Decolonisation is a term we hear a lot and it can be misleading, misused and overused. 

If we think about the word decolonisation, we perhaps think about the British Empire, and those places and countries we colonised finally becoming independent and free from our rule. Decolonisation in this sense is the withdrawal of people and power by the colonial power, from those places it has invaded and colonised. But decolonisation is not just historical, and not just physical. 

So how do we translate these bodily and geographical actions into conceptual thinking of decolonisation? How do we decolonise a museum, or a curriculum? It is not a quick project, with an end point, to decolonise a museum, for example, through a few additions in programming or the highlighting of a few objects. Decolonising is an ongoing process. 

Keele University’s Decolonising the Curriculum Network have an excellent and really helpful manifesto on decolonisation which you can access here. A point to highlight from their careful and rigorous work is as follows:

'Decolonisation not only refers to the complete removal of the domination of external  forces within a geographical space, but it also refers to decolonisation of the mind from  the colonisers' ideas – ideas that made the colonised seem inferior.' 

So decolonisation is a mindset. It’s about shifting the power structures and narratives that shape hierachies of knowledge and how we understand the world.  Decolonisation involves identifying colonial systems, structures and relationships, and working to challenge those systems. It’s about making space for other systems and thinking and stories and knowledge.  

A very close friend asked me recently about the term decolonisation and said: ‘Isn’t it just deleting history? Taking stories away?’ In fact decolonising something is adding to it. Adding knowledge and learning and experience. There’s a great art historian called Jenny Tennant Jackson and she talks about unfolding art’s histories, and I think it’s a great way to think through the act of decolonising. If we imagine history as a kind of concertina. So we have this kind of linear history as we know it, with all the hierarchies and power structures and knowledges which that line produces, with the stories we tell and retell as the centre of knowledge or power or importance. But just as active and relevant and important are all these stories and knowledge in the folds, folded out of sight by the dominant narratives. I think it’s helpful to think of decolonising like that; unfolding the concertina of knowledge to make space for more learning and stories that can help disrupt the imbalance of power structures and shift our understandig of the world.

 Dr Ella S. Mills

Modernisms Module Leader & Associate Lecturer, Art History

6 Portland Villas, University of Plymouth, Plymouth PL4 8AA

Creative Director: talking on corners

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