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Theoretical and critical views on decolonization

Decolonising as rehumanising: Some community lessons

Descolonizar como rehumanizar: Algunas lecciones de la comunidad
Bruno Brulon Soares
p. 63-73


By interrogating the concept of “decolonisation” and its nuanced applications in museology, the article revisits some community lessons to propose a new framework for decolonising as rehumanising. A brief sociohistorical reflection places this debate within the historiography of the New Museology movement. The article introduces a critique of New Museology as a conceptual and practical movement that does not break from coloniality and the various forms of colonial oppression perpetuated by global capitalism, notably in neoliberal nations. I will focus on the redistribution of authority and agency in the museum sector and on the limits faced by communities engaged in participatory projects in larger institutions. Finally, the article comments on four grounding lessons that can be learned from social groups practicing museology in the margins of the capitalist world. Facing complex dynamics of social inclusion and exclusion within the established museum sector, communities making museums in their own terms are tackling the limits of decolonisation, reclaiming their own liberation in the present world as a path to rehumanisation.

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  • 1 Some of the reflections in this article were first approached in the monograph The Anticolonial Mus (...)

1In the second half of the 20th century, museologists were forced to face the issue of “decolonisation”, critically looking into the colonial legacies that had shaped our discipline and the museum sector worldwide.1 Since the 1960s, when the emergence of social movements for liberation in the former colonies and the denunciation of colonial oppression influenced the social sciences, in museology, a broad debate on the museum’s social and political role was set to advance new practices. Forged as a restored ethos for museums in the 1970s and 1980s, the movement of New Museology and the concomitant imperative of community participation were part of a broader process of reflexivity and accountability that were intended to change museums for years to come. However, it is worth noting that the global reform of museological thinking, which led to a change in museum practices, was first articulated by leading professionals and university scholars (mostly based in Europe) who found in museums targets for cultural analysis and political revision. This “wave” of new ideas that sought to open the museum to a wider diversity of social groups then resulted in the appearance of new ways of making museums, shaped by the very communities that had been historically disempowered in these spaces where colonial power was inherited and reproduced.

2Even though defined in Europe, New Museology and other correlated notions, such as the conception of the “ecomuseum”, were influenced by experimental practices situated in the Global South, which were then reinterpreted and seized upon in a new rhetoric that praised “community development” and “social participation”. In the early 1970s, these peripherical initiatives were becoming known to European professionals thanks to larger representation of non-European regions in the International Council of Museums (founded in 1946), and to the creation of new forums for knowledge exchange, notably the International Committee for Museology (ICOFOM), created in 1977, and the International Movement for New Museology (MINOM), officialised in 1985. Looking into the transformations in the sector 40 years after New Museology was spelled out, it is fair to ask: what have we learned, at a theoretical and methodological level, from the communities we have empowered? Asking the question in a different manner, what does museology owe to the peoples who had historically been objectified by museums until they started their fight for self-determination? Moreover, to what extent have these marginalised groups redefined museology as we know it and as we pass it on to newer generations of professionals?

3In this article I will focus on the redistribution of authority and agency in the museum sector – considered in previous works as one of the core actions in the broader process of museums’ decolonisation (Brulon Soares, 2021, 2023). Based on a reflection that contrasts museum theory and practice to find their entanglements in contemporary museology, I will argue that redistribution starts with the recognition of human beings in their own humanisation. Only by lifting the divisions inflicted on humanity, which have racially and politically separated “us” from “them”, can we move towards new forms of working together and to a more unbiased approach to knowledge (hooks, 2013, p. 26). As I have argued before, reflecting on the basis set out by Paulo Freire and bell hooks, we are not there yet. But by refusing defeat, we, as thinkers of a discipline embedded in coloniality, are forced to learn from our former misconceptions: instead of reifying historical erasures and divisions, we gear the museum towards bettering the lives of the living. The focus of my analysis is not on what we want to achieve as the end result – whatever this might be – but on the powerful process of making museums, and on the right of every group or community to do so. In the present day, this work is what binds us as human beings sharing a collective history, and it is also a transformative and regenerative work that was only starting with New Museology and the establishment of MINOM, and that, therefore, must carry on.

A “decolonial turn”? Some background

4During the 1980s, the claims for community-based museums as a method for decolonising museology were incorporated in the French movement of New Museology – muséologie (nouvelle) – partially based on the invention by ICOM director Hugues de Varine of the ecomuseum (ecomusée) as a community-based prototype for local development (1978). Although represented as marginal examples at the time, other forms of such experimental museums had already been put into practice in colonised countries in different regions. These experiences were shaped by negotiations with communities and Indigenous groups and represented in museology through new voices from the Global South, which propelled de Varine himself to propose the decentralisation of museology at the local level (through ecomuseology) and internationally (through the work of ICOM and UNESCO). Contrasting these community-driven initiatives with “classical” museology (reflecting the European canon of what a museum is), New Museology was conceived with a political purpose to include marginal groups and their experiences with heritage in the history of the discipline while shifting the focus of international debates. Nonetheless, this was happening amidst the wide expansion of neoliberalism around the world, and “in the face of unfettered capitalism, market tyrannies, global violence and unprecedented levels of inequity and disenfranchisement” (Kidman, 2020, p. 247).

  • 2 The article was published in the anthology Vagues : une anthologie de la nouvelle muséologie organi (...)

5In 1979, in the title of one of his foundational articles of francophone nouvelle museologie, de Varine affirmed that “the museum may kill or … bring to life”.2 This paradox of a museum that can serve death but can also serve the living is in the origin of the dichotomies reproduced in the wave of new ideas that intended to liberate museums from colonialism while disseminating a New Museology embedded in the dynamics of global capitalism. Some constitutive binarisms of the modern world – life and death, growth and decay, development and underdevelopment – were reproduced in the ambiguous foundations of New Museology when the movement was internationally launched in the mid-1980s.

  • 3 This Declaration proposed the creation of the International Movement for New Museology, MINOM, whic (...)

6As the Declaration of Quebec from 19843 stated: “[N]ew museology […] is first and foremost concerned with the development of populations, reflecting the modern principles that have driven their evolution, while simultaneously associating them with projects of the future” (emphasis added). In the temporality of “new” museology projected to the “communities” of the “developing world”, the future of underdeveloped societies is yet to be accomplished in the present. This statement reflects the assistentialist attitude towards community-based museums explicitly inspired by the evolutionist principle that defined “development” as the goal to be achieved by “underdeveloped” populations. This approach, one that relegated to the communities themselves the goal of working for their own development according to foreign standards, informed the conception of the ecomuseum. This so-called ‘new museum’, not necessarily dependent on collections, visitors and a building to exist, would serve as a tool for the social and economic repositioning of communities via a discourse of cultural democracy (Tornatore & Paul, 2003) first forged in Europe to suit the other contexts of the world. This new conception helped museology to narrate the world of museums in terms of “new” and “old” practices: another polarising division set out to differentiate grassroots organisations that were detached from the modern canons orienting hegemonic museology.

Grounding lessons for an anticolonial museology

7In this brief sociohistorical reflection, empirically based on my work with community museums in Brazil and my observation of museum practice in different parts of the world, I will outline some grounding lessons I have learned from the social groups I have collaborated with. These are by no means rigid or exclusionary, nor should they be seen as definitive rules for museum work. However, they prompt some important questions about the current distribution of authority and suggest ways to enable communities to make museums in their own terms.

1. Decolonisation, from the perspective of communities, can mean the re-colonisation of museums

8The recent requests from marginalised groups to reclaim museums in their own terms can be perceived as part of the re-colonisation of the classical temple, which may or may not involve a complete reinvention of the museum. For the past decades, the undisputed dichotomy between museums founded on community work and the classic collection-based museum helped some institutions to ignore community agency and to disregard the calls for expanding museum participation. In the old discourse of New Museology, a contrast between social museums in the Global South and classical museums with resources to preserve collections, the predominant model in the Global North, has been reimagined as if these differences could be naturalised instead of being perceived as politically determined according to the unequal distribution of the right to memory – a symptom of the colonial wound in the contemporary neoliberal world.

9The relation between “peripherical” museums and the so-called “classic” museums still presents delimited borders that are placed either by the action of the State or by a distinction that is socially appointed from the outside of the groups marking their collective experiences. The unequal distribution of funding and the lack of the means for institutionalisation are constant reminders for these community museums of their own marginality and precarity vis à vis the central institutions. “To be a museum” for several groups that wish to create their own museum in the margins is the political affirmation of a right to memory, based on agreements, negotiations and frictions that constitute the community as a valued instrument in a rapidly changing world and serving as their self-definition and social engagement in the public sphere.

10But to what extend is our sector – and its established thinkers and practitioners – considering the agency of communities as an essential force towards the desired decolonisation of museums? While ethical discussions regarding the participation of communities in museums are still emphasising the ownership and care of collections, are professionals open to recalibrating their practices through dialogue and knowledge-sharing? In Brazil, for instance, the wave of new initiatives since the 1980s, under the names of “social museums”, “community museums” or “living museums”, has drastically transformed the museum landscape in a movement that began in the margins of big cities or beyond the reach of state policies and governmental agencies. These “experimental” museums, in their quest for visibility and cultural rights, marked a turning point for the practice of museology as a discipline no longer dominated by academics and museum professionals situated in central institutions. If in the recent past scholars used to instruct communities on the possibilities of social museology – roughly, a museology devoted to the resolution of social problems and to historical reparations – today it is an attribute of these groups to challenge academic knowledge and strengthen in their own practices the political and social uses of museums.

11But as we’ve learned in the recent years of political instability in Brazil, which threatened the economic sustainability of most grassroots initiatives, former policies and our still operational legislation do not secure the future of communitarian museology. The situation can be even more drastic for community-driven institutions in countries where no policy has been issued and the museum sector is even more vulnerable to political shifts and the privatisation of culture. Globally, the radical inequality that marks the sector must be addressed. How can we integrate community museums and social museology as practiced by these groups into the larger field of permanent institutions with solid grounds? What kind of community development are we promoting, as a sector which has great difficulty in collectively imagining a future involving our museum diversity? What kind of legacies are being created by the re-colonisation of the museum by various communities around the globe?

2. The museum is neither a forum nor a temple

12The reflexive revision of museology in the 1970s brought about a critical viewpoint that diagnosed the modern museum as an institution opposed to the living (Adotevi, 1971/1992). This statement questioned the social relevance of the European model in societies still struggling with colonial oppression reproduced through these modern/colonial institutions. Back then, the museum-temple was contrasted with a democratic forum (Cameron, 1971) – another dichotomy that would be further enhanced by museologists engaged in changing the ethos of museology.

  • 4 For a sociohistorical analysis of the first museum to adopt the term, see Debary, O. (2002). La fin (...)

13The supposed “decolonial” turn in the museum world had its more explicit roots in a political event involving the participation of several nation-states’ representatives at the 1972 Round Table of Santiago de Chile, where the concept of an “integral museum” (museo integral) was proposed as a new paradigm for Latin American institutions. The museum would be understood as an instrument for social transformation, concerned with the problems of “the communities it serves” (UNESCO, 1973, p. 199). In the following decades, some Latin American museologists developed a basis for critical reflections that led the “new” museum to be defined as a “living institution, embedded in a society”, which must assume an active role of “continually forming and transforming its surroundings” (Rusconi, 1987, p. 241). By deviating from the “classical” museum model, it became possible to acknowledge new experiences that had in common an openness to cultural difference and social participation with no precedents in the history of museology. But despite its relevance for Latin American museologists, the notion of an integral museum, or a museum integrated to societies and committed to the resolution of social problems, was assimilated into de Varine’s concept of the ecomuseum, proposed in 1971 and defined in the French practices that adopted this label after 1973.4 The colonisation of museology—as a branch of knowledge with clear centres – was still ongoing.

14Even though, in its roots, New Museology was not a deliberate statement against “old” practices and theories, in some circles it was interpreted as a rupture with the structure of the museum – notably, with its most traditional form as a building with material collections. As a result, it stressed the binary opposition between a community-oriented museum and a museum mainly concerned with the preservation of collections. This artificial breach between new and old would produce a sense of novelty in practices that considered the “community” as the museum-driven force while in central institutions it continued to reiterate the subordination of certain subjects through the continuous objectification of the Other, as European necessary alterity (Brulon Soares, 2023).

15Several decades later, the enthusiastic promotion of new collaborative projects in the centre of museological debates, as Conal McCarthy (2023) notes, is a common feature in public-facing museum practice. But as observed in previous analyses (for instance, Boast, 2011), isolated projects and short-term collaboration usually have little impact on the power structures that define institutional management and decision-making processes. As some scholars and curators have been arguing, museums “should work collaboratively with communities – in non-tokenistic ways that bestow equal respect” (Golding & Modest, 2013, p. 3). However, the mere assumption of symmetry in museum collaborations – as in the romanticised notion of the “forum” or in the reiterated idea of the “contact zone” (Clifford, 1997) – is the main reason why asymmetric relations continue to generate friction and distress. As several other scholarly works consider (see Coulthard, 2014; Phillips, 2021), notions of inclusion, collaboration, partnership and participation through affirmative action can be perceived as assimilative and neocolonial in nature. In different contexts around the world, they have helped institutions to maintain their dominant role as they state their aim to redress historical inequalities by prioritising a pacifying version of the past, which serves to protect their own coloniality and neocolonial authority in the present.

16While the promise of “decolonisation” has become a heavy burden for museums, this often ambiguous notion is usually translated in large institutions into short-term and superficial responses to community claims. Frequent complaints from both curators and community partners highlight the contrast between the need for “slow” projects and lasting partnerships, and the accelerated cultural market with a strong focus on products rather than intricated processes, lacking the resources for long term and meaningful collaborations. As several recent case studies have shown, museums’ inability to confront coloniality and their own colonial heritage led those commonly identified as universalising temples to engage with source communities in curatorial projects. Nonetheless, the use of neocolonial methods or the recurrence of capitalist structures marketed as “decolonial” result in clear examples of restrictive collaborative agency and institutional impediments for effective decolonial endeavours (see, for instance, Leeder, 2023).

17While the notion of the “museum-forum” may reflect an open space for participation and public engagement, it is valid to recall that the “forum” – in its inspiration from the Greek “agora” and in its imaginative interpretation in Western culture – presupposes the definition of citizenship: those who are entitled to participate and who have a voice. In its Roman appropriation, the forum was the centre of judicial and public business, where only authorised men could engage in open debates. Its political function and centrality in ancient cities can help explain why museums, as modern institutions, are being disputed and reclaimed today. But it also informs us of the limits of participation and democracy in spaces continually used to demarcate hierarchies within humanity.

3. Museums are not about developing; they should be about involving

18Most of the claims against “developmentalism” that surfaced in Latin America since the 1970s, among which were the theorists of dependency, were inspired by Frantz Fanon’s germinal ideas from the previous decade. According to Fanon, “the formerly colonized territory is now turned into an economically dependent country” (2004/1961, p. 55). Recognised as one of the main influences on decolonial thinking in Latin America, Fanon became one of the first voices to denounce the European myth of progress and civilisation, one that was encrusted in the narratives of independent nations in the “post-colonial” era. He argued:

The [national] agenda is not only to pull through but to catch up with the other nations as best one can. There is a widespread belief that the European nations have reached their present stage of development as a result of their labors. Let us prove therefore to the world and ourselves that we are capable of the same achievements. Posing the problem of development of underdeveloped countries in this way seems to us to be neither right nor reasonable. (Fanon, 2004/1961, p. 52)

19It is not surprising that the discourse of development and the progress of nations would be assimilated into the discourse of museums created during or after colonisation. What should call our attention in a critical museology is the fact that this same discourse was somehow preserved in the claims for decolonisation raised by New Museology thinkers since the 1980s, extending even into the present.

  • 5 For an in-depth discussion on the notion of “museum marginality” in the context of Brazil’s social (...)

20The strong expression of New Museology in the so called “developing countries” since the 1980s and 1990s was a symptom of what Johannes Fabian called the “spatialization of Time” (2002/1983), a phenomenon that (re)defines in space the hierarchies of power that maintain the subaltern in the peripheries of the world, and, in the case of museology, creates museum marginality.5 The “Western” relation to continuity that defines a universal Time, dividing the world in terms of civilised people and Others, is still present in the definition of “communities” and “community museums” as parts of museology’s neocolonisation. In a way, while New Museology redefined the museum for the margins, both in Europe and in the rest of the world, this international movement has reinforced the material differences between some central museums and the so-called “social museums”.

21Finding greater difficulty to be institutionalised as heterodox museums, and evading the scope of universal definitions and local policies, these “social” and experimental museums are constantly divided between two spheres of societies: On the one hand, they must negotiate their existence with the state, basing their claims on the idea of redistribution of authority in the heritage sector; on the other, they are obliged to relate to the market, based on practices of exchange (Maguet, 2011, p. 62) – in the sense of the commoditisation of community heritage. Adhering to systems of co-management and engaging with different actors and interests, these museums struggle to reach a sensible balance between the standardisation of practices by governmental agencies and the fluidity of the market, all of which creates greater precariousness for these initiatives and their professionals, a common scenario that is marked by constant threats to their sustainability and permanence.

22Fifty years after the Round Table that spoke of an integral museum, we witness an even more radical fragmentation within the sector, one that enhances the already denounced and increasing inequality between “old” and “new” museums. As a result, we also see an increase in competition between museums with common interests and shared problems. Cooperation and sharing expertise are only possible – or fair – when museum workers operate on the same ground. This should involve museum professionals in all levels understanding that they cannot do museum work alone. Currently, however, collaborations are being practiced that maintain the centrality of the curatorial expertise, as if the inclusion of different voices in museums should still be able to produce a single story – despite the many decades of debates on multiculturalism and the increased critique to universalism in museums’ narratives. Finding common ground involves allowing museums to tell multiple, contrasting or even conflicting stories. It means to recalibrate our expertise and expectations on what museum work should look like, because community participation is usually polysemic; it can seem chaotic and it involves constant negotiation and compromising. The time for sharing and finding commonalities across different agendas and social issues also has a cost that most funders are not willing to bear. Yet more frequently than ever before, and with more passion, we speak of community participation and engagement. Perhaps it is time to abandon previous models based on the progress of societies and the sole profit of corporations. As Ailton Krenak (2020, p. 24) proclaimed, “we must stop developing and start involving” (“Temos que parar de nos desenvolver e começar a nos envolver”).

4. Decolonising as rehumanising: An anticolonial path

23Today, we can see that the notion of the ecomuseum and the hard work of community museums around the world have not changed the colonial foundations of museology. New Museology has not solved the central problem of material inequalities rooted in colonialism and reproduced even now through global capitalism. As we have witnessed in the past few years, some of these community museums are marked by increasing precarity due to the selective distribution of resources, which lead the communities to engage in a “forced privatisation of memory work”, as Tornatore (2006) termed it, taking heritage and history into their own hands. In this gesture, the very labour of heritage preservation is embedded in the fight for self-determination and the conquest of basic human rights (which comprises the right to memory). Their precarious means to care for collections oblige communities to recur to various forms of cultural activism, calling attention to the necessary changes in the wider sector. What is known as cultural heritage from the perspective of these marginal groups, is, therefore, a kind of counter-heritage, preserved as evidence of the counter-narratives that defy the sense of continuity and reconfigure history as narrated in central institutions.

24“Authentic liberation”, as taught by Paulo Freire, is part of the process of humanisation. “Liberation is a praxis”, Freire writes (1970), one that involves the action and reflection of human beings upon their world, seeking to transform it while transforming themselves in this process (p. 79). The lessons we learn from the margins today are essential to understanding how museology can be used by various social groups to attain their emancipation within civil society – emancipation through dialogue, as Freire proposed. In this sense, the right to memory is a human right of every group. The right to make a museum, thus, should be secured in the public sphere, through state policies that provide communities with the means to preserve their own references from the past. Thus, in their fight for recognition and reparation, they are constantly challenging the floating limits – redefined by the market and by nation-states – of what can be understood as “decolonisation”.

25Since the 1980s, experimental museology – that is, museology based on the rebellion of human experience or counter-museology – reinforced its own political dimension, based on the increasing social demands for the right of undervalued groups to culture. In that moment, when some Latin American countries were liberating themselves from authoritarian regimes, we saw an increase in the range and diversity of Indigenous, Black and other minority-driven organisations and projects within the cultural sector. Most of their work was informed by an anticolonial agenda used to reclaim control over the definition of their own cultural heritage. The new museologies behind the European New Museology suddenly became more expressive in marginal countries, where some subaltern museums fight for a change from inside unequal social systems. In this particular context, where radical museologies respond to the urgencies of the present, museums have been serving communities to rebel against the injustices of the present world and grassroots organisations are now reconfigured as tools for the permanent contestation of the centre. Examples range from Indigenous museums (led by Indigenous activists and creators), to museums of the African diaspora driven by Black activist groups or in quilombos (traditional spaces of resistance of former enslaved people and their descendants), and LGBTQI+ grassroots organisations advocating for rights, including the right for memory and for the preservation of queer culture, etc.

26As both Fanon and Freire articulated, humanisation can only be accomplished through a process of rupture from the established order which maintains the oppressed in their subaltern position. A true liberation from subalternity, therefore, involves violating the very system that inflicts colonial violence. In Freire’s terms, “if the humanization of the oppressed signifies subversion, so also does their freedom” (1970, p. 59). That is why, in most institutional frameworks, there are limits and boundaries being drawn to restrain emancipation. In this sense, a true liberation from colonial oppression can only be attained through trespassing borders and breaking the ways that produce “otherness”. The “primitive”, the underdeveloped, the marginalised, the “minority” are all categories used to define dehumanisation.

27Moving beyond the postcolonial and postmodern critique of essentialism and its focus on “Otherness”, bell hooks examines “the authority of experience” (2003/1993, pp. 425-426). According to this notion, the experience of exile and struggle, the pain and suffering encrusted in colonial materials as well as in the subjectivities of those whose identities are defined by them, can be reconsidered to forge a basis for collective bonding (2003/1993, p. 426). This basis, either concrete or metaphorical, also serves in the fight against colonial/capitalist oppression and subjugation. Neither as a temple nor a forum, the museum evolves to be used as a barricade from which the collective counter-fight may rise.

28As a barricade, the museum assumes itself as the place where reflexivity may occur in order to transform pain into new ways of reconnecting and living in community. In this sense, barricades, which are barriers made of discarded things and waste, can be used as ephemeral walls that protect the defenceless and propel them to fight for the dissolution of power positions and the transformation of the relations that produce dehumanisation.

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1 Some of the reflections in this article were first approached in the monograph The Anticolonial Museum: Reclaiming Our Colonial Heritage (Routledge, 2023), which served as inspiration for the keynote speech that originated it.

2 The article was published in the anthology Vagues : une anthologie de la nouvelle muséologie organised by André Desvallées in 1992, with its original title, in French, “Le musée peut tuer ou ... faire vivre”.

3 This Declaration proposed the creation of the International Movement for New Museology, MINOM, which would define the terms for the dialogue between community members and the experts who led such a movement.

4 For a sociohistorical analysis of the first museum to adopt the term, see Debary, O. (2002). La fin du Creusot ou L’art d’accommoder les restes. CTHS.

5 For an in-depth discussion on the notion of “museum marginality” in the context of Brazil’s social museology, see “Chapter 3: A Time for the Margins” in my book The Anticolonial Museum (Brulon Soares, 2023). Further discussion can be found in the series Decolonising Museology, vols. 1-3, edited by ICOFOM between 2020 and 2022.

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Bruno Brulon Soares

University of St Andrews – Scotland
Email: bcbs1[at]

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