Colonialism, a museum construct

In a couple of weeks I’ll begin a Master’s in Museum Studies at the University of Toronto. Need an outlet for my nervous excitement! So I’m posting a few essays I wrote during the application process.

This is the admissions essay I wrote for the University of Washington’s Museology program. (Everyone I met there was lovely & I wish I could take two programs at once.) We were asked to respond to a museum trend discussed in the 2019 issue of TrendsWatch, & I wrote on decolonization.

When Christopher Columbus landed on the island now called Hispaniola, he wrote home in wonder. The forests of Guanahaní, he told his royal patrons, were “the greatest wonder in the world.” “Divine Majesty,” he wrote, “ha[d] marvellously bestowed all this” on the Spanish Empire. The island inhabitants were “marvellously timorous” (Greenblatt 68–76 passim, all emphases added). Columbus drew his starry-eyed discourse of the marvellous, by which he dispossessed the Taíno of their lands, from medieval European sources: travelogues, encyclopaedias, bestiaries. John Mandeville, for instance, at the court of the Chinese Emperor: “And then come jugglers and enchanters, that do many marvels; for they make to come in the air, by seeming, the sun and the moon to every man’s sight” (155). When Columbus set sail, the West’s take on marvels and monstrosities in foreign lands had already been museological—awestruck, analytical, acquisitive—for centuries.

Image of the ydrus (water-snake) from the Aberdeen Bestiary.

The ydrus, or “water-snake,” said to be found in waters of the Nile. A fictive creature that “enters the crocodile through its open mouth, rolling itself in mud in order to slide more easily down its throat,” and eats its way out from the inside. Aberdeen Bestiary, ca. 1200. The Western practice of describing impossible fictions in close analytical detail, as if observed first-hand—as if in hand—goes back at least to Pliny’s Natural History.

Finding little gold, fewer spices, Columbus caught several Arawak to take home as exhibits—the first of many persons to be installed in display cases they bore on their own backs. Guido Abbattista:

“While not all of these people were transported for exhibition purposes, the idea of exhibiting them was never very far away, even when the primary role of the non-Europeans was that of informers, apprentice interpreters, future guides and intermediaries, or guinea pigs for Europeanization experiments.” (n.p., emphasis added)

Museums are, as a recent article in Trends­Watch makes clear, a colonial construct. Some own works taken from occupied territory; some use classification schemes indebted to racist pseu­do-science; some preserve power structures held over from colonial administration (“Confronting the Past” 25–27). But we should also say, colonialism is a museum construct. If explorers at their difficult, dangerous, and often (early on) profitless work had not stirred fully-formed museological longings at home—longings to marvel at, to label and classify, to collect and preserve, even at the cost of deracinating—the colonial project might not have got off the ground. From the start, a mu­seological frame, built of shining gestalts and occult dreams, gave the colonial project a form, diverse forms.

From Mandeville’s Travels. Mothers in the land of Prester John place their dead infants on a funeral pyre in great joy, for “they go to Paradise where the rivers run milk and honey” (189). Did such an image ready the eye for a woodcut like Staden’s, below? British Library, Harley MS 3954, ca. 1400–1450, f. 59v.

TrendsWatch describes the vital work of decolonizing the museum: repatriating artifacts, ensuring representation for indigenous parties, telling the truth about past and present injustices (29–30). But in settler col­on­ialism, we all have a museum inside, an invisible structure of labels, taxonomies, acquisition practices, preserva­tion tactics. And if that reckless, sweeping claim is right, then to decol­onize the mu­seum must also mean, to use a phrase from Aimé Césaire (31), decolon­izing the mind.

A woodcut (1557) by German explorer and shipwreck survivor Hans Staden (Warhaftige Historia n.p.). Michel de Montaigne took Staden’s account of cannibalism among his Tupinambá captors for truth in his defense of indigenous cultures in “Of the Caniballes” (1580). Other parts of that essay, Montaigne based on conversations with three Tupinambá captives on exhibit in Rouen (Hoffmann 209). Montaigne wanted to decolonize his mind and had only colonial encounters to do it with.

When I ask myself how a museum might decolonize its mind, the questions come out like riddles. What’s a museum that doesn’t fret to conserve its holdings? (I think of Smithson’s Spiral Jetty.) What’s a museum run by its most disempowered stakeholders? (Recall Guattari’s clinic at La Borde.) A museum managed without internal hierarchy? a museum that makes no acquisitions? a museum that occupies no land anywhere? A museum-without-walls guides its guests from site to site by GPS locator. A museum-of-other-senses commissions sculptures, soundworks, & olfactory landscapes, hire docents hard of sight to guide, & turn out the lights, dethroning the imperious gaze …

Works Cited

Abbattista, Guido. “European Encounters in the Age of Expansion.” European History Online, Institute of European History, 24 January 2011.

Césaire, Aimé, and Rene Depestre. “An Interview with Aimé Césaire.” Aimé Césaire, Discourse on Colonialism, translated by Joan Pinkham, Monthly Review, 1972.

“Confronting the Past: The Long, Hard Work of Decolonization.” TrendsWatch 2019. Center for the Future of Museums, pp. 22–31.

Cruz, Cynthia. “Notes Toward a New Language: On La Borde.” Harriet Blog, Poetry Foundation, 27 April 2015.

De ydro” [Of the ydrus]. The Aberdeen Bestiary, f. 68v. U of Aberdeen Library.

Greenblatt, Steven. Marvellous Possessions. Chicago UP, 1991.

Mandeville, John. Travels. Harley MS 3954, ff. 1r–69v. British Library.

Montaigne, Michel de. “Of the Cannibales.” Essays, translated by John Florio, London, 1603, pp. 100–107. Internet Archive.

Smithson, Robert. Spiral Jetty. 1970. Great Salt Lake, UT.

Staden, Hans. Warhaftige Historia und beschreibung eyner Landtschafft der Wilden Nacketen, Grimmigen Menschfresser-Leuthen in der Newenwelt America gelegen [True history and account of a land of wild, naked, fierce cannibals in New World America]. Marburg, 1557. Internet Archive.

The image up top: Thomas De Bry, Christopher Columbus Landing on Hispaniola (Wikimedia Commons)