Within the last year, museums, particularly art museums, have undergone calls for change and reflection during political protests. While the two extremes of this argument are to either abolish museums or keep them the same, it’s critical to see the happy medium: instead of dying out, art museums must respond and transform for the better. To kickstart that change and important dialogue, museums must acknowledge colonial impacts, increase the representation of diverse artists and employees within museums, and discuss what imagery and messaging is okay to display. 

Restitution and Colonialism

Museums wrestled with the idea of restitution for years, but the Black Lives Matter movement’s call to decolonize museums was the most public and latest push for it. Restitution includes returning artworks that have been looted, displaced or forcibly taken back to their rightful individual owners, while repatriation includes returning artworks to their countries or cultures of origin. These processes are especially important for art museums as many major museum collections across the globe include thousands of objects that were stolen during colonial raids — UNESCO estimates that in Sub-Saharan Africa alone, 90% to 95% of cultural heritage objects were taken to and displayed in other continents. Colonialism has exerted a seismic impact on what art museums look like, display, and own around the world. 

Museums now, more than ever, must reckon with these demands to decolonize museums and prioritize restitution. It is long overdue for museums to face their histories of colonialism and misrepresentation, and it is hopeful to see necessary steps taken this year.

Restitution is a complicated process, however. This past year, Mexico’s First Lady sought the return of Moctezuma II’s famous Quetzal Feather Headdress in honor of the 500th anniversary of the end of his reign. The headdress is currently displayed in the Museum of Ethnology in Vienna, Austria, and the Austrians claim the transport to return the artifact would place the object at too great of a risk. Also this year, the French government passed a bill to return 27 colonial era artifacts to Benin and Senegal. Museum officials must work to foster critical discussions among themselves, placing restitution and repatriation at the forefront of their actions.

As Dr. Megan E. O’Neil, the faculty curator at the Michael C. Carlos Museum explains, Native American collections in art museums often have dark histories. The Carlos Museum’s commitment to ensure their collection is compliant with the Native American Graves Repatriation Act is admirable, and more museums should follow suit.

The Michael C. Carlos Museum. (The Emory Wheel/Hagar Elsayed)

Representation in Collections

Political protests in 2020 called for more representation as well — whether in the White House, Congress, STEM fields or in art museums. After George Floyd’s murder, the Guggenheim, Metropolitan Museum of Art, and New Orleans Museum of Art all made commitments to increase diverse art acquisitions from marginalized artists — and the onus is on us to hold them accountable. 

It is critical for art museums to conduct moral self-inventories and ultimately reflect on which works they decide to acquire for their collection, the perspectives they choose to represent and the visitors they prioritize. In the collections of major U.S museums, white artists created 85% of the artworks and men 87%. This lack of representation has spurred many employees and artists of color to speak out and demand better. George Morton, an Atlanta-born, talented artist known for his detailed and emotional paintings and drawings, and other artists have demanded fair representation for Black artists in the Met, the National Gallery, and beyond. 

Some artists took matters into their own hands this past year: Wendy Red Star, a multimedia artist and member of the Crow tribe, curated the fall issue of Aperture magazine to display a wide range of Indigenous artists, writers and photographers. For artists of color and women alike, 2020 proved to be a year of progress: Frank Bowling, a renowned abstract expressionist, became one of the few Black artists to be knighted by Queen Elizabeth II; in 2018, the Baltimore Museum of Art sold off artworks by famous white men, including artworks by Andy Warhol, to make room for 2020 works created only by women-identified artists. 

Curating a representative collection of artworks in a museum requires not only new acquisitions but also the removal of racist and colonialist exhibitions. A Paul Guston traveling exhibition that was planned to occur in 2020 generated controversy — his works feature Klu Klux Klan imagery to make a statement about white self-scrutiny and guilt. Guston explains that he perceives himself “as being behind the hood.” However, the National Gallery, Tate Modern, Museum of Fine Arts Houston and Museum of Fine Arts Boston have all postponed this exhibit until 2024 due to fears that this imagery could lead to misinterpretation. Here, it is vital to engage and listen to Black, Indigenous and people of color who raise concerns with artistic representations like Guston’s, engaging in these important dialogues.

While there isn’t one cookie-cutter solution, it cannot be as easy as abolishing all museums. Art museums can positively impact the world and represent diverse opinions, and museum officials must keep that goal in mind when making decisions concerning everything from acquisitions to hiring. We must also continually acknowledge the devastating impacts of colonialism through restitution.

This year has challenged our preconceived notions of art museums — and this realization is empowering. Let us see a bright future for museums, pushing them to be better and help to ensure they live up to their commitments.