous land and how those two things are tied together. I’m contrasting that with Indigenous ideas of collective responsibility and different forms of custodianship such as spiritual ownership concepts, rather than physically retaking items from museums.
A: This is so interesting! How much diversity is there across the material that you are working with? Including between North American and Aotearoa/New Zealand?
S: I was really struck by how on the surface the contexts of North America and Aotearoa/New Zealand seem quite similar in terms of how these writers and filmmakers are conceiving of colonial museums. And they also seemed to be not dissimilar to the contemporary conversation around repatriation that includes other geo-historic contexts. But when I started to look further, there are other really interesting patterns that begin to emerge. In the texts I have chosen from Aotearoa/New Zealand, for example, so many are set primarily in Britain or in Europe which is something I just didn’t notice on first reading. Whereas the North American ones are focused on fictional museums in North America.
A: Why do you think that is?
S: There are plenty of specific reasons for each text, but I feel like this is indicative of the relationship between the Māori and Europe and between Aotearoa/New Zealand and the UK as a more “traditional” colonial relationship than the United States has with Europe, in particular. The North American texts, particularly those from the U.S., are looking towards America’s contemporary colonial role in the world. So they’re using local museums to reflect outwards. There’s poetry, for example, that speaks to the long history of retaining Indigenous ancestors in museums and places this in a constellative arrangement alongside the looting of cultural heritage that took place during the Iraq War.
A: You mentioned that you’re looking at several texts from the early 1990s, but your overall period of focus extends to 2020. Do you get a sense of change over time?
S: I chose to start from 1990, which is when the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) was passed. That is clearly a specifically US-focused piece of legislation, but as a cultural moment, it set off a series of broader changes. I also chose to start post-NAGPRA because much of the existing scholarship on literary representations of museums in Indigenous texts concentrates on pre-NAGPRA texts or those produced in its immediate aftermath. There has definitely been development since then in terms of how nuanced the debate has become in these texts. However, I’m quite sick of how the contemporary debate around repatriation is framed in popular and media discussions!
A: Right, let’s talk about this. How would you characterise the framing of this debate at the moment?
S: This is obviously a really long-running debate that has shifted and evolved in various directions. But I think in recent years, there has been increased public and political attention around this, which has been really compelling in many ways, but it has also become quite static. It’s framed as ‘are we going to clear out all these museums of everything’ versus ‘are we not going to do anything at all?’ And I don’t mean to devalue or be flippant about these conversations and the importance of returning these kinds of artefacts and ancestors – this is crucial to the work of decolonisation. But this binary framing has been used as an excuse for inaction and it’s such a limited way of looking at it. There are really rich stories that other people can tell better than we can, but I do feel like the pressure has been so consistent, and particularly the tapping into the repatriation debate by broader activist and anti-racist movements has meant that the pressure on museums is just going to become untenable. I think you’re already seeing some encouraging signs of change.
A: You also work at the Science Museum. Could you talk about the nature of your work there and how that has ended up relating to your research?
S: Since 2019 I have been developing protocols for the appropriate management of sacred, secret, and otherwise culturally sensitive items and communicating this research to academic and museum audiences. The collections I work with comprise items from the Wellcome Historical Medical Museum Collections, which are held on a long-term-loan basis at the Science Museum. As my background is in literature, that’s what I turned to. I thought about narrative and language. I also started another project around that time, mostly because I was frustrated with the lack of understanding within the museum sector of how certain, seemingly innocuous language reifies myths of imperial benevolence and mutual exchange that disguise the violence of Empire. I started the Decolonial Dictionary project as a way of addressing that. And through all of this, I realised that I needed to go back into literature, because it was this focus on language and meaning that I found hard to translate into the museum.
A: That’s so interesting, then, that from that work, you gained an insight into the language that museums still tend to use around this material, and then in your own research you are moving beyond that language. So you’re engaging with two distinct bodies of texts. Can you see a way of these coming together? Or is that actually the wrong way of thinking about it?
S: This is the main thing that I’m trying to reconcile. For all of my criticisms of museums, in the UK especially these are some of the last public spaces we have and they’re so rich for that reason. There’s so much potential and so much good work that goes on in programming, exhibition curation, cataloguing, care-taking, all kinds of interventions. I’m really trying to wrestle with the question of whether we continue to contest museums or can we claim the museum for ourselves? We may be able to move beyond its constraints as well, that is a move that is made in some of the texts I look at, certainly.
A: Yes, do any of your texts reach some kind of conclusion?
S: Some of them do, which is really interesting. I’m looking at the film Te Rua by Barry Barclay, who’s a (Ngāti Apa and Pākehā) filmmaker. He essentially imagines what he calls a spiritual guardianship arrangement- a memorandum of understanding, to be signed by the museum and by the fictional tribe who are challenging the museum’s retention of a set of ancestral carvings. It is very practical solution! It also feeds into a larger body of work that he produced that thinks about challenging colonial forms of ownership. It’s a really compelling example of a clear and provocative proposal.
A: It’s interesting to think about who gets to take part in these conversations about museums. At times, it can feel inward facing, which also risks repetition. It’s so interesting that you are showing that broader, really creative conversations have been going on for a long time.
S: Yeah, definitely. And it’s interesting that some of these texts completely disregard the museum as being important at all. And we should note that. Some see the museum as a symbol to be done away with and situate the preservation and transmission of culture and heritage in the land or in human and more-than-human bodies instead, which is very exciting to think about. Personally, I think museums probably do have a role to play, at least in Europe, but it is really important to think about moving beyond museums too.
A: Yes, to de-centre the museum. And finally, what text would you recommend as a great introduction to this subject?
S: A good question! I’d actually recommend The Imaginary Lives of James Poneke by Tina Makereti (Te Ātiawa, Ngāti Tūwharetoa, Ngāti Rangatahi-Matakore and Pākehā). It’s one of the first texts I came across whilst researching for this book and it’s being developed into a film by Taika Waititi’s production company. The plot follows the escapades of a young Māori boy named Hemi—later renamed James—who travels to London as a living exhibit. His simultaneous experience of exploitation and subversion of the colonial system he necessarily operates within is a good entry point to some of the tensions my research co-considers. I think the way his character exhibits a broad degree of agency makes the book a good entry point to how literature can be a really powerful tool for enacting decolonial practice within and beyond museums themselves.