Decolonizing This Space

Shimrit Lee's Decolonize Museums reviewed
By Dr. Sharanjit Kaur Sandhra
Cover Image: Decolonize Museums BTL Books

Decolonize Museums
By Shimrit Lett
BTL Books, 2023

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While I was feverishly writing my PhD dissertation during the same months as the Black Lives Matter resurgence took place in June 2020, I was advised to focus less on an introductory chapter detailing the history of whiteness, colonialism, and exclusions that connected the museums of the past to the museums of today. And so – that chapter had to be cut down considerably in my final product. For some reason, that continued to bother me because the more I delved into, critiqued and challenged museums around me, including museum professionals, the more I realized that it was precisely because they lacked the capacity to understand those histories, that was perpetuating and perpetrating so many of the same problems we continue to see today.

Shimrit Lee’s Decolonize Museums engages the past of museums in order to change the present and future. Decolonize Museums has successfully taken up the task of providing the history of how museums became what they are today and the importance of revisiting these histories. She succinctly states that "if a colonial mindset is about forgetting the past, decolonization must involve a forceful remembrance," Lee reminds us that galleries, libraries, archives, and museums (GLAM) sector must decolonize through remembrance.

Decolonize Museums has been republished in Canada by Between the Lines Press. The book is a part of a collection originally published by OR Books (UK) entitled Decolonize That! Handbooks for the Revolutionary Overthrow of Embedded Colonial Ideas.

While much of Lee’s scholarship focuses on metropolitan, globally known museums, there are parallels which can be drawn to the Canadian museum context. There has been much turmoil and many calls for accountability in the museum sector in Canada. Anti-Indigenous racism at the Royal BC Museum, allegations of racism and homophobia at the Canadian Museum of Human Rights and moves to decolonize the National Gallery of Canada have all been in the news in the past few years. As stated in a 2016 Features Magazine article titled "A Crisis of Whiteness in Canada’s Art Museums" Sasha Suda, then Director and CEO of the National Gallery of Canada, noted that "the most dangerous outcome of this all-white leadership is not irrelevance; it’s the reflexive perpetuation of violence and harm toward the people they marginalize—Black people, Indigenous people, people of colour, people with disabilities, 2SLGBTQIA+ people—which has impacted the health and creative capacity of countless artists, staff and future leaders whose bodies don’t reflect whiteness back to itself."

In her recounting of modern museum history, Lee leaves no stone unturned. Whether discussing the "scramble for Africa," salvage anthropology, the British Museum’s stolen Haida collection, world travelling exhibits of human bodies, the looting of 170,000 artefacts and collections from the Iraq Museum by US troops, the list goes on and on. She overwhelms the reader with example, after example.

As a critical race scholar, I was thrilled to see Lee cite the works of Viet Thanh Nguyen, Frederick Douglass, W.E.B Dubois, and others. Hope and resistance are ongoing and consistent themes that fill the first few chapters of the book. I have curated stories for more than ten years at the Sikh Heritage Museum in Abbotsford, British Columbia. The museum is located on the lower level of the Gur Sikh Temple, a National Historic site in Canada, with a full functioning gurdwara on the upper levels. In this work, I seek out resources that helped to situate some of my struggles with majority white-led spaces and colonial museums. Lee’s book is helpful in understanding how and why there is a need to decentring, white-led spaces.

A few years ago, I wrote an article for the BC Museums Association titled "Decolonized Then, Now and Forever," and in it, I discussed how powerful it is to be able to co-curate exhibits in a physical building that has historically fostered anti-racism and resistance. Where any guest, dignitary, or visitor who comes in is still asked to adhere to the practices of being in a Sikh sacred space. In my eyes, this museum is like no other – because we do not conform to the "standard" practices of museology, but rather, we create our own. Perhaps unlearning everything we think a museum should be, or should do, is also decolonizing. Here as well, Lee reminds us that "that diversity is not the same as decolonization, and efforts at inclusion may even be used to manage or avoid a necessary radical overhaul."

The end of the book begins to feel rushed in comparison to the beginning, and though I am aware that one cannot talk about colonialism, museums, and racism, without understanding whiteness – this topic of whiteness is not specifically discussed in the book. I was surprised that a deeper analysis on how art itself has been historically constructed on a spectrum of whiteness (purity, beauty) to blackness (impurity, "ugliness") as part of the museum project, was not discussed in the book. This too, is the crisis we are in.

I would hope that after reading Shimrit Lee’s book, those who work in the GLAM sector will reflect and consider how they plan on changing these powerful cultural spaces for the future. Otherwise, in my opinion, they will be relegated to irrelevancy.

Dr. Sharanjit Kaur Sandhra
Dr. Sharanjit Kaur Sandhra has a PhD in History from UBC. She is a historian, educator, and co-manages and co-curates at the National Historic Site, Gur Sikh Temple and Sikh Heritage Museum.
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
Rungh Redux Winner 2022 Award of Merit Innovative Practice
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