Mining the Museum in an Age of Migration

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Exhibitions of the last two decades give evidence that one of the most efficient means of deconstructing Western museums as cultural spaces is to invite a critical artist to make an intervention, thereby temporarily transforming the relatively static display of a permanent collection into a living archive and an innovative exhibition context. In recent years an agonistic discourse on ‘decolonial thinking’ and ‘decolonial aesthetics’ has emerged from the broader field of postcolonial studies and theory. In ‘Museums in the Colonial Horizon of Modernity’ (2011), protagonist of decoloniality Walter Mignolo has made a case for a clear-cut distinction between ‘postcoloniality’ and ‘decoloniality’, and claimed for decoloniality American artist Fred Wilson’s ground-breaking installation ‘Mining the Museum’. According to Mignolo, Wilson’s intervention in the collection of the Maryland Historical Society in 1992 was a decolonial, and hence political, reminder of the ‘underlying syntax’ of coloniality and the hegemonic relations of power that shape museums; culturally, socially and economically.
This paper uses Mignolo’s assertive interpretation to launch a reconsideration of two issues central to the idea of ‘the postcolonial museum’: First, whether it is indeed possible to differentiate sharply between postcolonial and decolonial thinking, or whether decoloniality should rather be seen as a faction of postcoloniality which favours an interventionist mode of ‘doing’ or performing art and culture with the aim of ‘mining’ and thereby undermining colonial perceptions of the world. If so, it is of particular relevance to museums: decolonial institutional interventions as a means to turn museums into sites of contamination capable of including formerly repressed histories and migrating memories. Second, to which degree Mignolo’s equation of an artist’s intervention with the politics of decoloniality really captures the transformative potential of artists’ interventions in museums in an age of migration, when the much desired diversity of audiences should also be mirrored in the chosen exhibits and modes of display, i.e. in the histories told and the way they are told.
The article proposes that one should not only look for the transformative potential of artistic interventions in museums in the politics of exhibiting, but also in the aesthetics of exhibiting, not least the artists’ play with the visitors’ affective and sensorial responses. To substantiate this proposition, the article turns to Yinka Shonibare’s exhibition Garden of Love at the Quai Branly Museum in Paris (2007) to show how Shonibare used aesthetic means to create ‘an art of the political’ (Bal) and to ‘provincialise’ or ‘indigenise’ Europe.
Original languageEnglish
Title of host publicationThe Postcolonial Museum : The Arts of Memory and the Pressures of History
EditorsIan Chambers, Alessandra De Angelis, Celeste Ianniciello, Mariangela Orabona, Michaela Quadraro
Number of pages12
Place of PublicationFarnham
Publication date2014
Article number9
ISBN (Print)978-1-4724-1567-7
ISBN (Electronic)978-1-4724-1568-4
Publication statusPublished - 2014

Bibliographical note

An ebook version (open source) of the book is to be published one year after the printed edition, i.e. in 2015.

    Research areas

  • Faculty of Humanities - postkoloniality, decoloniality, museums, museums and society, cultural memory, memory and migration, artist interventions, institutional critique, installation art, repressed histories, museums and postcoloniality

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