In the last five decades, UK-based museums have recognised the necessity to reassess their social obligations and address injustices of the past and present. Many museum workers, academics and audiences advocate for the application of decolonial theories to critically address colonial legacies, repatriation claims and diversification in the sector. However, there is little consensus among practitioners on what ‘good decolonial practice’ entails (Wintle 2017) and whether ‘decolonisation’ frameworks are appropriate for UK-based museums. Some museums and sectoral organisations, including the Museums Association, have established working groups to respond to these questions. Alongside these complex debates, museum practitioners at every level contend with the long-term expectations and the immediate realities of decolonisation.
Addressing their lived experiences, I will explore how decolonisation guidance affects the learning approach used by museums and the practice of learning staff. I will examine how decolonisation is conceptualised and enacted through interactions between institutions, staff and audiences to build a comprehensive picture of the changes that occur, drawing on ethnographic case studies of three UK-based museums who have announced their commitment to decolonisation in their work. Through participation in meetings, staff interviews and focus groups, this project will elucidate realities of and effective strategies for implementing decolonisation guidance that responds to specific concerns of practitioners and builds public trust.
Recent media attention on certain institutions has incited public backlash to decolonisation projects, accusing them of political bias (Hicks 2020). Yet the pandemic and recent Black Lives Matter protests have highlighted that difficult social topics cannot be ignored by the cultural sector. Learning programmes are often envisioned as a space of “respectful dialogical exchange” on uncomfortable issues (Golding 2009, 2). Therefore, it is timely to study how learning practitioners, as public-facing communicators of museums’ decolonisation agendas can build resilience to hostility while incorporating socio-political concerns into their practice.