To decolonise the heritage sector, we must first decolonise our minds

This requires deeply reflecting of our collective heritage, trauma and biases created by the colonisers – past and present.

What is a colonised mind?

To destabilise countries and inject their own agendas colonisers must also destabilise and colonise the mind. The end result is an internalised attitude of ethnic, cultural or sexual inferiority in comparison to the coloniser. These views have become part of our concious and unconscious biases affecting every part of our everyday lives.

How does it affect the heritage sector?

There is a correlation between groups oppressed by colonisers and under-represented or erased groups within the heritage sector.

Two examples:

LGBTQ+ representation is under-utilised in the heritage sector. It is often overlooked in archival work and historical context. This is due to the need to write in code to hide sexual identities due to fear of persecution or ridicule, and the inability of archivists to identify the coded language used.

Previous to colonisation individuals had freedom of sexual identity and sexual expression.[1] Binary sexual identity and orientation did not exist. There were no legal constraints on these areas of life. When arriving, the colonisers, stripped and reassigned gender to indigenous genderfluid peoples,[2] outlawed homosexuality and made it punishable by death. Those who refused to live in a western binary “became targets of violent efforts to reconfigure Indigenous society in colonial and masculinist terms.”[3] Many colonised countries continue to follow these rules instilled by the colonisers.  

Colonisers dehumanised indigenous peoples by destroying their religious and cultural beliefs alongside disseminating fake news and stereotypes through racist images, writings and speeches. As a result artefacts from first peoples are limited and their culture and peoples are marginalised.

These limiting references are still used in present day archival and museum descriptions. For example, consider the way the west describes various belief systems: indigenous religions are often described as ‘myth’ but the term ‘religion’ is used when describing western dogma.

Other beliefs instilled into the indigenous peoples, included capitalism, colourism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia.

These forced ideologies were institutionalised through a classiest system and oppressive laws, many of which have been carried forward into the present day. In turn these systems result in unconscious biases and judgements which can bleed into what is chosen to exhibit, collect, conserve and how labels and descriptions are written.

Is it possible to decolonise the mind?

In Decolonising The Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature, Ngugi Wa Thiong’o explains that:

      Undoing the effects of colonialism and working toward decolonization requires each of us to consciously consider to what degree we have been affected by not only the physical aspects of colonization, but also the psychological, mental, and spiritual aspects.[4]

I would expand on this to include understanding the ways colonisation in which we hold privilege, due to colonisation. Once we are committed to achieving an authentic understanding this we must then learn by reading/watching/and listening (without talking) to the lives of those around us.

How do we reach all the minds?

All current and future heritage professionals work with the intent to preserve information for the future generations. In order to do this ethically we must ensure that all staff are trained within understanding the privilege they hold and the duty to gain a deeper understanding of any cultural knowledge gaps.

I believe that if this is added as course content and obligatory training for staff members, we can work towards breaking the mental restraints created by colonisers, and work together to decolonise the archive.  

Thank you for reading.

[1]  Marc Epprecht, (2008) Heterosexual Africa?: The History of an Idea from the Age of Exploration to the Age of AID

Stephen O. Murray, Will Roscoe, (1998) Boy-Wives and Female-Husbands: Studies in African Homosexualities: Studies of African Homosexualities

Scott Lauria Morgensen,(2011) Spaces Between Us: Queer Settler Colonialism and Indigenous Decolonization 

[2] Ibid 

[3] Ibid 

[4] Ngugi Wa Thiong’o (1986) Decolonising The Mind: The Politics of Language in African Literature

Published by Jass Thethi

I am a Library and Museum professional. I am passionate about fair representation and diversity arts and heritage. I created theconcept of Empowered Collaboration, which describes how to increase diversity by respectful coproduction with under-served groups. I discuss real life experiences of being a minority in arts and heritage and potential ways to diversify collections through my blog and twitter account. All views in this blog are my own and not that of my employer.

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