Indigenising and Decolonising the Museum
A story about indigenising and decolonising the museum, presenting concrete strategies and actionable measures for rapid change. We can and must challenge longstanding imbalances in the communities we serve through a radical and productive rethinking of the museum.
Jérémie Michael McGowan
Director, Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum
Yes, I think I’ll say, first off not my award winning work, as I’ll try and communicate through this slightly paradoxical situation. This project is not at all about me.
There’s a intentionally designed anonymity to this project. It’s not about my museum. It’s not about me, but sometimes you end up on Stage and it becomes very much about you, but I’ll take that critique as it comes.
It’s a bit interesting coming on stage after Scott because and I told him to this person, so I’ll do it in public. I feel like he was stealing some of my lines or maybe I’ve been stealing his, but my lines are a bit different, I’m also a practitioner as my background and what I say my punk rock line is that I am now a museum director because my Plan A career as a punk rock bass player and lead vocalist didn’t quite work out, so and I mean that rather seriously so it was like Plan C backup a bit further down the list. And now I run a museum.
So, so that’s me and a bit where where I’m coming from. And in my talk this afternoon.
Could the clock come up there. Is it not just so I can keep track of time but anyways so I want to hopefully bring some this useful reflections around this theme of disruptions.
I myself was intrigued with this conference to to sort of collectively reflect around the ways we can Dare to conceive and test drive new approaches to make museums do more, mean more and offer more and give more to more people.
So that’s sort of where I’m coming from. And before proceeding.
I need to make this crucial acknowledgement and again with that who’s on stage and who’s talking in for whom and with whom everything I’m presenting here is the result of co author and co produced, collaborative work primarily with another institution RiddoDuottarMuseat in Karasjok in Norway. And then, particularly the director there my great and fantastic colleague who is pictured here for a number of reasons.
So I want to do two things in this presentation. The first thing I want to do is share with you a case study entitled Sámi Dáiddamusea or Sámi Art museum as it’s translated. This is an ongoing open source project that is as I just acknowledged co authored and co produced by Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum and RiddoDuottarMuseat and then the second thing I want to do is to interject into the museum next community term or tactic That we’ve coined through this work and namely the concept of the museum performance and this is a crucial thing here. I’m not talking about an exhibition or a project. Although I’ll probably use those words sometimes because it’s hard to like get around it. When you’re speaking but what I’m presenting is a museum. It’s not an exhibition. It’s a museum and that’s a crucial thing to keep in mind. But before proceeding there.
I thought you know that we should get our bearings first as this is a story that is set within a specific geography and context. And I think possibly or most likely most of you out there need to understand just a bit more about that geography and context in order to follow along with me. Just a bit so we are roughly there that red dot today, Whereas I generally spend my time here in Tromso which is in close enough proximity in the grand scheme of things to our colleagues there in Karasjok.
So Tromso, Karasjok. We are situated then in the High north of Europe. If we still believe in Europe, which is a multicultural transnational Arctic space that spans across the current nation states of Norway, Sweden, Finland and Russia and then this is also An otherwise song, man.
So, home of the indigenousSámi people’s so despite the fact that Norway and the other Nordic countries always seem to rank in the top three happiest countries in the world.
This certainly does not hold true for Everyone I mean it never does. Right.
We have extreme visceral evidence to the contrary insult me today. We’re expressions of Sámi culture are quite literally under attack.
And if you’re not able to read the legibility of this image. This is bilingual road signing, Which isn’t common throughout all of Norway just in the sort of the official saw me areas, although saw many people live everywhere in Norway, but in the north of Norway in some places you get bilingual road signage that gets vandalized shot with rifles graffiti these sort of things.
So that’s A very obvious sort of attack on otherness and a failure to accept and include in the happiest country in the world. But then there are of course less obvious and ultimately more dangerous. I think manifestations of What I call quite clearly systemic racism at work in Scandinavia in the Nordic countries today so backed by this tradition of what we might call Nordic exceptionalism various power imbalances social prejudices historical inequalities funding discrepancies and other colonial legacies effectively collude to keep salami culture repressed or altogether absent across local, regional and national arenas.
So the artists activists collective has done some excellent work addressing these issues during the past few years, producing a running series of underground guerrilla posters, two of which you see here that really cut to the chase. So I just wanted to bring that in as well to show you some of the artistic work being done by colleagues in my part of the world.
But really, there’s there’s quite clear issues that I can’t go into too much detail about but but some of you all out there in the audience will recognize these things when salami culture is on display in the Nordic countries. It’s confined to ethnographic in historic museums, it’s never in art museums okay and that’s that’s the core of the issue Here, despite being a living vibrant culture, of course.
So with that sort of very cursory background in mind what follows now is a story about indigenous rising and Decolonizing the museum, which we were getting a bit into yesterday, more so then today. So I sincerely hope That this story will bridge for you. The gap between theory and practice we often encounter in our work and I hope it might further prove transferable and its outlook in logic for you as well presenting you with concrete strategies and actionable measures for rapid change that you can take back to your own context and institutions to adjust reinvent and renegotiate as appropriate and needed so this isn’t a solution, but it’s a way of thinking and acting that I hope will be applicable for others.
So my primary message for you today is that we can and Must challenge those long standing imbalances in the communities we serve through a radical productive and wholesale rethinking of a museum and this is just one example of how that might be done in one particular cultural geographic and socio political landscape and I should interject an aside Here, possibly that how many of you out there are museum directors.
Yeah. So it’s sort of the vast minority here and I think that’s an issue like Scott. That was the other thing I’ve been in my job for two years just about to the day and there’s reasons I took that job. And I think that we have to be much more critical also to other museum directors, the excuses of size and complexity these types of things don’t really hold true. It’s about taking action. There’s a lot of you I’ve heard that heard you speaking about how you might feel powerless or hampered or hindered by leadership that won’t do things kick them in the ass Jesus right or say hey there are some directors out there that are doing these things get out of the way and apply for the job. The next time it, it gets advertise because that’s what I did.
So now on to the next thing for two months in 2017 last year Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum here ceased to exist.
During this time, a fiction emerged physically and conceptually transforming Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum can squeeze them into a possible Sámi Dáiddamusea.
This performative shift was achieved through alterations to Nordnorsk Kunstmuseums interior and facade a sort of total And instant makeover that included amongst other things, the display of another collection of art entirely and the use of Sámi language for both exhibition texts and general signage a revamped museum shop the creation of entirely Independent graphic identity and accompanying communication platforms such as a rogue website and Facebook account and the production of a range of related museum ephemera and merchandise buttons postcards posters business cards stickers T shirts, the X is revealed.
And the result was a speculative space, complete with a performance artists as museum director that pointed toward an alternative reality one that linked to a different past existed in a parallel Present and signaled another hopefully still attainable future in this alternative reality Sámi Dáiddamusea opened its doors on the 15th of February 2017 with the inaugural exhibition titled, there is no and then it disappeared again just two months Later on the 16th of April last year
During that time it offered a full range of outreach and programming activities to the public, it’s public from tours and seminars to workshops for families and children and concerts, amongst other things.
And Now here’s the rub this all happened overnight and without prior warning with the first announcement of Sámi Dáiddamusea has existence to both the press and general public coming from Sámi Dáiddamusea itself on institutional letterhead Shown here and digital platforms.
I should also emphasize here. The other aspect of the time line of this project, which is crucial. I think for understanding what museums are and or might otherwise be going forward so many dynamism was realized in roughly two to three months from initial concept straight through to final implementation.
Not a day a minute to spare first conversation final product.
So it was in some ways an anti museum project or an exercise and anti musicology if we claim that is to the notion that museums are slow moving and ponderous and resistant things I sincerely hope they’re not.
So what are we doing or trying to do here in very real terms we were and still are, in Fact attempting besides shedding light on some very clear issues. It’s also it’s an external and internal projects.
So we’re also attempting to reinvent Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum as a museum that takes seriously its own history is reflective and self critical enough to recognize the ways in which it has been failing and or ignoring core members of the community. It is meant to be serving and it’s an open and generous enough to act upon that problematic by engaging head on with it in productive and generative ways in collaboration with other stakeholders and community members.
So this is about claiming or indeed reclaiming I would argue the museum as a public space for dialogue in procreation driven by a shared dispersed generative and hands on conceptualization of ownership if museums and Other cultural institutions are not behaving and thinking in these ways that challenge second guess and rewrite our understandings of authorship expertise authority and heritage, amongst others. Then I mean, what the hell are they. What the hell are we actually doing Right.
In the case of those countries and there was a pressing need to connect to and work together with the Sámi community to indigenous and multicultural lives, our museum space and attended identity and to reach out in earnest as supporter fellow citizen co maker this involved establishing trust credibility and common ground in an extremely short amount of time with amongst others. The Sámi Parliament Sámi artists and artists associations other Sámi cultural institutions Sámi media and members of The Sámi community at large.
This approach simultaneously communicates a wider mission of in commitment to inclusion signaling and museum space that welcomes and indeed embraces other voices and a multiplicity of points of view.
So I have the outlines on a timeline here. Or rather, What will become two timelines in one which is just one way of illustrating the core of this project for you and bringing to the surface. What was an indeed still at stake here. This is a beautifully unnecessarily a simplified version of a complex and multifaceted colonial history That I am delivering to you in streamlined fashion in the interests of both time and the context of this conference so museum idea. Number one, a museum dedicated to Sámi art this idea sprang out of the post war salami rights movement and the altar conflict in particular and the growing self affirmation of indigenous voicing claims to self determination internationally in 1979 at the height of a period of renewed Sámi political awakening in Norway and the Nordic countries. The first works for the future Art Museum were purchased signaling the beginning of a systematic acquisition of pieces by Sámi artists.
But the designated museum building that was from the outset intended to house this collection remains unrealized however almost 40 years old museum idea number to a museum dedicated to Norwegian art, same time, same space this Idea materialized within the context of the Norwegian government’s regional policy of the post war period and it seems to me the rather less talked about policy of Norwegian ization that has been ongoing from the early 1700s through to the Late 1980s if not still today.
So in 1974 Arts Council Norway evaluated possibilities for founding a museum of Norwegian art in the north of Norway with terms of being earmarked for further development some initial works for donated to the calls 10 years later, resulting almost immediately in the formal establishment of Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum in 1985. The museum’s open. Shortly thereafter, and has from there enjoyed a generally upward trend.
So a vast difference in institutional trajectories.
So this museum performance saw me dichotomies and engage directly with these two institutional histories symbolically overwriting the existence of Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum with a fictional manifestation of The as yet unrealized art museum that has long been the desire of the Sámi artistic community museum sector and society at large
Sámi Dáiddamusea was in this sense, a strategically utopian undertaking concerned with rendering and making momentarily tangible that outcome outlines of a latent potential reality, it was not the Sámi Dáiddamusea, but rather a possible Sámi Dáiddamusea. He was there.
None of this began with an exhibition curatorial or aren’t historical idea to show Sámi art or Sámi artists. This all began instead by asking questions together with the Sámi community identifying real and personal problems and then finding probable probing and tentative solutions to them saw me died him is there was also an instrument of renewal and transformation Designed to leave a mark and enact lasting change within Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum and we hope eventually the Nordic museum sector more broadly.
And I should mention you don’t set out with these projects to do these things, but a basic shattered all visitor number records for The for the Museum of formerly known as the order skins as a new museum. It was easy to set records, but it shattered the records of the museum. It took over it. One, it was like I say, if we were a football team, we would like won the Premier League The Champions League the FA Cup and whatever other strange cups you now have here. We would have the full suite because we want to every single National Cultural prize.
We could and it was great because then they just got turned into the mill of the museum performance and all of those projects which were of course given to me and to my museum got dedicated onwards to suddenly died museum and sent back to the politicians who to who stole them so less radical maybe but equally symbolic and meaningful by Design is the perhaps more subtle presence.
Now today of not only saw me art and artists throughout the sort of revert back to Nordnorsk Kunstmuseum, but not as it was, but also the active inclusion and use of Sámi language throughout our entire building, both in general way finding signage and an exhibition rooms are like regardless of what is being shown. This is a simple but useful way of visualizing and specializing the coexistence of different people’s histories and perspectives and by extension, advocating for an understanding and appreciation of salami culture as a natural An integrated part of our shared everyday northern reality.
From here we are working on a further indigenisation of the museum that will I hope renew and align or realign amongst other things, our governmental mandate mission statement staffing and recruitment policies and the makeup of Our board but those things take a bit more time and have to do with other other actors.
So let me wrap this up, Sámi dichotomies there is a critical yet positive approach to disruption that seeks real change and the inaccurate of alternative futures through a basic outlook of care and generosity, the projects main takeaway. And the key point I want to leave you with now this afternoon is justice that perhaps one of the healthiest things many museums can do in response to the very demands that the Present is to intentionally embrace an alternative condition in which they do not exist or have been replaced by another institution entirely what might that be so I will leave you there with the concept of the museum performance and the speculative proposition. This in turn points to for a new conceptualization of the museum as an arena for action that exists as when and where it is most needed so what or who else can you be three months from now.
Jérémie Michael McGowan spoke about Indigenising and Decolonising the Museum at MuseumNext London 2018.