Dr. Laura Van Broekhoven is the Director of Pitt Rivers Museum. Her current research interests include repatriation and redress, with a focus on the importance of collaboration, inclusivity and reflexive inquiry. Her regional academic research has focused on collaborative collection research with Amazonian (Surinam and Brazil) indigenous peoples, Yucatán (Maya) oral history, Mixtec indigenous market systems, and Nicaraguan indigenous resistance in colonial times. More information about her can be found here.
In November, Dr. Van Broekhoven found time to sit down with four of Penn undergraduates in an interview to talk about her journey surrounding decolonisation and outlooks for the museum.
Dr. Van Broekhoven stressed the importance of the formation years in developing her drive for decolonize museums. Being questioned and challenged by community members, especially activists, like Gabina Aurora Pérez Jiménez, who were also her teachers, she learned the importance of considering social justice as an ever present practice in her work. The reality of having worked with communities and going into a museum sector, rooted in colonialism, focused on museofacting and questioning its own relevance in a post-colonial reality encouraged her to think about reshaping collections and what work she could do that would be useful to the communities she was working with. This along with making sure that her work was something that people were asking her to do, not something that solely advanced the academic disciplines or her career.
When asked about the initiatives that she started at Pitt Rivers Museum surrounding decolonization works, Dr. Van Broekhoven talked about how Pitt Rivers has been building and expanding on past works surrounding the subjects. She elaborated on the No Boundaries and HOPE initiative, both of which aim at an aspect of decoloniality; these initiatives led to substantial changes around the museum, including an ethical review of artifact labels over the summer. She also shared her recent work with her colleagues to develop new return policies for cultural objects, and how the Benin Bronzes are planned to be returned unconditionally under new policies. She noted that the next stage of work is to figure out how to turn the experimental alterations into permanent changes.
While evaluating museums’ efforts in the UK and those in other countries, Dr. Van Broekhoven explained that many museums face a similar problem of overlaying universalism as a theoretical framework. In Europe, most nation-states have ethnographic museums, which try to put the world’s cultures under a single roof. Euro-centric vision based on social evolutionism is rooted in almost every museum, even those outside of Europe. However, she described one of the exceptions to this trend and mentioned how museums are political projects. Countering the social evolutionist claim that some human societies are more primitive than others, Dr. Van Broekhoven stated that rich and dynamic initiatives reshaping the way museums will be in the future are happening in societies previously classified as “marginal” or “liminal.”
Dr. Van Broekhoven believes that ethnographic museums should be a site of redress of their coloniality. They should be a pluriverse that shows the rich diversity of ways of being and knowing, not centering whiteness as the only way of being. Museums ought to allow for everyone to understand each other better. She states that they must unpack and help to unlearn the false impressions of what humanity is that they were responsible for establishing. This requires a change in composition of museums staff, hierarchy of knowledge, and to work closely with others, not only bringing in people to do work but also being part of the change. Museums must create space for, and invite, the global majority.
One of the ways which Pitt Rivers Museum aims to achieve this goal is to collaborate with indigenous communities and artists. Dr. Van Broekhoven explained that these collaborations drive home any message clearly. Objects are much more than just material remains, they are ancestors, people, living entities. Dr. Van Broekhoben states that a shift is necessary, no longer being able to rely on biased historical records and is excited to see what acknowledging indegenous epistemologies will teach us about caring for objects, ancestral remains and each other. She explains that what it will bring us as a new practice is more interesting than sticking to the old ones which are steeped in coloniality.