This article is part of the Alice Comments series authored by the team of the alice-Epistemologies of the South research group, and of the series ECHOES Life Stories which is the result of a set of interviews realized between 2019 and 2020 with activists, academics and museum professionals engaged with the decolonization of cultural heritage in Lisbon and Rio de Janeiro. ECHOES Life Stories were produced in the context of the WP4 “Entangled cities” of the project ECHOES "European Colonial Heritage Modalities in Entangled Cities", that received funding from the European Union’s Horizon 2020 Research and Innovation Programme, under grant agreement Nº 770248.
ECHOES life story
Removal, reframing, resignifying and other symbolic and collective decolonial actions that have been happening recently, to cultural heritage placed at public spaces that originate from - or relate to - the colonial period in different parts of the world, have also been taking place in different forms and intensities during the past decades in museums. Questioning a pacified history and visibilising emerging counter-narratives allow us to embody an epistemic decolonisation, considered by Modest as a “museum detox”, which are essential actions in the heritage decoding processes for ethnology museums and their congeners, like the world culture museums.
The world in our hands. Intercultural activity of the Educational Department of the NME for scholars between 6-10 years old. Credits: Rosário Severo
In Portugal, one of the museums that welcomed research and exhibit objects coming from ex-colonies is the National Museum of Ethnology (NME). In order to gain a deeper understanding of the museum detoxification processes that have been slowly developing since the 2016 arrival of the Educational Department Coordinator, Rosário Severo, last January we decided to meet and talk with her about her life story.
Rosário is a petite brunette, with a deep look and constant smile. She is 60 years old and has worked in museums since 1985 as a cultural mediator. As a child, she emigrated with her family to France, where she was known as la petit portugaise. This chapter of her life, together with choosing a black husband to marry and having three children of African descent, turned her “engagée”, as she told us during our conversation. Since then she has actively fought against social discrimination, namely racism, and for the right to memory and heritage, or heritage citizenship as it is referred to by Lima Filho.
On museum mediation…
In its origins, around the 1960s, the concept of cultural mediation was linked to the idea of disseminating culture and heritage. When used in a cultural policies context, it embodied the concepts of access to and accessibility of cultural productions for society. Today, cultural mediation has evolved in a socially committed direction, so it now refers to the promotion of greater citizen participation in giving shape to processes that build connections between the cultural and social realms, allowing us to work in political, cultural and public spheres simultaneously. At the same time, when applied to a museum context, it receives the name of museum mediation and covers a broad spectrum of practices, ranging from audience development activities to participatory museology - such as community arts production or citizen´s curatorship - with the goal of making every person an active museological agent.
On Portuguese museums…
In the field of Portuguese museums, since the 1974 Carnation Revolution, the process of deconstructing the colonial image of a Salazarist nature has been slow and superficial. Indeed, museums whose educational services follow a museum mediation process in line with the values of theory and decolonial practice are rare. Thus, when Rosário arrived at the NME in 2016 aiming to develop a mediation focused on combating social discrimination and racism, based on intercultural education, she faced some difficulties due to the seeming irrelevance of the theme for Portuguese museology. Having already accumulated more than three decades of professional experience, marked by the commitment to act against social discrimination from museums, Rosário remained unfazed and determined.
Various collections from the former Portuguese colonies are located at the NME in the Restelo area - a significant geographical reference from the colonial era in Lisbon. Even to this day, a relevant part of such collections await in-depth investigation by museums like the NME, in order to overcome an object-centered and historically linear museography, which tends to be static in space and time, infusing views of a colonial nature into many of its narratives. As a consequence, museum narratives frequently feed prejudices of different kinds that are still deeply ingrained in Portuguese society, in the national education system, in the urban landscape, in the job market, etc.
That is why the NME Educational Service team has had, since 2016, a special dual mission: to fully democratise Portuguese society’s access to the museum and to democratise museum narratives. The first challenge is to embrace society as a whole, respecting individualities in the way we build and share narratives about exposed realities, and also in the way we use language in museum mediation. The second challenge is to give voice to silenced stories, so that society realises that history should be built from as many perspectives and places of speech as possible, reflecting the diversity of protagonists it has had, and that the truth is neither singular, nor unique - as is typical in the colonial perspective.
On Rosario’s experience…
For Rosário, cultural decolonisation begins with a slow process of changing mentalities, of discovering the self and the other in an unceasing search for respective biographical narratives. Cultural institutions such as museums and mediation tools such as intercultural education, undoubtedly constitute an effective way to decolonise minds: a phenomenon that configures, in essence, a problem of citizenship and representation.
The musealisation of tangible and intangible cultural assets, presents a set of opportunities for understanding, communication and intercultural education through leisure and cultural experiences. These opportunities are directly proportionate to the continuous process of decoding senses and meanings generated from different perspectives and views, along with the conscientious use of museographic practices, which can appropriately help to communicate the nature and the diversity of knowledge linked to the musealised realities.
Accustomed to these struggles against social invisibility, Rosario’s team faces various forms of social discrimination, which can manifest in everything from museum expography to visitor’s attitudes, at their daily place of work. Focused on a person-centred approach (PCA) to museology, they seek to know and recognise the experiences, perspectives, feelings and places of speech from the societies represented in the NME exhibitions. Simultaneously, they connect the musealised realities with today’s societies to value the roots and culture of each child, youth or adult who enters the museum. This connection contributes to the deep and conscious decoding of structural racism, characteristic of white privilege, in which most people often participate, even if passively, given its entrenchment in our society, behaviours and cultural codes.
On activist museology…
According to the principles of critical museum thinking and activist museology, museums like the NME are privileged places for decolonising museology and for deconstructing the colonial historical and scientific paradigm. They can put into debate the ideas of a crystallised colonialism by decoding each layer of meaning of the musealised objects, thus opening the way to the plurality of knowledge identified in the emerging counter-narratives and contributing to a wider understanding and respect for human and cultural diversity.
Meanwhile, in their daily activities Rosário and her team continue to receive visitors with colonial attitudes who ask, systematically, for “their collections of Africa”. These visitors impose their unique truths throughout the visit, thus feeding a grandiose political imagery that survives in their minds as guardians of the historical consensus. For Rosário, analysing the behaviours of these visitors is essential for the understanding of colonial grandeur and for the constant alignment of a collective deconstruction of this unique form of truth and heritage appropriation phenomenon.
The past and future find themselves united by a dynamic and creative relationship, which each generation must live and resolve, not only to understand the world around them, but also to position themselves consciously in their lives. Singular, sugar-coated and excluding narratives can hardly help us with this task. Museums, together with society, hold the power to turn hegemonic discourses into plural, decolonising and inclusive narratives.
Lorena Sancho Querol - Researcher and Activist in Sociomuseology. Centre for Social Studies, University of Coimbra.
Cristiano Gianolla - Researcher. Centre for Social Studies, University of Coimbra.
Giuseppina Raggi - Researcher. Centre for Social Studies, University of Coimbra.
Márcia Chuva - Professor. Federal University of the State of Rio de Janeiro, Brazil.