Curating Decolonisation: Museums in Britain, 1945-1980

Project Details


This project presents a nation-wide and transnational view of British museums between 1945 and 1980 and their art and artefacts from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas. While mid-century museum collections of ‘ethnography’ or ‘primitive art’ are often imagined as ‘scenes of neglect’, Curating Decolonisation reveals the myriad of changing professional practices that shaped the period, and analyses interactions between museums and the national and global political process of decolonisation.

It argues for the role of museums as active agents in wider cultural and political developments, connecting museum micro-histories with the macro-histories of political change. Several research articles and a major forthcoming book shed new light on the foundations of contemporary museum practice, and in doing so reframe our understanding of the potential that all art institutions have to engage with political and social agendas today.

Key findings

Curating Decolonisation is grounded in extensive archival research in a broad range of national, provincial and university museums across the UK, and features the personal perspectives and memories of leading museum anthropologists captured through a series of original oral history interviews specially conducted for this project. For the first time, this breadth of material demonstrates that museums went through dramatic changes in professional practice at the time of the mid-century. It shows how work with anthropology collections foreshadowed ‘postcolonial’ museum activities after 1980, and engaged with the wide-ranging global political shifts of the period.

In the current ‘decolonising’ moment, when Western museums with collections from Africa, Asia, Oceania and the Americas are under intense scrutiny and pressure to engage with social change, this project strongly supports that engagement, and highlights the pervasive imperial and neo-imperial nature of museums in the mid-century period. It also offers possible routes to a more equitable future. Yet Curating Decolonisation also makes a claim for a historically informed debate which takes into account the complexity of a post-war practice which did not always fall into binary divisions of coloniser/colonised. It was shaped by the actions of many scholars, curators, collectors and politicians across the globe, and even provided space for radical resistance against imperial frameworks.
Effective start/end date1/09/1730/08/18


  • Paul Mellon Centre


  • museums
  • decolonisation
  • anthropology


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