What can Museums Do?

A Future where Racism has no Place

An ongoing conversation about race, racism and anti-racism in/and the museum

The recent global anti-racism protests and mobilization have brought into question the responsibility of public institutions, not only in addressing ongoing forms of structural and systematic racism, but also in the role that they can play in the fight against racism. While the scale and intensity of the current anti-racism mobilization were undoubtedly exceptional, the critique of museums could be seen to form part of a much longer history of institutional critique that have questioned their role in perpetuating colonial ideologies.

Image: Henk van Rinsum, Amsterdam, 1975. TM-10037668 

These questions are especially significant for the National Museum of World Cultures, as an institution that was created as part of a colonial apparatus. Its infrastructure served to theorize race as a science, and to support ideas of incommensurability and inequality between different peoples and cultures of the world. More specifically, the Tropenmuseum, one of the museums that fall under the NMVW, was originally the Colonial Museum and was itself a space where, for over half a century promulgated the now-debunked science of race, through the collecting and study of the remains of humans in its physical anthropology department.

What role have these institutions played in creating and propagating ideas around race? And how is racial thinking structurally embedded in museum practice? And, perhaps, most importantly, which specific strategies can the museum implement to move us all towards antiracist futures?

To be sure, our understanding of race has changed over time, and so too has the museum’s relationship to questions of race. Indeed, race thinking has involved complex and shifting entanglements between emphasis on the physical/biological and questions surrounding cultural difference, even if 19th and early 20th century racial science focused on what physical difference could tell us about human hierarchies. On both accounts – culture and biology - our museums have played an important historical and contemporary role as they studied, collected and represented race, culture and difference. While 19th century scientific racism has long been debunked in scholarly and popular circles, there remains a stubborn persistence of some of these ideas within contemporary society, including within museums.

It is with this history as our foundation that institutions such as ours must ask the question: which knowledge systems still stalk us, in our institutional rear-view mirror, even as we aspire to contribute to more equitable, livable, non-racist futures?

Image: Photo of (closed) symposium on Exhaustion, 2024, Wereldmuseum Amsterdam. Photo by James Gallagher.

Questions to be adressed

  • How have our institutions actively fostered racial inequality as part of what used to be an explicit colonial agenda?
  • How in our gesture to move on towards post-racist futures, have we in fact skirted the painful pasts that we prefer to bury rather than to reckon with?
  • What are the ongoing repercussions of the colonial foundations of our institutions?  
  • What role can curation play in anti-racism and how might we imagine an anti-racist collection contributing to an anti-racist world?
  • If part of the working of institutions has been to make race unspeakable, a taboo, might learning to speak race be a productive way towards an anti-racist future?
  • How might we also tackle the unresolved debate between adopting race neutral and post-racial positions, on the one hand; and, more cogent discussions of race as social fact (i.e. UNESCO’s Race Statements).[1]
  • Can policies of diversity and inclusion help to undo structural racism or are they at best stop gaps in underdoing these structures or at worst assisting in their furtherance?
  • What anti-racist strategies have been pursued in other plural societies and their museums?

These are the questions that we would like to ask together with you, our many companions, knowledge-makers and stakeholders. We draw on already established networks and partnerships, while developing new ones, very mindful of the many solidary social movements that have, and continue to struggle to create a world where racism has no place. This is the kind of world that we at the National Museum of World Cultures are interested to contribute to making, as we continue to fulfil our mission to foster empathy for each other, while contributing to world citizenship.

[1] W.E.B. Du Bois openly identified the problem related to the drafting of the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights: that of race. Not one of the drafters of the UDHR was ‘African’ or ‘African-American’ (UN, 2015). The nine drafters were: Charles Malik (Lebanon), Alexandre Bogomolov (USSR), Peng-chun Chang (China), René Cassin (France), Eleanor Roosevelt (USA), Charles Dukes (UK), William Hodgson (Australia), Hernan Santa Cruz (Chile), and John P. Humphrey (Canada). A few years later, in a separate document, UNESCO turned explicitly to the question of race, commissioning a statement – ‘The Race Question’, which due to controversy appeared in varied versions published in 1950, 1951, 1964 and 1967 (UNESCO, 1969). The four Statements are named ‘Statement on Race’ (Paris, 1950), ‘Statement on the Nature of Race and Race Differences’ (Paris, 1951), ‘Proposals on the biological aspects or Race’ (Moscow, 1964), and ‘Statement on race and racial prejudice’ (Paris, 1967). It was in these years and in response to the polemics surrounding each draft of ‘The Race Question’ that institutional funding from UNESCO was earmarked for research on ‘Black Studies’ in the Americas, and later ‘race relations’ (Chor Maio, 2001).