Radical Hope as a concept

Image Credit: Artwork created by Luxmuralis. Photographed by John Cairns. 


At the Pitt Rivers Museum, we want to use the philosophical and psychological concept of Radical Hope to reimagine what the future might be for museums like ours that have deep roots in coloniality. The collections we steward were collected during the height of the British Empire when collectors felt entitled to bring hundreds of thousands of objects together and curators felt authorised to display and explain them to visitors, assuming that they were best suited to tell stories about those objects because they had studied them. We were once proud to be labelled 'universal' or 'encyclopaedic' because we were supposedly bringing all cultures of the world under one roof for the purpose of learning and research. We now think differently about what the purpose of our museum needs to be. We no longer believe we should go out and collect others; we no longer believe there is such a thing as a universal way of being. We know there is a rich diversity of ontologies (ways of being) and a rich diversity of epistemologies (ways of knowing). We know that it is that diversity that makes humanity so crucially interesting and joyful. Not a universe but a 'pluriverse', with many diffferent ways of being, knowing, making, coping and understanding coexisting at the same time... That pluriverse cannot be told through one perspective but needs many perspectives, many voices... and we are actively committing to seeking those voices that tell a multitude of stories.

We must accept finite disappointment but never lose infinite hope. (Martin Luther King)

Over the past months, all of us have had to deal with a lot of change. It has been an increasingly difficult time with interlocking crises calling for resilience, care, kindness, change action and empathy at many levels. An acute health and economic crisis caused by a global pandemic, a crisis of racial justice, and a crisis of pollution and loss of biodiversity have made us all deeply aware of our planetary precarity. We all grapple with these matters in our own ways, but as an institution so deeply rooted in coloniality, we cannot but see how all these crises are related to that coloniality in different ways. So, as we look for ways to adjust, recalibrate and remain positive and relevant, the concept of Radical Hope helps us not to fall into despair or accept the status quo.

Hope just means another world might be possible, not promised, not guaranteed. Hope calls for action.... (Rebecca Solnit)

Radical Hope as a philosophical and psychological concept has been written up by different authors. A book by Jonathan Lear, called Radical Hope, Ethics in the Face of Cultural Devastation reflects on how Crow Chief Plenty Coups led his people through a time of great turmoil. Faced with the destruction of the Crow's cultural ways of living, when they were forced to live on reservations and give up buffalo hunting, he is able to lead his people to redefine their very ways of existing, so that they would not fall into utter despair. In the book, Lear asks the radical ontological question: "When cultural collapse is such that the old way of life has become not only impossible but retroactively unimaginable, what radical tools for cultural revival exist?"

Hope is not a lottery ticket you can sit on the sofa and clutch, feeling lucky. It is an axe you break down doors with in an emergency. (Rebecca Solnit)

Others have used the concept to think through what Radical Hope can do for institutions, cultures or nations that need to reinvent themselves. Dreyfus (2012) elaborates on the usefulness of Radical Hope for another state of being and asks what role it can play not only in the case of cultural devastation (where one's longing is to rebuild) but also when life becomes unintelligible or unimaginable because one has fallen out of love with it? When someone loses a loved one, they would feel a deep sense of longing for an earlier state of being that was valuable, a longing for that wonderful time when your loved one was still around. In the case of falling out of love with someone you once loved deeply, however, one cannot fall back on the old ways but need to reinvent oneself but without recurring to nostalgia. Dreyfus suggest that Heidegger offers a possibly helpful answer when he indicates that in response to a total world collapse, one must become sensitive to the marginal practices. This would not be nostalgia because these practices would not have been the ones that gave meaning to cultural life before the devastation.

You can't go back and change the beginning, but you can start where you are and change the ending. (C.S. Lewis)

What makes the hope 'radical' is that as philosopher, Jonathan Lear says, it is directed toward a future goodness and it anticipates a good for which those who have the hope but as yet lack the appropriate concepts with which to understand it. The way the concept has been developed in other circles might help us further. Moseley et al (2019), drawing on psychological theories of hope, racial and ethnic studies and radical healing build on Lear's philosophic concept to develop a multidimensional framework of Radical Hope and outline four pathways to experience it, including "understanding the history of oppression along with actions of resistance; embracing ancestral pride; envisioning equitable possibilities; and creating meaning and purpose by adopting an orientation on social justice".

Museums like ours and their stakeholders have fallen out of love with the old extractive practices of appropriating others, with practices of socio-evolutionism that has led to derogatory language on our labels and euphemisms around the effects of the colonial project in our interpretation. We no longer feel that this is actually meaningful; it doesn't reflect our current thinking or that of our disciplines and it would in fact be an embarassment to go back to those old ways of being.

Teach your children not to be invaders of our lands; we are human just like you.

Chief Valdemar Ka'apor's plea to the audience in front of the Museo Goeldi, in Belem do Para, Brazil, brought tears to my eyes. He had brought his people to open the Fesa do Kawim exhibit that we co-curated. His words evoked a harsh reality the Ka'apor - and so many other Indigenous Peoples - continue to face, an existence of a denied humanity where land rights to demarcated lands remain under constant threat of illegal wood loggers, who just in the two years whe had been working together, had invaded and burned the village repeatedly, beating women and children, killing Ka'apor men. For Valdemar, the work the museum could do was advocacy, telling stories of resistance, of injustice and of the range of contemporary celebration, struggles and knowledges of the Ka'apor to an audience he wouldn't be able to reach through other means. Might his experiences and his hopes for what the museum might bring for his people, help us think through new relevances for these collections and their futures?

However devasting the pandemic has been for the arts and entertainment sector, the reason why we want to think with Radical Hope isn't because we want to revitalise what we have lost but because we have fallen out of love with what we used to be and are in a process of reimagining and recalibrating - not always because the collections and displays are unlovable but because the old ways that produced them no longer make sense in the contemporary world. How might we reimagine new practices that can replace those that we have fallen out of love with? And who might be able to help us reimagine the Museum, think with us and together build new better future relevances?

The hope of the world lies in what one demands, not of others, but of oneself. (James Baldwin)

If we are to be an institution that deeply cares for people as much as for the things they make and if we are to be an institution that aims to undo epistemicide (the process of erasing other ways of knowing) and one that actually focuses on ensuring we curate a museum that helps us all to reach a deeper understanding of each other as human beings, of our relationship to each other, to things and to our environment, might we engage in a process of Radical Hope that helps us to reinvent ourselves not in opposition to but in co-curation with one another. We want to make sure that we are engaging in work and conversations which enable listening and learning, understanding the roots of oppression whilst foregrounding equitable ways of working and finding a wide range of voices that can help co-curate, reflect, critique, inspire and create joyful, honest and meaningful engagements in the Pitt Rivers Museum.

To hope is to gamble. It's to bet on your futures, on your desires, on the possibility that an open heart and uncertainty is better than gloom and safety. To hope is dangerous, and yet it is the opposite of fear, for to live is to risk. (Rebecca Solnit)