Note: This blog post is adapted from an abandoned journal paper that I originally wrote in 2021.
From the perspective of many people from marginalised backgrounds and historically looted communities, the museum continues to be a symbol of colonialism. Despite renewed calls for decolonisation, repatriation, and restitution, museums are arguably still behind in progressing towards repairing relations with people from these particular communities. As many museums continue to focus on purely representational politics through diversity and equity initiatives (e.g., Rodney, 2020; Williams, 2020; Smith, 2021), it is difficult to image these institutions moving beyond shallow change and committing to something more tangible for those in affected communities.
To resolve this issue, it may be useful to look outwards, and towards the theory and practice developed by social justice scholars and activists (see Genovese, 2016, p. 32); more specifically, we should look at the concept of accountability, and the ways in which those working within museum and heritage spaces can both make amends for harm committed, as well as counteract future instances of harm. It is important to emphasise the need for using external forms of accountability as well, as museums and other institutions will already have internal accountability structures in place for administrative purposes. For this paper, the concept of an accountability framework will be grounded in specific social justice theory and practice and will draw from activists and organisers who are utilising these approaches in their own communities. This framework will utilise archive research as part of a broader auditing of institutional collections and materials that includes the direct input from affected individuals and communities.
This proposed method for accountability can be seen in two ways: as an accountability-based approach to archival research, as well as an archival research-based approach to accountability. To be accountable for one’s own archives would mean that a museum would have a duty towards active consideration of all materials in its passion; this would include developing research into identification of all aspects of cultural objects, documents, and remains, allowing for potential reconnection with the original communities from which these materials once belonged to, with the possibility of eventual repatriation if necessary. In addition, by using a research-focused approach to deliver actions of accountability, museums and institutions can continue to uphold their status as centres of knowledge-making as well as improve their own ethical approach, while also repairing the relations between themselves and those who have been harmed in the past. Prior to further discussion of this proposed form of accountability, it may be useful to examine each component of this framework individually.
Moving Towards the Archives
Interest in archival research seems to have been renewed over the past decade, especially within and among marginalised individuals and communities (e.g., Morris & Rawson, 2013; Bishop, 2017; Araluen Corr, 2018; Henry, 2018). This is not to say that archival research has ever truly “gone away” – archival science has been a field in its own right since the 1950’s (Rumschöttel, 2001, p. 149) and continues to remain an important methodological tool in research, especially with the advent of digital approaches to collecting and analysing archival material (Duranti, 2001; S. Ross, 2012). It should be noted that for the purposes of this paper, the word “archives” will be used to refer to both archival documentation as well as collections held in storage within these institutions.
Archival research has always been rife with internal discourse regarding ethical considerations, a topic which has only become more complex as more marginalised voices are prioritised and heard within the conversation. However, it could be argued that this discourse, particularly the more critical aspects, has also revealed the existing radical potential of the archives. Researchers, many of whom could be considered what Genovese (2016, p. 38) calls “activist archivists”, are now turning their focus onto the problematic histories behind the creation and development of the archives themselves (e.g., Luker, 2017; Karabinos, 2019; Salenius, 2021), and the ways in which these processes have enacted their own forms of marginalisation, restriction, and objectification (McKee & Porter, 2012, p. 60), harms that arguably are continued within the legacies of many museums and institutions.
Alongside this critical turn, researchers have also centred those who are not presented within archives (e.g., Gilliand, 2014; Ghaddar, 2016). These inquiries also examine the ways in which the archive is constructed, with an emphasis on who is not consider “worthy” enough for remembrance (Jimerson, 2009). This also allows for consideration of how archives themselves are not apolitical or neutral, as they are able to define individuals and cultures through decisions regarding classification and curation (Tesar, 2015). Archival research has also found a place within broader calls for decolonisation that have only intensified within the past decade, particularly with regards to institutions that have gained wealth through the transatlantic slave trade (e.g., Weale, 2019; Mullen, 2021; Ross, 2021) In addition, archives have been crucial towards reconciliation for Indigenous peoples in the occupied territories of North America and Australia (Christen, 2011, p. 208). Archives provide researchers with the ability to see the “inner life of decolonisation” (Bailkin, 2015, p. 892), showcasing the complexities of a process that is often enacted through multiple avenues that are eventually flattened into singular events (ibid, p. 885).
Clearly there is a sense among researchers that the archives have a radical potential within them and can be utilised as a liberatory tool in the hands of the marginalised, resulting in the various projects mentioned within this section. By incorporating the archives into a broader framework such as accountability, we can hopefully maximise the potential usefulness of this tool as part of transformative change.
What is ‘Accountability’ for Museums?
Similar to the renewed interest in archival research, there has been an increase in the demands for further accountability from museums and institutions, particularly in light of the 2020 Black Lives Matter protests (e.g., Litt, 2020; Trouillot, 2020; Small, 2021). However, “accountability” is a word with numerous meanings and associations (Ely Yamin, 2013), so it is necessary for the purposes of this paper to define what it is, as well as what is is not.
Accountability models already exist for museums and institutions, of course, but these primarily exist for the sake of accounting for financial and non-financial outputs between the organisations and their stakeholders (Overman, 2021). The latter often includes institutions of power, such as government subsidiaries, and this aspect of inherent political nature gives further credence to the need for an accountability framework that pushes for change within the existing system of the museum, and what is possible through this system. Alongside this framework, external work can be continued with activists and organisers pushing to move museum stakeholders to become more politically inclined towards more transformative and substantial processes of change, such as restitution and repatriation.
However, despite working within the power dynamics of the museum, it would not be helpful to attempt to utilise an existing form of internal accountability, especially if it denies transparency to the individuals and communities who have been harmed. Instead, museums should turn towards the work that has been done among social justice scholars and activists on the idea of “active community accountability”; this concept has previously been proposed for use in the adjacent field of archaeology (Fitzpatrick in Carruthers et al., 2021, pp. 14–16), and emphasises the need for the transference of power, particularly decision-making powers, from academics and professionals to marginalised groups and historically-looted communities. Active community accountability combines two different processes: “community accountability”, which calls for the strengthening of relationships across groups by addressing the specific conditions that allow for harm to occur (The Audre Lorde Project, 2010), and “active accountability”, which calls for community connections to be maintained in a pro-active way in order to avoid future harm occurring (Moore & Russell, 2011). In both processes, the focus remains on the community above all, and this should similarly be the case for an accountability framework for museums and heritage spaces. More importantly, both call into question the power dynamics at play, and how power and resources can instead be redistributed towards the community. This is particularly vital towards holding institutions accountable, as it disrupts the notion of museums as “apolitical” or “neutral” spaces, and instead correctly identifies them as active gatekeepers of memory and connection (Jimerson, 2003). These interventions also force these institutions to break out of the cycle of comfortable forgetfulness, and instead confront their complicity within colonial violence (Elkins, 2015, p. 854).
More than Auditing: Research and Reconnection
So how do we utilise archival research as part of a larger framework of accountability? Again, we must hold the concept of accountability in connection with a broader purpose towards the community and repairing relations between the institution and those who have been harmed. As previously discussed, an active community accountability framework within cultural and heritage spaces requires for a transference of power from the institution (including the researchers involved) to the affected individuals and communities; this includes the ability to make decisions, as well as the ability of refusal. This could also include renewed calls for repatriation and restitution, processes which have been intentionally left out of this framework as they are arguably the desired end point of substantial accountability; however, the proposed method in this paper is more concerned with bridging the gap between a lack of community engagement and the action of decolonisation.
But who exactly is the community in question? This will vary, of course, based on the materials at hand. Some materials may still pertain to a living or recently living individual, which makes this process of identification simple. However, there is also the instance in which ownership, which is already a contentious topic within archival research (McKee & Porter, 2012, pp. 67–68), is less clear. This may require its own form of research and investigation, but ultimately the goal should be to find the contemporary communities which may share “continuities” with those from the (recent or otherwise) past (Royster in ibid, p. 74). Even if the archival materials in question are related to the long dead, an ethical approach to the archives should consider the ways in which adjacent groups could benefit from this research (Subotic´, 2021, p. 349).
By involving the community within the act of archival research, we move beyond simply “auditing” collections, but begin to “reframe” them. This may include more accurately contextualising materials in accordance with cultural values and traditions held by the community, as well making decisions as to what is allowed to be displayed (if at all). In giving them equal space to engage with archival material, we can begin to “braid knowledge” together (see Christen, 2011; Atalay, 2012), using institutional resources and tools (including methodology and theory) as a means of supporting the community’s appraisal of the material. Moving beyond auditing in this sense also means that we are avoiding the objectification of archival material that echoes Césaire’s (2001, p. 42) view of colonialization as “thingification”; again, this accountability framework asks us to see this material as embodied, and so demands the level of respect and courtesy one would give to an individual or community. Where auditing means to produce a quantifiable consideration of collections, this accountability framework instead moves to encourage engagement with the material in conjunction with the broader community, as well as foster reconnection and reconciliation.
Although this may seem no different than a form of community engagement, the contrast again lies in the power dynamics at play; whereas most contemporary forms of community engagement involve a hierarchy of power and control that places the institution above all (Morse, 2018, p. 171), this framework demands that this is flipped, allowing for the community to hold more power than what would customarily be given to them. This would allow for communities to make decisions on aspects of research that may not have been accessible to them, such as ethical considerations and curation practices, both of which are currently based on very Eurocentric cultural ideas (Christen, 2011, p. 189; McKee & Porter, 2012, p. 73; Genovese, 2016, pp. 32, 40). This framework should not be mistaken as an attempt at sideling professionals, or disrupting what some may consider to be “traditional” archival practice (O’Neal, 2014, p. 135). Archival skills are key to this approach, and professionals will be vital to its success; however, this collaboration must be reframed as a service towards the communities that are finally being centred in these conversations, in which professionals use their skills in accordance with the needs and desires of the community in question. Here, considerations can also be made regarding the need of diversifying the professional pool available, as it would be ideal to have archivists from the particular communities as part of the conversation and research.
It should be noted that each archive is unique, and it could be problematic to generalise a particular single approach to handling archives overall (L’Eplattenier, 2009, p. 68), just as it is problematic to assume that one particular approach is suitable for every group or community (Christen, 2011, p. 209). However, as McKee and Porter (2012, p. 60) suggest, all archival materials can and perhaps should be seen as the embodiment of people and communities, both living and dead. As such, the institution that holds the archives must still be held accountable to these people and communities and would likely necessitate some form of accountability framework similar to the one proposed in this paper, regardless of the unique particulars. Perhaps if there is one variable to consider in planning research, it may be that some archival materials are more sensitive in nature than others and will require a more thoughtful approach in engagement; more specifically, in who gets to engage with the material, and why. Again, this is an area in which the transference of decision-making powers to the affected communities will be vital, as cultural sensitivities and traditions will need to be acknowledged above all. In addition, there is always the risk of negative exposure from archival research that will affect the most vulnerable (MacNeil, 1992, p. 166); as such, the very act of archival research may need to be placed in question and discussed with the communities beforehand.
Ultimately, this framework necessitates a constant dialogue between the institution and the community, turning the archives into what Gilliand (2014, p. 1) calls a “negotiated space” which can also allow for collective identity work to flourish (Butler, 2009). Such dialogue is arguably vital for the building (and rebuilding) of any relationship, particularly one in which adversity and harm is involved (DeTurk, 2006); however, in the case of accountability, it is essential that this dialogue and engagement persists beyond the confines of any particular research project, as the final goal of this framework should be the avoidance of any future harm as well. Accountability will not erase harm, but in practicing it, institutions can become more pro-active in reducing its impact (Bonsu, 2018).
Archival research is not the one answer to achieving a more accountable form of museum practice; as previously mentioned, accountability comes in many forms, and there are many that could be utilised in order to minimise harm within this particular setting. In addition, the pathway towards accountability should be multi-faceted and multi-vocal, allowing for multiple voices to take precedence in conversation as well as multiple forms of action to occur concurrently. For example, the proposal discussed in this paper did not touch upon other adjacent avenues of inquiry, such as auditing collections on display. This paper, in that case, should perhaps be seen less as a tutorial towards accountability, and more of a provocation for museums and institutions to begin the urgent and necessary task of rethinking their goals and values, and the ways in which these notions can be reframed within a broader sense of community and communal benefits. In addition, this paper asks that museums view the concept of community as synonymous with more ethical practices, particularly in the case of greater transparency and open dialogue. However, institutions must also refrain from getting stuck at just conceptualising means of accountable, and instead take action towards accountability – as Shara (2020) writes, it is moving from “feeling sorry” to “doing sorry”.
The main goal for holding institutions accountable for past and present harms should be repatriation and restitution, but these processes will likely never happen with the promptness and speed that is demanded of them, particularly given the complexity of decision-making processes within museums (Morse, 2018, pp. 173–174). In the meanwhile, this proposed framework can be utilised as a way to pro-actively engage with the affected individuals and communities and begin to mend and strengthen relations. In focusing on the archival material held within institutions, this framework is targeting one of the more problematic aspects of the museum as a whole. Collections are ultimately the continuation of colonial hoarding and are already the cause of recent disputes (e.g., Nwakunor, 2021; Salisbury, 2021; Winters, 2021). This also does not take into consideration the amount of material that is unknown to the public, as seen in more recent cases of repatriation (e.g., Justinvil & Colwell, 2021; Pilkington, 2021; Veal, 2021). Following Nakata (2012, p. 103), we can instead transform archives from storehouses into points of access. We can (perhaps literally) reveal these “skeletons in the closet”, and at least provide a starting point for difficult conversations to occur, as well as provide a way forwards for tangible action to make amends.
McKee and Porter (2012, p. 60) suggest that the archives exist as a liminal space between people/artefacts and researchers, building upon Glenn and Enoch’s (2008, p. 24) conception of the archives as a place in which “reciprocal cross-boundary exchange” can occur. With this in mind, as well as Hicks’ (2020, p. 234) assertation that the museum cannot truly decolonise but instead become a transformative place of thinking and doing, perhaps we can set a destination upon which accountability may take us, in which these institutions are no longer colonial hoarders or gatekeepers, but instead contemplative spaces in which once hidden away materials can be reunited with the communities from which they came, reconnections can continue to be made, and conversation can occur. For if we cannot undo the harm that has been inflicted by museums and institutions for hundreds of years, then we can at least repair the relations and move forward together for a better future.
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