Museums are spatial media in which messages are conveyed to the visitors through various modes of communication. They are also sites of tension, negotiation, and sometimes contestation among the stakeholders. In every spatial element and curatorial practice, societal ideologies and the complex consequences of history are intertwined. Analysing museums as media, and thereby examining how museums mediate time and space, enables us to integrate micro (communication on site) and macro (social, cultural, and political context) perspectives in defining what museums are.
At IIAS, I will be investigating the process of decolonising museums as part of my research. While the issue of colonial objects in museums had been discussed mainly in the field of anthropology, recent calls for decolonisation, amplified by the social media, have mobilised museums to a different stage; through ‘responding’ to these calls, they are driven to conduct their activities with a constant awareness towards the broader society outside the museum walls. They are required to make practical changes to their conduct, and question their museal consciousness itself.
My project at IIAS has two main objectives: first, to investigate and identify the aforementioned process of decolonisation in museums, and second, to examine its effect on the collections and representations of Japanese and other Asian cultures in Dutch as well as other European museums.
Despite the recent ‘trends’ of museums addressing the issue of decolonisation, and evaluating themselves from this perspective, decolonisation of museums is a highly sensitive task, as not only the objects and collections, but the museums themselves are originally colonial institutions. At the same time, curatorial practices such as modifying narratives and displays, without a thorough discussion and careful judgement, may risk erasing the past or rewriting history.
Furthermore, while major projects to decolonise museums have focused on issues of slavery and the persecution of indigenous people, decolonisation does not only concern colonialism; in a broader sense, it deals with de-centring the Eurocentric view and deconstructing issues of gender, ethnicity, and othering. The deconstruction of the Orientalist gaze, which is deeply embedded and represented in the management and curation of objects from Japan, Indonesia, and other Asian countries, is part of the challenge that the Dutch museums face in this process.
From the 17th century, there were regular and intimate exchanges between the Netherlands and Japan, even during the isolationist period (“Sakoku”), and knowledge from the Netherlands formed the basis of modern Japanese intellectual history. This connection can be observed in the collections and knowledge archived in Japanese museums. At the same time, the Dutch and European museums that house and exhibit Japanese collections and artefacts have shaped the image of Japan. One of my objectives is to examine how recent calls for decolonisation affect the way in which they are represented.
My 10 months’ stay in the Netherlands would be devoted to researching and visiting museums, participating in museum activities, interviewing staff where possible, and finding pertinent material in museums and libraries. I am also keen to discuss and exchange ideas on the relationship between the Netherlands and Asia with the people I meet here, as the perspective of “museums as media” can be attained only by going in and out of the museal field.