Temple of Dendur, The Metropolitan Museum of Art

Museums and Empire

Instructor: Shimrit Lee
This is an online course (Eastern Time)

In the past few years, museums across the U.S, Europe, and Australia have been trying to tackle the challenge of decolonizing their institutions. This is not a straightforward task. For some museums, decolonization means repatriating stolen artifacts or human remains to formerly colonized people; for others, it means embracing greater accountability towards marginalized communities and addressing racial legacies in leadership structures. According to curator Sumaya Kassim, the legacies of colonialism are so “immeasurably deep, far-reaching, and ever-mutating” that decolonizing the museum is an impossible task. What might it mean to decolonize a museum, and what sort of institution would exist in decolonization’s wake? What would it hold, whom would it serve, and how would it function within the wider social complex of knowledge and culture? 

In this class, we will explore the many ways museums have served, historically and contemporaneously, as extensions of colonial projects, as well as consider the possibility, in theory and practice, of a decolonized Western cultural institution. We will begin by locating the history of the museum alongside that of other forms of display and exhibition, including cabinets of curiosities and popular forms of ethno-spectacle (such as 19th-century fairs and exhibitions). Why were museums established, and what functions, socially, culturally, and politically, did they (and do they) perform? Then, we will survey efforts by museums and activists to decolonize cultural institutions. Topics include: the politics of museum collection and acquisition; legal, political, and moral questions surrounding the restitution of cultural property plundered under colonialism; the establishment of new “decolonized” museums and cultural centers; curatorial and collaborative efforts by mainstream museums to grapple with centuries of unresolved trauma; and recent controversies over unethical sponsorship and privatized interests that persist in contemporary museums, including at the Whitney Museum, the British Museum, and MoMa PS1, among others. Readings will be drawn from works by Timothy Mitchell, Ariella Azoulay, Amy Lonetree, Hans Haacke, Hito Steyerl, and Kwame Anthrony Appiah, among others.

Course Schedule

Tuesday, 6:30-9:30pm EST
September 15 — October 06, 2020
4 weeks


Registration Closed

Please email us to be placed on the waiting list.

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