At the Pitt Rivers Museum, we condemn racism in the strongest terms; we work towards becoming an anti-racist institution and stand in solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement. As a museum, we know it is important not to be silent and to lend whatever support we can, both to our own staff members, and to the broader communities that are impacted by institutionalised, everyday racism and other exclusionary practices. We express our solidarity and our recognition of how museums like ours, and collections like ours, cannot be separated from the ongoing violence and systemic racism happening in Oxford, in the UK, in the US, and elsewhere.
The guiding principles of our Strategic Plan (PDF) state that we aim to be part of a process of redress, social healing and the mending of historically difficult relationships. We acknowledge that the Pitt Rivers Museum can be an uncomfortable place for people to visit. Addressing colonial, racist and otherwise derogatory language on labels and/or in database description, doing provenance research into the manner in which objects were taken (eg. by the use of military violence or coercion) and, where requested, taking objects off display or enabling the return of objects to originating communities are all integral to that process.
We aim to be a place of listening to and learning from stakeholders and we want to be an inclusive, reflexive and thought-provoking museum, that enables audiences to perceive displays from different viewpoints. To truly live up to this, we know that we can do more, we can be better and we are committed to do so. We have a responsibility to speak out, and to ask and address uncomfortable questions which we have not asked persistently enough.
The Museum's rootedness in coloniality comes to us in materialized form through its unique Victorian galleries, the often-problematic language of its historic labels, and the very presence of its collections. Collections like the one we steward, were largely gathered during the time of the British Empire. During this period, systems and structures used for the exploitation of resources and people, including enslavement, were set up in institutionalised form in order to accumulate wealth and power for the colonisers. Part of that system of disempowerment of local authority was through the taking of (often sacred) objects. The people who took these objects felt entitled to do so; to appropriate them in order to represent cultural practices, and to speak about and for others from eurocentric perspectives. This process of taking and categorising cultural practice was often highly problematic, as there was no acknowledgement of the views of the originating communities and no reflection on the methods used to dispossess communities of these objects.
A visit to the Museum, therefore, evokes very different emotions and feeling with different people, depending on background and walks of life. For those who have heritage or roots in regions of the world that suffered the violence of Empire, the Pitt Rivers Museum can be a very difficult and hurtful place to be, as it can be for people who have to confront ableist and heter-normative world views on a daily basis. Too often stories have been silenced, perspectives erased. Undoing this coloniality is integral to the work the Museum does today.
In October 2015 the student-led protest movement Rhodes Must Fall tweeted "The Pitt Rivers Museum is one of the most violent spaces in Oxford". As Brian Kwoba explained in The Cherwell newspaper, "it houses thousands of artefacts stolen from colonised peoples throughout the world". We are fully aware and acknowledge that the Museum, while much loved by many across the globe, should be (and has been) scrutinised, especially by ourselves. Lothar Baumgarten critiqued the Museum for being "the Preserve of Colonialism"; Christian Kravagna has called it "the manifestation of the denial of coevalness"; in 2017 Holly Hemming analysed how the language in our labels is often passive in tone, reductionist and in some cases, apologist and romanticises colonisation by using words that sound innocent and should be recognised as such. In June 2020 author Sunny Singh tweeted how seeing the Pitt Rivers made her think she might be having a 'Killmonger' fantasy and that it makes her skin crawl.
In the sector, the Pitt Rivers Museum is considered to be one of the institutions which is facing these issues head-on. Nonetheless, we know that we can do more and need to fearlessly take this work forward, and with a greater sense of urgency - especially now - making sure that our whole organisation is aligned to make the maximum contribution to the changes needed, so that it is translated throughout all our work, in all our outputs, learning methodologies and communications. Essential to this process is our acknowledgement of our ignorance and our complicity in discriminatory systems and their perpetuated existence. Only if we educate ourselves, can we reach deeper understanding and do better. To ensure that this learning is shared with everyone, all staff will be undertaking an ongoing programme of anti-racism and decoloniality training. In this way, we hope that the burden will be more evenly shared and will not rest solely on the shoulders of the people who already have to face racism and discrimination on a daily basis.
We firmly believe that museums like ours are spaces for the co-production of knowledge - connecting peoples and reconnecting people with things. We also believe that there are many unhelpful hurdles put in the way of doing that. These four themes, therefore, drive our programming, collecting, research and investments: No Binaries, No Boundaries, a serious investment in Redress and making the creative case for Health and Wellbeing.
From our work, we know that the Pitt Rivers Museum is a site where redress can happen through a variety of ways. We recognise that we are all part of this ongoing problem. We have an institutional responsibility to no longer be part of the continuation of these systems and as an institution, have been fore-fronting work that focuses on social justice and decoloniality through socially engaged practice.
Museums are bearers of difficult histories and their collections are continued causes of pain for affected communities. By unearthing and undoing through redress, we aim to work together to reimagine these museums as spaces in which reconciliation might be able to come about, to become anti-racist projects and sites of hope.
Provenance - Transparency - Repatriation - Redress
We do research on the provenance of our collections and strive to be transparent about their histories, but also the need for repatriation of collections, in particular, those taken as part of military violence or looting. The urgency of decoloniality is at the core of our work, with curatorial authority to be shared and/or handed to Indigenous curators, knowledge keepers and/or artists, who respond critically to the Museum. In our programming we prioritize voices of community members over curatorial voices and in our interpretation we aim to work towards the inclusion of epistemologies of the South that will offer more meaningful interpretations and understanding, so that we can work towards a more hopeful future that will keep the Museum relevant for generations to come.