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How Might We Decolonize the Brooklyn Museum?

In refusing the restitution of stolen artifacts, museums ironically ask us to forget the crimes of the past while serving as custodians of history.
People walk through the galleries of the Brooklyn Museum on May 20th, 2016.

People walk through the galleries of the Brooklyn Museum on May 20th, 2016.

Hipster Killmonger walks into the British Museum to look at West African artifacts while a wispy white woman hovers over him uneasily. His black body is a threat even here, surrounded by ancestral objects. Killmonger wants to buy one of the items. The white curator says they're not for sale. Oh, so her ancestors bought them fairly? Oh, but the museum is the hallowed ground of colonial stewardship.

Black Panther thrusts the conversation about colonial history and museums into the mainstream just in time. The news of the Brooklyn Museum's hire for African Arts, a white woman named Kristen Windmuller-Luna, went viral, meeting outrage and comparisons to Black Panther.

A group of organizers co-signed a letter with Decolonize This Place, a movement art space, on April 3rd, asking the Brooklyn Museum to use an ongoing curatorial crisis as an opportunity to reconstruct its operations. The organizers suggested a decolonization commission, an initiative involving local stakeholders, and requested that the museum acknowledge its own complicity in colonial violence: It is operated by the 1 percent, sits on stolen indigenous land, and contains thousands of expropriated objects. In response, the museum issued a statement defending their curator from what they characterized as a "personal attack." The open letter did not ask for Windmuller-Luna's removal.

The museum weaponized the words of Okwui Enwezor, a highly respected Nigerian curator and art critic, to deflect accountability. Enwezor characterized the criticism as "arbitrary at best, and chilling at worst," calling it a "reductive view of art scholarship." In tokenizing Enwezor, Windmuller-Luna's former professor and a member of the art elite, it wrung itself dry of blame, pointing to systemic racism instead. While the Metropolitan Museum of Art recently announced its appointment of yet another white man in a long list of only white men, museums are now under scrutiny as calls to decolonize them grow in strength and numbers.

But could the Brooklyn Museum be sympathetic to the cause? Last year it hosted an exhibition titled "We Wanted a Revolution: Black Radical Women," but in 2015, it also hosted a real estate summit—an event that critics argued only cemented the museum's status as a vessel for gentrification. "They negate what people of color feel," says artist Brittany Williams. "They take our culture when it's convenient. When we black folks are saying this is a problem—we know it's a systemic problem."

Museums rose in social status beginning in the 18th century, in part due to settler's bringing objects of exotic import and interest to the public. Modern-day museums serve mostly white people. It's expensive to work in museums—they pay little, and require a lot of experience. Curation is also very white: In 2015, only 16 percent of all curators, conservators, educators, and museum leaders were non-white, and only 4 percent were black. White women make up a majority of museum staff.

So how might society decolonize that which is in its essence colonial? Amy Lonetree, author of Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums, stresses that the "process of decolonizing museums takes time, and does not happen overnight." Lonetree points to community collaboration and accountability; in her book, she discusses the importance of forums for community engagement.

A decolonization commission is not so much a Band-Aid but a "radically transformed set of possibilities" says Nicholas Mirzoeff, author of The Right To Look: A Counterhistory of Visuality. To Mirzoeff, the crux of the issue is accountability: "What's the function of a public institution in a strongly intersectional community rapidly gentrifying?" The Brooklyn Museum job posting stated that the collection was mostly acquired in 1922 through purchases in London, Paris, and Brussels. "How were these objects obtained in colonial capitals at the height of imperial dominion in Africa?" asks Mirzoeff who, in "Empty The Museum, Decolonize the Curriculum, Open Theory" notes how the encyclopedic museum "records the story of colonialism, not that of the locales where the objects were produced."

The Brooklyn Museum might have hoped its acknowledgement of systemic racism would have quelled the uprising. Not so. Decolonize This Place has since been joined by 19 other national groups in its latest letter charging the museum with being "out of touch with the communities at its own doorstep." On April 30th, grassroots activist groups gathered to disrupt the Brooklyn Museum and condemn "imperial plunder," taking the letters to the physical space of the museum. "We have been in intensive consultation with grassroots groups in the neighborhoods of the museum," says Amin Husain, a member of Decolonize This Place. Of course, the Brooklyn Museum is not alone in its malpractice: The Brooklyn Academy of Music fuels downtown gentrification, and the American Museum of Natural History failed to generate an indigenous hire last year.

Beyond the obviously problematic rubric of what constitutes "natural history," the AMNH omitted its role in the eugenics movement from its own exhibit on Darwinism; it hosted a eugenics conference that featured papers like "Selective Sterilization for Race Culture." Henry Fairfield Osborn, the AMNH's president between 1908 and 1933, was a eugenicist who thought that "conservation of that race which has given us the true spirit of Americanism is not a matter of either racial pride or of racial prejudice; it is a matter of love of country." The AMNH has been meeting with Decolonize This Place and NYC Stands With Standing Rock. But New York still lags behind.

For starters, the director of the Brooklyn Museum, Anne Pasternak, once co-hosted the infamous "Bronx Is Burning" real estate-sponsored party that used burnt-out cars as props. The party was widely condemned for wielding poverty as a prop to sell luxury condos. The Brooklyn Museum, in its statement, stands by Windmuller-Luna's appointment, though she did not respond to media requests for a comment.

In refusing the restitution of stolen artifacts, museums ironically ask us to forget the crimes of the past while serving as custodians of history.

How did this become such a high stakes game? It starts and ends with money—and cultural capital. The "value" of art is central to a museum's hoarding. Artists are decentralized from future profits, and museums earn money off their collections. New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art drew wide criticism after it decided to charge admission to everyone but New York residents (even though admissions wouldn't bring in that much money). Museums, while supposedly serving local communities, are naked in their profit-grabs. Pasternak crowed that "Brooklyn's time has come" as the New York Times discussed the "obstacle"—its location, where "tourists and Manhattan patrons will always be less likely to go." Gentrification forms a solution to the "hardship" of half the Brooklyn Museum's visitors not paying admission.

Artist William Powhida wishes the Brooklyn Museum would be a better center for a minority-majority borough with nearly 35 percent identifying as black—not just a "cultural status symbol to drive tourism and gentrification," he says. This is a "site of symbolic and actual struggle for the community, part of a much broader struggle for economic democracy in the United States."

The participatory model of the Mashantucket Pequot Museum is an admirable one—one where tribal communities collaborated with museum staff on "co-creation practices" in documenting and illuminating their histories and current lives. India and then-Ceylon once amicably negotiated a division of relics—it can be done again. Though state intervention isn't quite the answer: Mirzoeff points to progress "where the state has withdrawn," like the great march of return in Gaza, the autonomous social movements since the 1967 Detroit uprising, the South African movement to decolonize the curriculum. "The fossil-fueled colonial apparatus is literally choking itself to death."

Activists are holding the ancient institution of the museum and the influential art world accountable, offering solutions in the form of radical participation. The call for restitution is loud: It's time for the museum to reckon with its criminal roots. It's time to decolonize.