ICOM-ICME International Committee for Museums and Collections of Ethnography

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July 23, 2020

Black Lives Matter and Ethnographic Museums: A Statement from ICME Focus

The Black Lives Matter movement has swept around the world in recent months.  One of the important demands that has been voiced is that we all question structures and practices that reproduce power relationships that are rooted in histories of racism and colonialism that have resulted in structural discrimination and marginalized communities.  It is, therefore, important that a review of collections should take place in all ethnographic museums.  Similar reviews should take place in all other museums, such as those with a military, historical or natural history focus, that contain ethnographic collections.

ICME believes that ethnographic museums must also review their relationship with the communities that they claim to represent and the descendants of those whose cultural heritage they preserve.   The assumptions on which collections were constructed and organized need to be questioned.   Such reviews should be seen as an opportunity – an opportunity to dismantle structures that represent oppression and to `build back better’.

ICME believes that ethnographic museums, that represent the cultural heritage of diverse communities, need to take up the challenge to research the provenance of their collections.  Provenance research should not simply mean mapping a paper trail of collectors, but should start by considering the way in which artifacts were removed from communities.

ICME believes that ethnographic museums should work to build meaningful relationships, and show solidarity, with local and global communities that are subject to racial inequality and discrimination.

As Monique Scott, Director of Museum Studies at Bryn Mawr College argues: “Museum representations of Africa and anthropological representations of Black bodies matter, because Black lives matter. As long as Blackness is devalued and naturalized—whether in museums, in popular cultural, or on the streets of our cities, I have to think about where those ideas come from—how museums and anthropology helped construct that idea (these racial hierarchies with Blackness on the bottom) and how museums and anthropology can help deconstruct that idea”.[1]  We believe that museums have the capacity to challenge injustice and ignorance through their activities and exhibitions and should reflect on the most effective ways in which they can translate words into action.

[1] `Museums Matter in the Current Climate of Anti-Black Racism’, Anthropology News, 20th March, 2019.