Search Museum Next

Decolonize This Place targets New York Museums

The New York-based protest group, Decolonize This Place, which describes itself as an action-oriented movement that is focussed on indigenous people, launched a large demonstration at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, among other institutions in the city, in October. A crowd of demonstrators occupied the steps that lead up to the museum as a part of a programme of action that was staged to mark Indigenous Peoples’ Day. The campaigners also launched protests at the American Museum of Natural History as well as a number of historic sites within Central Park, such as Cleopatra’s Needle, an Egyptian obelisk appropriated by the US in the 19th century.

Decolonize Museums

Image: Erik McGregor / Getty Images

In order to draw attention to what it sees as harmful ideologies, Decolonize This Place teamed up with other protest groups with an interest in colonialism and human displacement. Among them were groups such as Take Back the Bronx and No New Jails as well as Mi Casa Es Su Casa. The various groups first made their presence felt at the American Museum of Natural History, on the western side of Central Park, because they said that the depiction of the former President, Theodore Roosevelt, there promoted his “imperialist” ideas. Indeed, one flyer handed out by the protestors referred to Roosevelt as a eugenicist.

Widespread Criticism

After the protest there, the various groups made their way eastwards towards the Metropolitan Museum of Art which sits on the other side of Central Park. There, the demonstrators took over much of the entranceway to the Met, where various speeches were made denouncing the idea of Columbus Day being nothing more than, “a sham”. In a statement, Decolonize This Place went on to criticise Daniel Brodsky, the chairman of the board at the Met. “Brodsky is a member of the Real Estate Council of New York and leading oligarch in the city,” the group pointed out.

Protesters made the point that Warren Kanders had been recently removed from the Whitney Museum’s board because of his links with the defence industry. This, they claimed, meant that many dignitaries in the museum sector were now looking over their shoulder for popular protests about their presence on museum boards, often asking themselves, “who is next?” As well as Mr Brodsky, Larry Fink at new York’s Museum of Modern Art was singled out for criticism. In addition, Darren Walker at the Ford Foundation was another focus of museum protestors’ ire. They said that no museum board member or philanthropist should, “feel safe right now.”

Protest Aims

Among the central aims of the various protesting groups was the removal of the equestrian statue of President Roosevelt and the official renaming of Columbus Day to Indigenous Peoples’ Day. The call for Indigenous Peoples’ Day is itself a form of protest, one that began around three decades ago to counter the annual Columbus Day held in the United States. More widely, the campaigners wanted to raise awareness of the way in which many museums and galleries highlight the history of colonialism from the colonisers’ perspective.

In fact, the Roosevelt Statue has long been the subject of controversy with several attempts to have it removed despite the museum’s perceived intransigence on the issue. Protesters think that progress on the subject of colonialism has been slow. However, it was acknowledged by at least one protest group that the museums concerned had been annotating some of their displays to place statues and other artefacts in a wider cultural context. According to the same protestors, however, these were often nothing more than “token gestures” which were designed to avoid facing up to a major overhaul of the museum’s presentation strategy as a whole.

A prominent Kenyan-born artist, Wangechi Mutu, has recently been commissioned by the Met to produce sculptures for its facades. However, such a move was not enough to save the gallery from the protest. “These institutions [may] fund black, brown and indigenous artists, [but they]… simultaneously showcase the stolen culture of our ancestors,” said one protestor. It is estimated that about 800 people took part in the demonstration.

Related: What does it mean to decolonize a museum?

About the author – Manuel Charr

Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.

Subscribe to the latest museum thinking

Fresh ideas from museums around the globe in your inbox each week