Settler Colonialism, Slavery, and the Problem of Decolonizing Museums

A hybrid international conference organized by the Center for Experimental Ethnography and hosted by the Penn Museum, 20-23 October 2021

Over the past several decades scholars and practitioners have critically reconsidered the role of ethnographic museums in the development and representation of knowledge about people and processes throughout the world.  Persistent questions have emerged again and again:  What are the relationships between colonialism and collection?  What issues of accountability surround contemporary knowledge production and representation?  How do we think through the challenges of repatriation?  And what might repair look like?  These are not new questions, and they have been asked not only within museum settings, but also across the discipline of anthropology as a whole for the past thirty years.  Yet as museums attempt to reevaluate their practices of collecting, exhibiting, and repatriating, we must still confront – and determine a new relationship to – the legacies of Enlightenment-based scientific humanism and its imperial underpinnings. 

This conference builds on some of the issues being raised within European and South African contexts, while also thinking through the particularities of the view from the United States.  Drawing from the insights and experiences of scholars, museum practitioners, and educators, we seek to join the conversations related to settler colonialism to those related to slavery and imperialism.  We also seek to chart a terrain that emphasizes multi-vocality and multi-modality, and that imagines the kinds of collaboration that might be possible between European, North American, South African, and other stakeholders.  Finally, we want to elaborate new forms of relationship museums might have to their audiences.

The conference will open on Wednesday, 20 October and will run through Saturday.  On Wednesday, we will start with synchronous virtual welcomes from Christopher Woods (Director, Penn Museum) and Deborah Thomas (Director, Center for Experimental Ethnography).  These will be followed by our keynote speaker, Laura Van Broekhoven (Director, Pitt Rivers Museum).  Panelist presentations will be pre-recorded (15-20 minutes) and posted to our website, and each of the remaining days we will convene for a synchronous moderated discussion and Q&A (at noon, EST).  Each evening, we will also offer live events specific to the Penn and Philadelphia museum community, and these will also be streamed.

Welcome by Christopher Woods (Director, Penn Museum)
Welcome by Deborah Thomas (Director, Center for Experimental Ethnography)
Keynote by Laura Van Broekhoven (Director, Pitt Rivers Museum

Christopher Woods (Director, Penn Museum) in conversation with
Michael Blakey (William & Mary), Rachel Watkins (American University),
Carlina De La Cova (University of South Carolina ), and Joseph Jones (William & Mary)

What is the place of the U.S. in relation to global imperialism?  In what ways have the dual histories of settler colonialism and slavery influenced collection and exhibition practices?  What are the implications for the ways we think about and enact forms of decolonization and reparation?  

Moderated by Kathleen Brown (U Penn)

Ciraj Rassool (University of the Western Cape, Iziko Museums of Cape Town)
Pamela Geller (U-Miami) 
Monique Scott (Bryn Mawr)
Jenny Davis (U-Illinois)  

 Moderated by Critical Museum Studies Graduate Student Working Group

How has NAGPRA legislation impacted the development of legal processes for repatriation and other forms of reparation?  In what ways might we think about moving beyond NAGPRA?  In what ways must North American museum practitioners also grapple with questions of empire and slavery in thinking about meaningful processes of repair?

Moderated by Gwen Gordon (U Penn)

Jane Anderson (New York University)
Wayne Modest (Research Center for Material Culture, Museum Volkenkunde)
Ann Kakaliouras (Whittier College)
Rachel Watkins (American University)

Facilitated by Coral Bijoux, with reflections and response by Hladini Mensah 

The Dreams as R-evolution site specific installations at the University of Kwa-Zulu Natal Westville campus and at IZIKO South African National Gallery (ISANG) in Cape Town reference our ability to dream as an act of r-evolution or as a provocative act, towards transformation. The SELF is represented primarily as the Feminine through sculptural forms, plant-life and drawings. The notion of SELF or SELFHOOD lies at the heart of a society’s ability to re-shape itself and within it, SPACE (like land and ownership) becomes the center, the stage, the canvas.  

This “talkshop,” which masquerades as a workshop/talk space/creative space, will begin with a brief presentation.  Coral will then lead activities designed to encourage participants to play and create in order to situate themselves within the heritage of their own lives and communities. In a disparate world, we must find our truths therefore reclaiming, and where necessary transforming, the SELF and the lost heritages of the world.  

In what ways have processes of decolonization, indigenization, and anti-racism been successfully implemented, and how might we build on these?

Moderated by Margaret Bruchac (U Penn)

Stephanie Cunningham (Co-Founder of Museum Hue)
Ryan Rice (OCAD)
Alaka Wali (The Field Museum)
Lucy Fowler-Williams (Penn Museum)
Ingrid Masondo (South African National Gallery)

2-3:00 pm    Film Discussion

Dominique Santos (University of the Free State) featuring Unfixing the Museum
Matthias DeGroof (University of Antwerp) featuring Palimpsest of the Africa Museum

3:00 pm    Closing Remarks