The Power of Marketing in Decolonizing Museums: Promoting Inclusivity and Diversity in Cultural Institutions

Earlier this year, I attended the Museums + Heritage Show, which brings together museum professionals from around the world to discuss the latest trends and developments in the field. While at the conference, I attended a range of sessions where such topics as building digital skills, monetizing online audiences, the power of storytelling, and decolonizing museums were discussed. I found the conversations around decolonizing museums most intriguing as I frequently leave museums frustrated by the lack of historical context on the exhibition texts for some of the artwork and artifacts on display.

In this blog post, I will provide a working definition for decolonizing museums and discuss the role that marketing can play in supporting this important process. I’ll also include examples of successful marketing campaigns that have helped to promote the decolonizing efforts in museums and discuss the challenges and opportunities associated with decolonizing museums.

What is decolonizing museums?

Decolonizing museums involves rethinking how museums collect, preserve, and present cultural heritage. This process recognizes the history of colonialism and its impact on museums, which have often been used to perpetuate colonial narratives and reinforce power imbalances. By decolonizing museums, the stories and cultural heritage of historically marginalized native communities are more accurately represented and celebrated.

The term “decolonizing museums” was first coined by Indigenous scholars and activists who sought to challenge how museums have traditionally collected, preserved, and presented cultural heritage. These scholars and activists argued that museums have often perpetuated colonial narratives with stereotypical representations, which have reinforced power imbalances, and called for a more inclusive and diverse approach to museum practice. Their efforts have helped to raise awareness of the importance of decolonizing museums and have paved the way for ongoing efforts to challenge and transform contemporary museum practices.

The history of colonization in museums

Museums have a long history of being used as tools of colonization, with their collections and displays often reflecting the worldview and interests of the colonizers. This has had many negative consequences for the communities and cultures represented in museum collections.

For example, many museum collections were built on the looting and pillaging of indigenous artifacts and cultural objects. This has led to the displacement and loss of important cultural heritage for the communities from which these objects were taken.

In addition, the way that museum collections and displays have been organized and presented has often reinforced colonial narratives and stereotypes. This has perpetuated harmful myths and misconceptions about the cultures and histories represented in museums and has served to legitimize and reinforce the power dynamics of colonization.

Overall, the history of colonization in museums is one of exploitation, erasure, and misrepresentation. This has had severe consequences for the communities and cultures represented in museum collections, and it is essential that museums take steps to address and rectify this history.

There are many examples of major historical objects that were looted and are now held in museums worldwide. Some examples include:

  • The Rosetta Stone: This ancient Egyptian artifact was discovered in 1799 by French soldiers during Napoleon’s campaign in Egypt. It was subsequently taken to France and is now on display at the Louvre Museum in Paris.
  • The Elgin Marbles (aka Parthenon Marbles): These sculptures, which once adorned the Parthenon in Athens, were removed by the British diplomat Lord Elgin in the early 19th century and are now on display at the British Museum in London.
  • The Benin Bronzes: These bronze sculptures and plaques were created by the Kingdom of Benin in what is now Nigeria. They were taken by British soldiers in 1897 and are now held in prominent museums across the globe, including the British Museum and the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.
  • The Batak Sculptures: These sculptures, created by the Batak people of Sumatra, were taken by Dutch colonizers in the 19th century and are now held in museums in the Netherlands, including the Rijksmuseum and the Tropenmuseum.
  • The Taino Stone Spheres: These ancient stone spheres, created by the Taino people in what is now modern-day Costa Rica, were looted by European colonizers in the 16th century. Many of the spheres are now held in museums in Costa Rica and other countries such as the United States and Germany.
  • The Maqdala Loot: This collection of Ethiopian religious and cultural objects, including illuminated manuscripts, jewelry, and other artifacts, was looted by British soldiers during the Maqdala Campaign in 1868. Many of the objects were later acquired by museums around the world, including the British Museum and the Victoria and Albert Museum in London.
  • The Chancay Funerary Mask: This ancient Peruvian funerary mask, made of gold and other materials, was looted from a tomb in the Chancay culture in Peru by European collectors in the 19th century. It is now held in the Brooklyn Museum in New York.

These are just a few examples of the many historical objects looted during colonization and are now held in museums worldwide. The looting and displacement of these objects have had severe consequences for the communities and cultures from which they were taken, and museums must address this history and work to rectify the harm that has been done.

Part of the Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum in London. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey. Part of the Parthenon Marbles at the British Museum in London. Photo Credit: © Ursula Petula Barzey.

The role of museums in decolonization

Museums have a crucial role to play in the process of decolonization. As institutions that hold and interpret cultural heritage, museums are responsible for addressing and rectifying their colonial past and working towards creating more inclusive, equitable, and representative collections and displays.

One of the primary responsibilities of museums in this regard is to engage in ongoing dialogue and consultation with the communities and cultures represented in their collections. This can involve working with indigenous and other marginalized communities to develop museum exhibitions that accurately and respectfully reflect their histories and experiences.

Another important aspect of decolonization in museums is the process of repatriation or returning looted or stolen objects to the communities from which they were taken. This can help restore cultural heritage and rebuild relationships between museums and their communities.

Overall, the role of museums in decolonization involves a commitment to ongoing self-reflection and change and to working towards creating more inclusive, equitable, and representative institutions.  The Museums Association has established ten decolonizing principles, including 1) challenging neutrality, 2) acknowledging power and privilege, 3) building relationships, 4) valuing all forms of knowledge and expertise easily, 5) being brave, 6) being accountable, 7) doing the work, 8) taking care, 9) being creative and 10) aiming for justice.

The impact of decolonization on museums

The process of decolonization can have many positive impacts on museums and the communities they serve.

One of the main benefits of decolonization is that it can help to create more inclusive, equitable, and representative museum collections and displays. By engaging in dialogue and consultation with the communities and cultures represented in their collections, museums can ensure that their exhibition spaces accurately and respectfully reflect the histories and experiences of these communities.

In addition, decolonization can also have a positive impact on the audience experience of museums. By providing more diverse and nuanced perspectives on history and culture, decolonized museums can offer visitors a more enriching and thought-provoking experience.

However, it is important to recognize that decolonization can be challenging and controversial. Some museum staff members may resist change and be uncomfortable engaging in dialogue with marginalized communities. This resistance can manifest in many ways, including reluctance to engage in consultation processes, pushback against attempts to change exhibition content or displays, and a lack of support for repatriation efforts.

To overcome this resistance, the museum leadership must embrace decolonization initiatives and provide ongoing support and training for staff to help them understand the importance of decolonization and develop the skills and knowledge necessary to engage in the process. This can include training on cultural competency and sensitivity and providing opportunities for staff to engage in dialogue and consultation with the communities and cultures represented in the museum’s collections.

In addition, it is also important for museums to establish clear policies and guidelines for decolonization and to provide support and resources to help staff implement these policies. This can include providing funding for staff to engage in dialogue and consultation with communities and supporting the development of exhibitions and displays that reflect the perspectives and experiences of marginalized and indigenous communities.

Overall, overcoming resistance from museum staff is an ongoing process that requires support, training, and transparent policies and guidelines. By providing these resources and support, museums can help staff engage in decolonization and create more inclusive, equitable, and representative collections and displays.

The impact of decolonization on museums is complex and multifaceted, but ultimately, it offers the potential for museums to become more inclusive, equitable and representative institutions.

Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums by Amy Lonetree. Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums by Amy Lonetree.

The role of marketing in supporting the decolonization of museums

All museum staff has a role to play, but marketing can play a crucial role in supporting the decolonization of museums. By promoting the diverse and inclusive nature of the museum’s programming, marketing can help to raise awareness of the importance of decolonizing museums and support the efforts of museum professionals to challenge and transform traditional museum practices.

One of the key ways that marketing can support the decolonization of museums is by promoting exhibitions and initiatives that focus on the perspectives and cultural heritage of historically marginalized communities and include indigenous voices. This can include using posters, social media posts, and email newsletters to invite visitors to explore exhibitions and learn about the art and culture of Indigenous peoples, people of color, and other historically marginalized groups. By highlighting the diverse and inclusive nature of the museum’s programming, marketing can attract diverse audiences and promote inclusivity in the museum setting.

Another way that marketing can support the decolonization of museums is by promoting educational initiatives and events that focus on decolonizing museum practice. This can include promoting workshops, lectures, and other events that explore the history and impact of colonialism on museums and provide museum professionals with the tools and resources they need to challenge and transform traditional museum practices. By promoting these initiatives and events, marketing can engage diverse audiences and stakeholders and support the efforts of museums to decolonize their collections and exhibitions.

In summary, marketing can play a crucial role in supporting the decolonization of museums. By promoting the diverse and inclusive nature of the museum’s programming and engaging with diverse audiences and stakeholders, marketing can raise awareness of the importance of decolonizing museums and support the efforts of museum professionals to challenge and transform.

Examples of successful marketing campaigns to decolonize museums

There are many examples of successful marketing campaigns that have helped to promote decolonizing efforts in museums. Some examples of these campaigns include:

  • The Canadian Museum for Human Rights “Reconciliation” campaign: This campaign, launched in 2015, was developed to promote the Canadian Museum for Human Rights’ efforts to support reconciliation with Indigenous communities in Canada. The campaign includes a range of initiatives such as exhibitions, public programs, and online content that aim to engage visitors with the museum’s efforts to promote reconciliation and to encourage them to think about the ways in which reconciliation can support the rights and well-being of Indigenous communities.
  • The National Museum of African American History and Culture’s “Who We Are” campaign: This campaign, launched in 2016, was developed to promote the opening of the National Museum of African American History and Culture in Washington, D.C. The campaign highlights the rich and diverse history of African Americans in the United States and aims to provide visitors with a deeper understanding of the cultural, historical, and social contributions of African Americans.
  • The National Museum of the American Indian’s “Native Knowledge 360°” campaign: This campaign, launched in 2011, was developed to promote the National Museum of the American Indian’s educational program of the same name. The program aims to provide a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the history and culture of Native Americans, and the campaign includes a range of initiatives such as public programs, teacher resources, and online content.
  • The National Museum of Jamaica’s “Jamaica: A Story of Our People” campaign: This campaign, launched in 2016, was developed to promote the National Museum of Jamaica’s “Jamaica: A Story of Our People” exhibition. The exhibition aimed to provide visitors with a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the history and culture of Jamaica. The campaign included a range of initiatives such as public programs, teacher resources, and online content that aimed to engage visitors with the exhibition and encourage them to think about the ways in which Jamaica’s history and culture have been shaped by a variety of forces.
  • The National Museum of African Art’s “African Connections” campaign: This campaign, launched in 2017, was developed to promote the National Museum of African Art’s “African Connections” exhibition. The exhibition aimed to provide visitors with a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the connections between Africa and the rest of the world, and the campaign included a range of initiatives such as public programs, teacher resources, and online content that aimed to engage visitors with the exhibition and encourage them to think about the ways in which Africa has influenced and been influenced by other cultures.
  • The National Gallery’s “Making Space” campaign: This campaign, launched in 2018, was developed to promote the National Gallery’s “Making Space” exhibition and accompanying public programs. The exhibition and programs aimed to challenge traditional narratives and display practices at the museum and to highlight the diverse and interconnected nature of art and culture. The campaign included a range of initiatives such as public lectures, workshops, and online content that aimed to engage visitors with the exhibition and encourage them to think about the ways in which art and culture have been shaped by historical and social forces.
  • The National Museum of the Dominican Republic’s “Dominican Stories” campaign: This campaign, launched in 2018, was developed to promote the National Museum of the Dominican Republic’s “Dominican Stories” exhibition. The exhibition aimed to provide visitors with a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the history and culture of the Dominican Republic, and the campaign included a range of initiatives such as public programs, teacher resources, and online content that aimed to engage visitors with the exhibition and encourage them to think about the ways in which the Dominican Republic’s history and culture have been shaped by a variety of forces.
  • The National Museum of Denmark’s “Colonialism and Its Legacies” campaign: This campaign, launched in 2019, was developed to promote the National Museum of Denmark’s “Colonialism and Its Legacies” exhibition. The exhibition aimed to provide visitors with a more comprehensive and nuanced understanding of the history and impact of colonialism, and the campaign included a range of initiatives such as public programs, teacher resources, and online content that aimed to engage visitors with the exhibition and encourage them to think about the ways in which colonialism has shaped and continues to shape the world.
  • The Tate Modern’s “Decolonising our Spaces” campaign: This campaign, launched in 2020, aims to address the ways in which the Tate Modern museum in London has perpetuated colonial narratives and power dynamics and to work towards a more inclusive and equitable approach to museum practice. The campaign includes a range of initiatives such as exhibitions, public programs, and professional development opportunities that aim to challenge and reevaluate the museum’s collections and display practices.
  • The British Museum’s “Black History Matters” campaign: This campaign, launched in 2020, was developed to highlight the contributions of Black people to British history and culture and to challenge the ways in which Black history has often been marginalized or overlooked in museum programming. The campaign includes a range of initiatives such as exhibitions, public programs, and online content that aim to engage visitors with Black history and to encourage them to think about the ways in which Black history has shaped and been shaped by British society.
  • The Art Institute of Chicago’s “Breaking the Bronze Ceiling” campaign: This campaign, launched in 2021, aims to highlight the contributions of women artists and to challenge the gender bias that has often been present in the art world. The campaign includes a range of initiatives such as exhibitions, public programs, and online content that aim to engage visitors with the work of women artists and to encourage them to think about the ways in which gender has impacted the art world.

These are just a few examples of successful marketing campaigns that have been developed to support the decolonization of museums and to promote a more inclusive and equitable approach to museum practice. There are many other examples of such campaigns, and the specific goals and approaches of these campaigns may vary depending on the specific context and needs of the museum or organization.

Key Takeaways

Decolonizing museums is a necessary process involving rethinking the way museums collect, preserve, and present cultural heritage. By decolonizing museums, we can better educate the public about the hard truths of colonization. Plus, we can ensure that historically marginalized communities’ stories and cultural heritage are accurately represented and celebrated and can promote inclusivity and diversity in the museum setting.

Marketing can play a larger role in supporting the decolonization of museums by promoting the diverse and inclusive nature of the museum’s programming and engaging with diverse audiences and stakeholders. Through successful marketing campaigns, museums can raise awareness of the importance of decolonizing museums and support the efforts of museum professionals to challenge and transform traditional museum practices.

By promoting the diverse and inclusive nature of the museum’s programming, marketing can support the decolonization of museums and encourage inclusivity in the museum setting. This is an important step towards challenging and transforming traditional museum narratives and promoting a more accurate and inclusive understanding of history and culture.

In addition to the role that marketing can play in supporting the decolonization of museums, it is important to recognize that the decolonization of the broader travel industry is also crucial. This includes not just museums but also other cultural and heritage institutions, as well as hotels, restaurants, and other businesses that are part of the travel industry. By promoting inclusivity and diversity in the travel industry, we can work to challenge and transform traditional narratives and promote a more accurate and inclusive understanding of history and culture.

Marketing can play a key role in supporting the decolonization of the travel industry by promoting the diverse and inclusive nature of the industry’s offerings and engaging with diverse audiences and stakeholders. Through successful marketing campaigns, the travel industry can raise awareness of the importance of decolonizing museums and other cultural and heritage institutions and support the efforts of industry professionals to challenge and transform traditional practices.

Overall, the role of marketing in supporting the decolonization of museums and the broader travel industry is crucial. By promoting the diverse and inclusive nature of the industry’s offerings and engaging with diverse audiences and stakeholders, marketing can support the decolonization of museums and the travel industry and promote inclusivity in these settings.

Resources

For those interested in learning more about decolonization in museums, there are a number of well-known books that provide valuable insights and perspectives, including

  • Decolonizing Museums: Representation, Restitution, and Healing by Susan Albury: This book explores the ways in which museums can address the harms that have been inflicted on Indigenous peoples through colonization and the museumification of their cultural heritage. It offers a framework for thinking about the ethical and practical considerations involved in decolonizing museums.
  • Museums, Equality and Social Justice edited by David Anderson and Paul Basu: This edited volume brings together scholars from a range of disciplines to explore the ways in which museums can contribute to social justice and equality. The book includes chapters on decolonizing museums, as well as other related topics such as diversity, inclusion, and reparations.
  • Decolonizing the Museum: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums edited by Amy Lonetree and Dean R. Snow: This edited volume brings together a diverse group of scholars, museum professionals, and Indigenous community members to explore the ways in which museums can decolonize their practices and better represent the histories and cultures of Native American peoples.

Another great resource is the session videos from recent conferences related to decolonizing museums held in the United States and elsewhere in the world, including:

Finally, the Museums Association has a long list of articles and blog posts related to decolonizing museums.

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