Museums are often seen as celebrations of culture and collective memory, but their colonialist histories and racist practices are seldom discussed. A wave of movements to “decolonize museums” has gained traction in recent years, sweeping through various institutions in the Americas, Europe, and Australia in an effort to reform and rewrite the stories recounted in gallery spaces. Despite sharing this overarching goal, activists and museums disagree on what decolonization means and what it should entail.
One method of decolonization is diversifying a museum’s collections by removing and selling certain pieces in a process known as deaccession. The Baltimore Museum recently tried this approach. The museum had plans to sell three paintings by Brice Marden, Clyfford Still, and Andy Warhol in order to make room for female and POC artists, but the effort has since been paused due to critical backlash. While these failed plans may seem like a worthy attempt at decolonization, in reality, deaccession itself is a one-off effort that does not guarantee long-term investment in the diversity of museums’ collections.
Other institutions, such as the New Walk Museum in Leicester, UK, have chosen to reach out to local communities to aid in their decolonization efforts. In 2018, the museum organized a project in which they invited local refugees to rewrite the labels of artifacts from their home countries. Collaborations like these between museums and refugees can be constructive, but any inadequate compensation of refugees’ work poses the risk of further exploiting these groups and reinforcing the institutions’ power.
Whether museums turn to internal reform, deaccession, or community engagement in their efforts at decolonization, these initiatives tend to turn out poorly because they are solely determined and led by the museums themselves. The many bureaucratic layers coupled with the lack of transparency within these institutions make it difficult to measure actual changes beyond the superficial statements listed on museum websites. With these types of initiatives, institutional critique becomes institutionalized critique; museums can invite reform, knowing that they can decline any changes they deem too drastic, costly, or difficult.
Museums are not, in fact, “microcosms of the world,” as Alice Proctor writes in her book “The Whole Picture.” For centuries, museums have erected pedestals primarily for white voices. Personal voices—of artists, community members, and minority groups—must be the driving force to dismantle these pedestals. This is because artists are both outsiders and insiders of museums. According to Proctor, “they are allowed to speak but not scripted or constrained.” Thus, by displaying their work, artists have the ability to critique museums without being affiliated with the institutions, and are given the unique opportunity to actually make change from the inside.
Rayyane Tabet’s “Alien Property,” an exhibition currently displayed in the gallery space of the Department of Ancient Near Eastern Art at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, offers a testament to the role that artists play in institutional reform. In investigating his familial history, Tabet discovered that his grandfather worked for German diplomat and amateur archeologist Max Von Oppenheim at Tell Halaf, an ancient archeological site located in northeastern Syria. Through Tabet’s contemporary artwork, his family heirlooms, and objects from the site of Tell Halaf, the exhibition retells the history of key artifacts and their missing elements. For example, the Venus, a stone figure originally uncovered at Tell Halaf, sits in the center of one of the department’s galleries as part of this exhibition. This artifact has a rich history; Von Oppenheim transferred it from Tell Halaf to his museum in Berlin and, in 1943, when the Allied British forces dropped a phosphorus bomb on the museum, it shattered the statue along with all other artifacts in the building. Although a restored version of the Syrian sculpture now sits in the Met, the Venus’ fragmented body reminds viewers of both the intentional and collateral destruction of ancient objects perpetrated throughout history by multiple actors, including the Western powers.
Another important part of the exhibition is a collection of Tabet’s charcoal rubbings of orthostats—square stone slabs that once adorned the lower portion of the Neo-Hittite palace. Once excavated from the site of Tell Halaf, these orthostats were dispersed to several major Western museums. In 2016, Tabet contacted those museums to request permission to make charcoal rubbings over the orthostats. Curator-in-charge of the Met’s Ancient Near Eastern art department Kim Benzel, in addition to accepting Tabet’s request, suggested taking his work a step further with an exhibition at the Met that offers a critical look at the 20th century history of the site, uncovering stories of these ancient objects in a contemporary world. Through collaboration between artist and curator, they organically started an unknown and often hidden conversation about the site of Tell Halaf.
The exhibition, “Alien Property,” features Tabet’s 32 charcoal rubbings lining the walls of the gallery. Printed above them are the texts that describe all 194 original orthostats, a majority of which have disappeared or have been destroyed. The contemporary artwork is juxtaposed with fragments of the Assyrian relief slabs in the adjacent gallery space and the pieced-together Venus. Rather than attempting to construct a complete narrative, this exhibition highlights the absence of orthostats, and the losses caused by Western intervention. While Western nations and museums rushed in as saviors to reconstruct the ruins in the Middle East, Tabet’s exhibition offers a counter-story, suggesting that the relics would have been safest in their original home in Syria.
Tabet is not the only artist who has used his work to challenge the institutional status quo. In fact, some have been unraveling the imperial narratives within museums for decades. Performance artist Andrea Fraser’s entire career has centered on institutional critique. In her most notable work, “Museum Highlight: A Gallery Talk” (1989), she impersonates a museum guide leading a tour, verbalizing the unspoken assumptions and gaps in the gallery spaces of the Philadelphia Museum of Art. In another example, Iraqi-American artist Michael Rakowitz highlights the problematic acquisitions of Western Museums through memories of the Iraqi community’s diaspora. In his project “The Invisible Enemy Should Not Exist,” Rakowitz recreates “7,000 objects looted from the National Museum of Iraq following the US-led invasion in 2003.”
But even artists like Fraser, Rakowitz and Tabet have to walk a fine line between using their voices to change museums and becoming tokens of the institutions themselves. Tabet emphasized that the idea of the “Alien Property” exhibition did not solely come from him. Instead, the interaction between him and curators at the Met was “truly collaborative.” He hopes that this exhibition will start a conversation, because “the art is not the institutional critique, but the start of forming a dialogue on it.” The museum recently hosted a conversation to review the impact of “Alien Property” on the one-year anniversary of its debut in the Met. The exhibition, which was originally planned to come down in January, is still open for visitors until an indefinite close date, a testament to its power and its appeal to viewers. Museums ought to include more exhibitions like this, which insert a contemporary voice inside otherwise archaic institutions, highlight essential cultural heritages, and bring to life glass-cased artifacts that once seemed foreign and cold.