Decolonizing the Museum

This is part of our feature, Decolonizing European Memory Cultures.


Course description

In the nineteenth century, museums sought to educate citizens to empower them to govern themselves as imperial states morphed into nations. Museums mapped out the world for their visitors, and showed them, by making them walk and look, how to understand their place in relation to the past and to places and cultures far away. The museum was key to producing cognitive maps that were nationalist and imperialist and implicitly or overtly supportive of colonial rule. The weakening of colonialism after WWI and its collapse from the 1960s to the 1970s prompted museums to redefine their mission. The transformation of museums into institutions supportive of indigenous people, the formerly enslaved, and ethnic minorities as authors of their own, long-suppressed stories, was a result of fierce struggles that occurred differently in the former colonies than they did in the former metropolitan centers. Further, restitution differed in settler colonies and militarily subjugated colonies. But in the context of a nascent colonial memory culture and, more recently, of the global Black Lives Matter movement, European museums have begun to respond to demands for repatriating parts of their collections, serve more demographically diverse constituencies, and perform new civic functions.


This class asks what movements and forces seek to decolonize museums and exhibitions today, whom museums serve and are accountable to, and how museums address new visitors. What are the politics of restitution, apology, and reparations? How do museums’ transformation (and resistance to it) reflect and shape larger social changes and debates, including the key question of what the Global North owes the Global South? What role may museums play in acknowledging and acting on abiding obligations?


The course is divided into three parts: the first introduces students to the role of museums in the colonial era; the second examines their transformation into engines of diversity, equity, and inclusion through the exploration of key concepts; and the third applies insights from and expectations for decolonial museology to museums and exhibitions in the region and create space for individual explorations of the course topic.


Course objectives

At the end of the semester, students will be able to

  • understand the history of the museum as a key institution in imperial societies, as well as a potential agent of decolonization and indigenous/minority/immigrant empowerment;
  • use a range of methodological tools to analyze the poetics and politics of museum architecture and exhibition design and become astute and critical museum visitors;
  • position themselves as informed and creative participants in controversies about the role of the museum in changing societies.


Decolonizing pedagogy and structure of the course

The course asks how one educational institution can work through its imperial structures and habits and become sites of reckoning—from within another educational institution that shares the goal of facilitating historically informed inquiry for a diverse citizenry. Both the museum and the university are currently experimenting with what it means to decolonize learning, and this course seeks to put into practice some principles through fostering an inclusive classroom, respecting the stories that long went unheard, and having the courage to face hard truths. Our readings include and prioritize the perspectives of the curated along with those who historically curated the cultures of others. The course considers different kinds of expertise besides academic scholarship and professional museology. It also seeks to decenter the authority of the instructor, make room for learning from each other, and cultivate interdisciplinary collaboration.


This course asks you to take responsibility for a topic (with the assistance of the instructor) on the assumption that teaching is a potent form of learning. Students will take an active role in the preparation and organizing of most class sessions after the initial four class meetings. I have provided key concepts for another six class sessions and suggested readings and/or case studies. However, the actual design of that session will be done in groups or pairs and includes formulating how the session advances our understanding of the course topic (learning goals), selecting readings (or videos/podcasts, websites, etc.), designing a structured lesson plan (including presentation, discussion question, exercises, etc.), and running the session itself. It is up to each group to set dates for planning the session, setting up a meeting with the instructor, and posting the session syllabus (including a blurb, learning goals, and assignments) a week in advance. The last set of sessions center on applying and extending the insights you have gained in the course of the semester in group and individual work.



Attendance is mandatory, but we live and learn in a pandemic, so please use your judgment in coming to class. Please do not if you feel sick. Make arrangements to get someone’s notes for missed sessions. If several students are sick, we may shift online for a session. Please communicate with your group—it depends on your active participation and your reliability. If you have a good reason for missing class or handing in written assignments late (medical or family emergencies), please get in touch with the instructor beforehand (see section below).


Rigorous preparation and active participation in seminar discussions are crucial. Since this is a fairly large seminar, students who feel more comfortable putting their thoughts in writing rather than speaking in class may elect to submit short written responses (half-page max!) to the readings on the Canvas Discussion board. Responses should engage with an issue, problem, or question raised by the readings and are due by 5pm on the Wednesday before class. These posts are counted in your participation grade.


The four main graded assignments ideally build on and complement each other. They allow you to explore a topic in a (potentially interdisciplinary) group; to develop part of that topic into your own area of expertise by creating a syllabus replete with learning goals, further readings, and assignments; to apply the many theories, ideas, expectations, and demands about decolonizing the museum to a museum or exhibition in the region through a group presentation; and finally to create a culminating project that engages with questions and problems discussed in the course. This project can take the form of an academic research paper, but you may also propose alternative or creative formats such as an exhibition, an audioguide, a podcast, a documentary, etc.


Whatever format you chose, the project should allow you to join and position yourself in a discourse community of scholars, professionals, artists, and activists, and to find or hone your own voice and passion. Because of the current transformations of the museum as an agent of decolonization, in which the public has a stake, we will practice styles of writing and presentation that strive to convey complex ideas in non-specialist language, to present arguments orally and visually, as well as explore creative solutions to the questions of the museum’s future.


  • Participation: 20%
  • Group preparation of class discussion on an assigned topic, in consultation with instructor: 20%
  • Individual annotated syllabus (building on group presentation), due one week after the class session: 10%
  • Group presentation on a museum or exhibition in the region: 20%
  • Final project (research paper of 10-12 pages, or alternative/creative research format): 30%


Course readings


 Ariella Aïsha Azoulay, Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism. London: Verso, 2019. $30.99.
Dan Hicks, The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence, and Cultural Restitution.  Pluto Press, 2020.
Bénédicte Savoy, Africa’s Struggle for its Art: History of a Postcolonial Defeat.



In general, the sequence in which reading, listening, and viewing assignments are listed is the one I recommend.


  1. Museum and colonialism


WEEK ONE. Introduction: the exhibitionary complex

Course overview and requirements; getting to know you; first things about exhibiting.

In order to explain and order the world for their visitors, museums in the nineteenth century developed display techniques that would teach largely through the arrangement of objects and, not infrequently, of people. The two readings we discuss today trace the development of public museums as part of a larger ensemble of cultural institutions and venues that fostered an imperialist consciousness about European spectators’ position vis-à-vis the rest of the world and an imperialist gaze onto the material culture of (often colonized) non-Europeans. Authors pose the question of how the “exhibitionary complex” of museums, world fairs, colonial expositions, as well as department stores cultivated imperial citizenship. How did cultural institutions complement but also resemble punitive/carceral institutions in producing docile subjects? Lastly, what about non-European visitors to the exhibitionary complex—did they adopt the imperialist worldview? What does their perspective reveal about the exhibitionary complex’s power to shape visitors’ consciousness? We will seek to answer the last questions by attending to the divergent spectatorial perspectives adopted by Bennett and Mitchell.

At the end of the session, you will have

  • gained a sense of the exhibitionary complex’s alignment with imperial states;
  • understood how the physical/spatial organization of exhibitions cultivated an imperialist, Eurocentric gaze onto the non-European world;
  • Considered the possibility of spectators’ rejection of or resistance to imperialist consciousness.


Readings (in order):

  • Tony Bennett, “The Exhibitionary Complex.” New Formations 4 (Spring 1988), 73-102.
  • Timothy Mitchell, “Egypt at the Exhibition,” in Colonising Egypt. University of California Press, 1988, 1-33. (=62p)


The museum in the colonial age: collecting and exhibiting objects


If last week’s readings revealed that museums were in a general sense aligned with an imperialist, Eurocentric world view, the first two texts (by Zimmerman and Penny) we will discuss in this session take a closer look at whether and how museums benefited from colonial networks and actively supported foreign policy goals. Were museums innocent cultivators of cosmopolitan curiosity, or were they willingly implicated in colonial coercion? We will compare these scholars’ divergent assessment of German ethnology museums to ask how they arrive at their judgments: how do they define colonial complicity, and what sources do they consider? Secondly, Mieke Bal’s essay takes us to the United States in the early 1990s. The critic uses the temporal distance from historic colonialism to allow us to see more clearly some of the imperialist assumptions structuring the exhibition in the American Museum of Natural History. This reading (along with the brief article in the New York Times) prompts us to think about what museums could or should do with existing displays they may hold dear but whose premises have become troubling.


Readings (in order):

  • Andrew Zimmerman, “The Secret of Primitive Accumulation” (Anthropology and Antihumanism in Imperial Germany, University of Chicago Press, 2001), available as e-book through Lauinger Library, 149-171).
  • Glenn Penny, “Introduction” to Objects of Culture: Ethnology and Ethnographic Museums in Imperial Germany. University of North Carolina Press, 2002. (1-16)
  • Mieke Bal, “Telling, Showing, Showing Off.” Critical Inquiry 18 (Spring 1992), 556-594) (=76p)


At the end of the session, you will have

  • gained a more precise understanding of the acquisition process of material culture collections accumulated during the colonial era;
  • become able to adjudicate between insiders’ vs. outsiders’ views of museums’ implication in colonialism; and
  • thought creatively about how modifying floor paths, labels, and dioramas (among other exhibiting techniques that encode imperialist assumptions) could decolonize museums.



WEEK TWO. Exhibiting People


Our readings (plus an audioguide and video) this week explore some of the popular cultural institutions, venues, and practices where living people were exhibited in groups that ostensibly represented distinct cultures. How did these popular institutions (fairgrounds, panopticons, and zoos) contribute to or subvert the imperialist vision-power-knowledge nexus we discussed in previous weeks? How do authors arrive at their divergent assessments of this live exhibition format? As you read the chapters by Zimmerman and Ames, watch Blanchard’s documentary Human Zoos, and listen to the audio walk “Walking/Talking Back,” take note of the perspectives and sources they consider: do the experiences and interests of performers feature in their arguments? What agency do they have in setting or complying with working conditions, and in determining the way in which they are perceived?


The documentary and the audiowalk each attempt to reveal and critique the racializing gaze on foreign people—how do they differ in accomplishing their objective, and do you find one more effective than the other (and why)?


At the end of the session, you will

  • understand the ever-more elaborate live performance genre that featured “exotic” or “natural” people in living habitats;
  • be able to distinguish between the interests of impresarios, audiences, and performers in staging and attending such cross-cultural entertainments; and
  • be able to adjudicate scholarly disagreements about whether the human habitat stabilized or subverted racialized boundaries and hierarchies.



  • Andrew Zimmerman, “Exotic Spectacle and the Global Context of German (Anthropology” (15-37, available as e-book through library website).
  • Eric Ames, “The Living Habitat,” Carl Hagenbeck’s Empire of Entertainments. University of Washington Press, 2008, 63-102.
  • Dan Hicks, The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence, Cultural Restitution. Pluto Press, 2020, 191-93. Available as e-book through library website) (=63)
  • Pascal Blanchard, Human Zoos (documentary, YouTube, 55 mins):
  • Audiowalk Zurückerzählt (Talking Back, in English, French, and German, 48 mins):


  1. Decolonizing the museum


WEEK THREE. Beginnings: hard truth-telling, empathy, and museums without objects


We are now jumping to the latter part of the twentieth century, when colonialism as a system of government had been dismantled and colonized nations attained sovereignty.


In the realm of culture, we see the decentering of white (male) settler narratives from national stories alongside efforts to include the cultural artifacts and perspectives by indigenous, formerly enslaved, migrant and otherwise marginalized people. In North America, indigenous groups build their own museums and experiment with decolonial museology (Lonetree). But how to translate that museology to the European context, where indigenous people are not the main drivers of decolonization and where the overwhelming majority of museumgoers are white?  Whereas some museums seek to employ multimedia techniques to build empathy with racialized minorities (Arnold-de Simine), others—directed primarily at Europeans of color—experiment with museologies that explode nation-centric histories altogether, along with object-centered ways of storytelling (Piesche et al.; Vergès). In short, the readings make us think about what new principles, practices, and values have emerged in the last twenty years that inform decolonial museology.


At the end of the session, you will

  • understand the parallels and differences between museums in settler-colonies and in Europe as they begin the work of decolonizing the institution and
  • be able to assess divergent points of view concerning whether the museum can be reformed or fundamentally reinvented (and how so), or whether it must be abandoned.



  • Amy Lonetree, “Indigenizing Museum Practice,” in Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums. University of North Carolina Press, 2012, 123-67.
  • Silke Arnold-de Simine, four short chapters in Mediating Memory in the Museum: Trauma, Empathy, Nostalgia. Palgrave Macmillan, 2013, 89-113.
  • Piesche, Kazeem, al-Samarai, “Museum.Space.History: New Sites for Political Tectonics.” Transversal. Web. (10 pages)
  • Françoise Vergès, “Museum without Objects,” in The Postcolonial Museum: The Arts of Memory and the Pressures of History, edited by Chambers et al. Ashgate, 2013, (25-38) (=91)




  • Barbara Plankensteiner, “The Making Of,” Das Unbehagen im Museum: Postkoloniale Museologien. Turia + Kant, 2009, 193-215. (background to Piesche et al)
  • Carpanin Marimoutou, “Reunion of Worlds” (3) (about the same museum discussed by Vergès)



WEEK FOUR. Human remains and returns


Repatriation is the process of returning a body or object of symbolic value back to its area of origin. Today’s readings cover case studies surrounding the repatriation of human remains. By discussing these examples, we will gain a better understanding of the significance of repatriation of human remains—both for the returners and for the receivers. In class, we will also look at policy documents from museums in three different countries in order to explore what repatriation work is being done today. Some of the overarching questions that we will investigate include:


  • Who are the stakeholders in the repatriation of human remains? Who should have a say in how the remains are handled?
  • What do you consider to be ethical practice for storing, treating, and returning human remains? Can there be a balance between scientific and symbolic values?
  • How should the remains be treated once returned?
  • How does the repatriation of human remains fit into the topic of decolonizing the museum? Is it an end goal, a first step, or somewhere in between?


Readings and viewings:


Background readings:



Optional (book-length):

  • James Clifford, “Ishi’s Story,” in Returns: Becoming Indigenous in the 21st Harvard University Press, 2013 (available as e-Book through Lauinger Library)


WEEK FIVE. Museum as a contact zone


The museum as “contact zone” has become a key concept in decolonizing museums and redefining their role, especially with regard to museums’ relations to “source communities;” but its implementation by museums has also prompted criticism and controversy. Please, select readings (either from the suggested list below or from your own research), set goals for our discussion of this concept, and choose salient examples.


  • James Clifford, “Museums as Contact Zones,” in Routes: Travel and Translation in the Late Twentieth Century. Harvard University Press, 1997, 188-219.
  • Robyn Boast, “Neocolonialism: The Museum as Contact Zone Revisited,” Museum Anthropology 34:1 (2011), 56-70.
  • Marylouise Pratt, “Arts of the Contact Zone,” Profession (1991), 33-40.
  • Margaret Werry, “Nintendo Museum,” Neoliberalism and Global Theatres: Performance Permutations. Palgrave Macmillan, 2012, 25-41.
  • James Clifford, “Second Life: The Return of the Masks” (in Returns: Becoming Indigenous, available as e-Book through Lauinger Library).
  • Dan Hicks on Clifford and, more generally, relational museology (29-32 in The Brutish Museums, available as e-Book through Lauinger Library).



WEEK SIX. Activist interventions


Here are some suggestions for activist interventions in history, art, and world culture museums. How do you want to frame these interventions? Which ones do you wish to assign and explore in class, and why?


Alice Procter’s Uncomfortable Art tours

Françoise Vergès, The slave at the Louvre

Kolonialismus im Kasten): (in German). About that intervention, see Sieg, chapter 3, Decolonizing German and European History at the Museum.


#Decolonize this Place!
No Humboldt 21!
Activist interventions documented in Hyperallergic
Activist intervention in the Musée du quai Branly, summer 2020
The online journal Hyperallergic is also a great source to learn about decolonial activism.



WEEK SEVEN. Artists as catalysts for institutional critique


Artists have assumed a central role as agents of the decolonization of museums, sometimes working with and in museums, sometimes outside and against them. In this session we will ask what qualifications artists bring to this task and what they get out of it, why museums like to invite them in, and why critics are sometimes skeptical about the collaboration of artists and museums. Together, we will focus on the groundbreaking installation Mining the Museum to learn about Wilson’s working process, archival research, and montage technique, which have inspired many other artists working in the tradition of “institutional critique” to interrogate museums. Other examples will offer contrast and comparison.


From this session, you will

  • gain a sense of the range of artistic works directed at museums, in terms of methodology, tone, duration, and extent of collaboration;
  • be able to assess artists and museums’ motivation for collaborating in attempts at institutional decolonization; and
  • understand the pitfalls of “outsourcing” critique to artists and artists’ hesitancy to collaborate with museums.




Please read/listen/view in sequence:

  • Lisa Corrin, “Mining the Museum: Artists Look at Museums, Museums Look at Themselves,” in: Fred Wilson: A Critical Reader, edited by Doro Globus. London: Ridinghouse, 2011: 45-74.
  • Fred Wilson, excerpt from “Serving Institutions,” in: Fred Wilson: A Critical Reader, edited by Doro Globus. London: Ridinghouse, 2011: 91-93. (this excerpt is in the same pdf with Corrin.)
  • Fred Wilson, Mining the Museum. You may ignore the short essay at the end and only view the photos. In addition, search on Google Images for more/better pictures of the installation.
  • Susanne Leeb, “Contemporary Art and/in/versus/about the Ethnological Museum,” darkmatter Web. (17)
  • (please also watch embedded video)
  • Coco Fusco and Guillermo Gomez-Pena, The Couple in the Cage (1992)

Watch (32 mins)

  • Diana Taylor, “The Couple in a Cage: A Savage Performance”
  • Brett Bailey, Exhibit B (premiered at Ethnological Museum, Vienna, 2010)

View slide show and browse web archive about Exhibit_B:

View video of Exhibit_B, Brett Bailey/Third World Bunfight: (9 mins)

  • Yvette Greslé, “Twenty Pound Spectacle: Brett Bailey”
  • Pedzisai Maedza, “The Kaiser’s Concubines: Re-Membering African Women”
  • CATPC, Repatriate the White Cube, trailer:

Watch (2:30 mins)






WEEK EIGHT. Provenance


Provenance research is a prerequisite for decolonizing museums. Please help us understand why this is so through some of the important provenance studies undertaken very recently by individual historians and researchers.


  • The Benin Bronzes (Dan Hicks, The Brutish Museums, available as e-Book through Lauinger Library)
  • The Luf Boat (Götz Aly, Das Prachtboot; in German)
  • Congolese Artefacts (Ariella Aisha Azoulay, chapter 2, Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism. Verso, 2019. Available as e-Book through Lauinger Library)
  • Title, abstract, and annotated bibliography of 5 sources due for final paper.



WEEK NINE. Restitution and apology


What is restitution? Some restrict it to the return of objects “acquired” during colonial times; to many others, much more is at stake.


  • German government’s announcement it will return Benin Bronzes (April 2021) (and reactions to it)
  • Kwame Opoku, “Nigeria’s Demand for Return of Looted Artefacts”
  • Declaration on the Importance and Value of Universal Museums
  • Dan Hicks, “A Declaration of War,” in The Brutish Museum. 194-208.
  • Bénédicte Savoy, “Introduction,” “Bingo” in Africa’s Struggle for its Art
  • Sarr/Savoy Report, Intro, Chapter 1, Conclusion
  • Ariella Azoulay, Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism (e-book, available through library website), p. 1-13.
  • Achille Mbembe: Of African Objects in Western Museums. Rhema, 2019.
  • Tiffany Jenkins, Keeping their Marbles: How the Treasures of the Past ended up in Museums and why they should stay there (2016) (available as e-book through GU Library)
  • Reinhart Kößler, “Half an Apology—Political Re-Alignments,” in Namibia and Germany: Negotiating the Past. Westfälisches Dampfboot, 215, 247-272.
  • President Obama’s apology for crimes perpetrated against Native Americans
  • Sarah Ahmed, “Shame before Others,” in The Cultural Politics of Emotion. Routledge, 2004 (e-book, available through library website, chapter 5).



WEEK TEN. Group presentations on museums/exhibitions in the region


In advance of your visit to museums, please read Lindauer, “The Critical Museum Visitor”


Group presentations on museums in the region. Here is a cursory list of museums in the region to scrutinize through a decolonial lens:


National Museum of the American Indian;
National Museum of African American History and Culture;
National Museum of Great Blax in Wax (Baltimore);
National Museum of American History;
Anacostia Community Museum;
Frederick Douglas House (Anacostia);
Underground Railroad Tours;
Colonial Williamsburg (Williamsburg).


WEEK ELEVEN. Guatinaui (What now)? The future of museums, the university, and the world


Where do our discussions about decolonizing the museum leave us? What is in the future for museums? We read a short excerpt from Ariella Aisha Azoulay’s visionary book Potential History: Unlearning Imperialism and watch a discussion with international panelists from Africa and Europe about the future of museums to figure out our own positions on these important questions.




WEEK TWELVE. Peer review of final projects

Please post the first four pages, in which you introduce your topic, explain its relevance, pose a question or propose a working hypothesis, and situate your project in the relevant research literature. We will do a peer review in class.



WEEK THIRTEEN. Presentation of creative projects

Wrap up course. Evaluations.



Katrin Sieg is Graf Goltz Professor and Director of the BMW Center for German and European Studies at Georgetown University. Her areas of research are German theater and European cultural studies. She is the author of four books, most recently Decolonizing German and European History at the Museum (2021).


Published on February 21, 2023.



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