A Call for Transformation: Shifting the Narratives

A Call for Transformation: Shifting the Narratives

This is the final post in a four-part blog series about transforming the academic-industrial complex, particularly museums. After introducing the proposal, I described ending the myth of neutrality and then discussed turning away from partnerships that exploit people and the earth. The last part of my call is to:

shift the narratives that are being told and center authors beyond the institution’s traditional umbrella of authority

A starting point is language. In A Million Black Anthropocenes or None, Katherine Yusoff writes how the geological term “Anthropocene” masks the experiences of Black and Indigenous peoples and their roles in the extractive economies of colonialism in the western hemisphere. In Yussof’s view, “Anthropocene” is essentially a “claim to universalism that fails to notice its subjugations.” Similarly, from my experience, I am concerned that language is concealing difficult histories and thereby excluding particular storytellers from institutional spaces and networks.

As one example, I was continually perplexed how “Pre-Columbian” became an adjective that was used in scholarly and public-facing contexts to describe the peoples, practices, and materials that were the focus of my work in archaeology. We hear about the field of “Pre-Columbian art” or see an academic department called “Pre-Columbian Studies”. Why should the instigator of a genocide have their name legitimized in the adjective describing the histories of the very peoples who suffered and also resisted said genocide? Maintaining “Pre-Columbian” validates white people as the shapers and writers of other peoples’ histories. Alternative names, like Ancient Americas or even Americas, are still problematic but we can make a positive shift in degrees. It could be especially empowering to invite input on names from communities directly impacted by the particular discipline, part of a larger project to involve such communities in decision-making.

A view of galleries featuring metalwork from the Americas at the Metropolitan Museum in 2005. The galleries are known as the “Jan Mitchell Treasury,” after the restaurateur and art collector. To whom are museums accountable? What is the power of a name? (Source: Xuan Che)

Furthermore, instead of naming galleries and wings after donors and collectors, institutions should consider naming them after important cultural figures or concepts that are relevant to the peoples and communities whose works are on exhibit. This is one of the demands of the Artists of Color Bloc based in New York. The language in which stories are presented also deserves attention. Efforts to create materials in additional languages—not only audio guides, but also the text that is paired with the material on view—require significant labor, time, and money. However, such work is vital. Mica Pollock has written how the decisions that educators make in their relationships with students should be viewed on a spectrum, working away from harm, and working towards opportunity. Like retooling disciplinary names, attending to language of presentation is a step away from harm and a step towards greater opportunity, especially for people traditionally marginalized from academic institutions and museums. If the majority of visitors to the museum where I work read English and Arabic, and I am exhibiting an object from a southern Andes where Quechua is spoken today, I could work towards presenting the object in English, Arabic, Spanish, and Quechua. Even if English and Arabic speakers outnumber Spanish or Quechua speakers as physical visitors to the museum, I want us, at every step, to imagine the communities to whom we are accountable. That accountability centers source communities and descendant communities rather than visitors or tourists. However, such decisions still can be mechanisms of promoting wider access, specifically, encouraging new people to visit the museum. In many communities that surround museums, especially in major cities, it is probable that there are speakers of these Indigenous languages. So, this is not only a matter of broad, global engagement but also creating a space that is relevant to the museum’s neighbors. Translating from English to Spanish or English to Quechua could be a positive step, but this also would preserve the ideas of the person writing in English. Instead, we can envision temporary or permanent spaces within museums that encourage new interpretation and discussion, written and oral, in languages other than English. Actions within these spaces can fuel new narratives around material histories and, in the process, activate and re-activate the languages themselves.

In preparing for a presentation at a museum about objects from Central America and the northern Andes, I decided I would speak in English but include Spanish on my presentation slides. The white event organizers encouraged me to remove the Spanish because it was anticipated that the audience would not understand this language. I regret that I gave in and changed the language of the slides. Even if no one in the audience understood Spanish, I believe it would have been important to recognize communities in and around these objects to whom I was accountable. Of course, Spanish, as a colonial language, is not necessarily an ideal means of presentation. But, following the spectrum that Pollock describes, it can be a step towards greater opportunity for the objects themselves and the source communities wrapped around them. Moreover, uncertainty can be beneficial especially for people within a dominant culture. If no one in the audience could read Spanish and saw Spanish on the slides, it could have been a call to reflect on what the audience did not know as a step towards new cultural awareness.

Such a starting point—an awareness of one’s positionality—leads me to my next focus. At the Metropolitan Museum, in working on the analysis and interpretation of metal objects from the Americas, I reached the conclusion that it is not my role, as a white person, to write the histories of these objects. It is not my role because it is not my experience. It is not my role particularly if I am not able to fully frame the work with a reflexive and critical lens. Perhaps a better role for a white person in my position would be as a facilitator or organizer of projects that connect many people in telling stories about the objects, as someone who can open up spaces to create access for people who have become unwillingly distanced from these objects. Leaving my position at the Met was also an act of questioning whether these stories should even be told in this setting. As Eve Tuck and K. Wayne Yang suggest in their work, “R-Words: Refusing Research,” more academics need to consider a stance of refusal as a way “to place limits on conquest and the colonization of knowledge by marking what is off limits, what is not up for grabs or discussion, what is sacred, and what can’t be known.” In a stance of refusal, the researcher could actually use their scholarly training to turn the lens on the powerful institution as the object of study, to turn the lens on whiteness instead of over-researched communities.

Let’s be accountable to the communities and movements right outside our institutions: a protest outside the Brazilian Permanent Mission to the United Nations in New York in 2010 against the proposed Belo Monte Dam and the threat it poses to indigenous communities around the Xingu River. To what extent do museums demonstrate solidarity with the communities whose materials are featured in the institutions’ galleries? (Source: International Rivers)

Some of the basic narratives that are being told absolutely need to shift. The narratives abetted, and not always originated, by museums become refracted in other media. Explaining the choice of Golden Kingdoms as one of the top 10 art shows to visit in Los Angeles in 2017, Matt Stromberg wrote in Hyperallergic: “After surveying the embarrassment of riches on view, you might ask yourself why the ancient world we so often turn to is located in Greece or Egypt instead of our native, but no less stunning, American antiquity.” I am unsure whether Stromberg identifies as a Native person but clearly a white person living in the US could take this to mean that the materials presented in the show are part of a lineage of “our US/American history.” This is simply inaccurate. Suggesting otherwise only reinforces a narrative of entitlement and possession that began with the earliest European colonization of the Americas. Shifting the narratives—and the authorship of such narratives—towards more opportunity and justice is part of what is happening with the In Visible Ink project at the Museum of Freedom and Tolerance Western Australia. At community events, participants “hack” or annotate historical images and texts with markers and post-it notes, pointing out traces of bias and injustice as a means of illuminating new perspectives and truths.

Such a project is one example of institutions becoming explicit about the difficult histories surrounding objects in their collections. Over time, I came to recognize the importance of sharing how the object made its way from, for example, the Caribbean Lowlands of Colombia to a major city in the US. This seems like a completely valid question and was one that friends outside of the museum world would ask. In recent anthropology scholarship, this is known as part of the object’s “itinerary.” Often, this part of the itinerary is one of colonization and extraction. How can we allow a white donor’s name to be publicized with an object yet not tell the story of how that object came into the donor’s possession? This would simply be poor scholarship. Yet, at times when I wanted to include this information in an object’s narrative, I received a response from a supervisor along the lines of: “well, if we do this for one object, it has to be done for every object,” implying that there would be significant repetition of content. Yes, then, that repetition speaks to the monumental extraction of archaeological materials that has happened and that has benefited colonial institutions. Sumaya Kassim notes a similar impression in the Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery in the UK: “where museum objects come from and the circumstances surrounding their acquisition are seen as secondary to the value of allowing the British public access to ‘history’.” Without discussing these circumstances, the narratives are sanitized to make them palatable; discussing the circumstances destabilizes the jobs and careers of curators and also challenges the entire operation.

When we do open up these difficult histories, it is vital to cultivate a space for—and a permanent move to—healing. I anticipate that there is certainly potential for re-harm when, for example, people discuss objects that were stolen from their ancestors. When people dive deep, there must be an outlet to come back up, to forge new community, to find love and support. I wonder: to what extent do museums have mental health counselors on staff, or professionals who are trained in supporting people who have experienced trauma? To what extent have museums engaged in restorative justice or transformative justice work? (Please share any examples in the comments; I would truly appreciate it.) The presence of counselors or trained facilitators could be essential for events and exhibitions that work towards wider truth telling. As Omar Eaton-Martínez writes, museums can play a crucial role in a future truth and reconciliation commission within the US. They can not only document past oppression as a means of seeking truth but also make space for programs that aim to cultivate empathy and transform perspectives. For example, Eaton-Martínez envisions a virtual reality project called “Take a Walk in My Shoes” that could be set up in museums.

To what extent are museums accountable to the communities and movements in the places where the objects in their galleries originated? A demonstration in August 2014 in Ituango, Colombia, where the movement Ríos Vivos is organizing against the construction of a dam on the Cauca River that poses a danger to local communities. The Cauca River is a source of the materials that feature in the galleries seen in the first image of this blog post. (Source: Agencia Prensa Rural)

Ultimately, this call for transformation may appear insurmountable, but I am confident that each person reading this article has something they can do to participate. To quote Alice Walker, “the most common way people give up their power is by thinking they don’t have any.” A general requirement of the three parts of this call is the need to slow down. Challenging the status quo of neutrality, divesting and boycotting, and transforming the narratives all will take time, and this time is important. When I reflect on my work writing about objects, I am repeatedly astounded and dismayed how the work is so neatly packaged and that this does not do justice to the uncertainty of lived experience, to the vast distance and time of experiences that are not my own. On a fundamental level, we must appreciate the potentially vast difference in experience between a curator in a major US city and the object about which they write, the latter located in a thick network of people, of people being born and dying, of soil, of water, of song, of excavation, of colonization and resistance to colonization. Slowing down may be a step towards this justice. Uzma Rizvi encourages us to be reflexive as archaeologists, at a corporeal level. In “Decolonization as Care”, she writes:

“Often we feel trapped in one system, and we feel the system is so much larger than we are; but we are the ones who are keeping the system going. So once you recognize the inequity, and trace how your own body is being disciplined and kept in a certain place, you can begin to think through how you would design intervention, as a creator of cultural material.”

I found that my work slowed in a positive way when I became more intentional about whom I chose to cite in my writing. Taking a cue from the Citation Practices Challenge, I began to cite more literature that was originally written in Spanish and to engage with dictionaries in Quechua. This literature was not always as accessible as oft-quoted archaeological literature by cis-gendered white folks, and I had to work mentally harder as Spanish is my second language and Quechua is very new to me. While we should still challenge the white supremacist and patriarchal views that are overt in the literature that I began to cite less often—and not to say that these views are fully absent from the literature I cited more—the inclusion of sources even framed critically is an act of validating them. Following Sara Ahmed, citation is an act of deciding who counts, whose voices and perspectives will be legitimized. It is an act of deciding who is included. An institutional effort for “diversity and inclusion” in its staff means little when there is not support for including reference to African diasporic communities in Latin America in discussions of metalwork. The reality is that, without these communities, the objects would not be in the museum in the first place.

Returning to a point from my first blog post, we need transformation from the core, not the surface. This is what Ahmed describes in her book On Being Included. Ahmed rightly notes that when authors speak about communities—and this could be applied to this very blog post—that “communities” often means “communities of color.” Instead of focusing on the problem of exclusion (the communities of color the museum excludes), Ahmed encourages readers to re-frame the focus as the institution itself, and specifically institutional whiteness. This is an apt point. I propose that there needs to be a combination of efforts—ones that look inward and ones that look outward.

When looking outward, we can turn to communities and also wider movements. Indeed, the initiatives I have outlined intersect with movements external to the academic-industrial complex. In reflecting on the narrow loss in the 2016 vote of anthropologists to boycott Israeli academic institutions, Ahmed Kanna encourages readers to recognize how the movement to end the occupation of Palestine is part of a wider anti-capitalist struggle and to build connections with other movements, while at the same time understanding that it is in the interest of institutions in which these academics/movement seekers labor to inhibit any transformation. These different conflicts, from New York to Palestine, actually become more intelligible when we recognize that claims of neutrality, partnerships with extractive agencies and corporations, and narratives of uncriticized colonial entitlement are all rooted in “white supremacist capitalist patriarchy,” as bell hooks names it. The time is now to abolish it—to use those trowels and shovels to gradually pick away at the beast until it is destroyed.

I greatly appreciate the insights and friendship of Marguerite De Loney, who gave generous feedback on all the posts I have made in this series. I also would sincerely appreciate any feedback from you, as readers—questions, comments, suggestions for next steps—because you, your colleagues, friends, and collaborators are needed for any of these positive transformations to happen. Thank you for reading.