What is decolonisation?

Initially, decolonization referred to the process that former colonies underwent to free themselves of the colonial supremacy and gain their indepedence. Today, the term has become much more than that: a philosophical, moral, social, spiritual and also activist call that points to the fact that we are still subject to the ideology of colonialism.

There are so very many remnants of colonial times: from street names and statues that glorify people responsible for massacre and genocide, to objects in museums taken from their original owners, to the human remains of unidentified people held as collection artefacts. And there is so much missing in our museums and cultural institutions: histories, stories and traditions of indigenous people and communities, their knowledge of collections and objects.

Coloniality is in many different ways more present than past.

From left to right; Maya Goodfellow, Meera Sabaratnam and Johanna Zetterstrom-Sharp reflect on Decolonisation at MBC and Informer East Africa’s ‘Changing the Narrative ‘ Event in London, January 2020.

Decolonizing is about questioning our institutions: how and why are some forms of knowledge given priority and authority over others? How do we organize and categorize knowledge? Who determines the selection and quality criteria of collections? Who decides what is presented and represented? How do we contribute to a renewal of the canon with stories and reference frames that have been systematically erased from it?

Decolonizing is about difficult conversations and reflections on the meaning of cultural institutions and who these institutions are intended to serve. It is about open and true dialogue with all members of communities and society, it is about sharing power and authority.

Decolonizing is about cultural institutions becoming learning communities. About the necessity to create room for multiple perspectives showing the different contexts that determine how we look at objects or themes.

In short: how do we change the focus, how do we alter our perspective?

Decolonisation at changing the narrative

To explore this issue, MBC convened a panel on decolonisation at our Changing the Narrative event at The Africa Centre in January. You can watch a periscope recording of the panel via our Twitter account.

Panellists; Meera Sabaratnam – SOAS Lecturer in International Relations and Chair of the Decolonising SOAS Working Group; Maya Goodfellow – Writer, Research and Academic; Johanna Zetterstrom-Sharp, Deputy Keeper in Anthropology at the Horniman Museum and Gardens and Lecturer in Anthropology at Goldsmiths, University of London; Nicola Stylianou – Post Doctoral Research Fellow: Making African Connections, University of Sussex; Professor Chege Githiora – SOAS Lecturer in Swahili, and Gĩkũyũ translator during the Mau Mau court case in London.

The panellists reflected on what decolonisation means to them and its continued significance today, with the discussion ranging from issues around language and ‘decolonising the mind’ to the importance of ‘decolonising the curriculum’ and teaching colonial history in schools.

Some discussion highlights included Johanna Zetterstrom-Sharp speaking at length about the challenges to decolonising museums, in a context where the “ideology that enabled the fact [perpetual preservation and ownership of cultural objects] is outdated and has no real purpose today”, Nicola Stylianou sharing her fascinating insights from working to decolonise “hugely problematic representations” in non-metropolitan museums, and Maya Goodfellow reflecting on the “emotional backlash” against the idea of ‘British-ness’ that these discussions can cause.

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