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Are Museums and Archives Irredeemable Colonial Projects?

Auckland War Memorial Museum – Tāmaki Paenga Hira, Aotearoa New Zealand © Auckland War Memorial Museum

In Search of Power and Resistance in the Archive. Nina Finigan questions what institutions remember, what they forget, and what this means for the work they do and for society

Abstract: Power is at the centre of archival work: it is the power to retain, the power to discard, the power to partially shape what is remembered and how. Widespread reflection and examination of this from within the sector is well overdue. Through theoretical discussion melded with practical curatorial case studies, this essay explores the various historic and contemporary ways archives (and museums) create, perpetuate and reinforce forms of hegemonic power. Once these forms of power have been identified, what next? Taking the premise that ‘power identified is power that can be challenged,’ this discussion will explore ways to enact resistance, specifically by searching for and centring the body in archival collections. Far from static, bodies retain their agency even from within the ‘neutral’ archival space. How do they do this? And how does seeking such resistance offer opportunities to challenge hegemonic power?

Author: Nina Finigan is Curator Manuscripts at Auckland Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira in Aotearoa New Zealand. Nina is interested in concepts around identity, memory and representation, and understanding museums/archives as politically charged sites of power and resistance. Nina believes that exploring how divergent forms of power are created, reinforced and potentially dismantled within institutions is essential for museums to understand their identities and potential roles in the contemporary world.


I will start this essay with a question that has preoccupied me for some time now: are museums and archives irredeemable colonial projects?

A heavy question. A question that may sound hyperbolic for those who still believe that museums and archives are neutral spaces. But nonetheless a question I believe is an essential one for those of us who work in these spaces which have their roots in colonisation. In Aotearoa New Zealand it is an especially crucial question for Pākehā(1) curators like myself to initiate dialogue about museums and archives, their histories, how they function in the contemporary world and our place in this context. At the root of of this question is reflection: self, institutional and structural. This question pushes us to turn the lens inward, shifting the focus of critical interrogation onto our GLAM organisations themselves and forcing us to ask: what do institutions remember? What do they forget? What does this mean for the work we do on a daily basis and in our broader societal context? And importantly, how do we seek resistance?

Archives are not simple places. They are not quiet places. They are loud. An archival storeroom echoes with the voices and histories of thousands — not just those who have been collected but also those who have done the collecting. Not one voice, but many. These are not neutral voices and this is not a neutral history. It is a history defined by collecting, organising, classifying, displaying and interpreting the world according to Eurocentric understandings of value and power. Museums and archives around the world have been formed in this image meaning that their collections are not ‘reflections’ of society as we sometimes like to purport. Rather they are filled with gaps and silences — the histories and experiences of so many simply not there or interpreted and filtered through a hegemonic, colonial lens.

“We must fully embrace that museums and archives are not benign, detached, neutral spaces but politically loaded sites”

This legacy often goes unquestioned within the sector partly due to a stubborn belief in organisational neutrality, particularly by those whose identities and lived experiences conform to that which the museum/archive and the world around them deem to be neutral. This is why the word ‘project’ in the opening question is so important — it hints at the perpetuation of this construct. While in theory many feel comfortable engaging with complex or ‘difficult’ histories this does not necessarily mean that they are comfortable grappling with the ramifications of that history in the contemporary world, especially if it means practicing self-reflection. Even having the option of looking away from this is a condition of privilege. We, and I am speaking to fellow Pākehā, must begin to fully embrace that museums and archives are not benign, detached, neutral spaces but politically loaded sites that carry with them not only the material and documentary remnants of the past but also the contexts that birthed them and the modern museum.

Indeed, this legacy is built into the DNA of our GLAM spaces. Important, tireless work has been done to dispel this notion of neutrality, particularly by Indigenous museum practitioners and scholars who have interrogated these spaces and identified them as sites of colonial power which reach through the generations. The work of Māori(2) scholars like Linda Tuhiwai Smith has been crucial in helping reframe these institutions as critical sites in colonial ‘regimes of truth’.(3) This work is ongoing with a strong move now away from ‘decolonisation’ to ‘indigenising’ museums/archives — providing space for Indigenous sovereignty and self-determination.(4) My goal with the opening question is to provide a point from which Pākehā curators like me might find pathways to deconstruct the colonial museum without imposing on (recolonising) the hard-fought for space that Indigenous museum practitioners have created/are creating. Rather than relying on our Indigenous colleagues to hold our hands through this, we must look for ways to deconstruct these legacies by identifying and actively using methodologies that enable us to interrogate the complexities which underpin our daily work.

Identifying Power: Intersectionality in the Archive
Museums and archives are comprised of many layers — many intersecting peoples, histories, voices and identities, past and present. The voices that are missing from these contexts are there too and their silence is becoming increasingly profound. These all existing in a swirl of what we choose to remember and how, something Samoan New Zealand writer Maualaivao Albert Wendt has referred to as the tightrope: “We are what we remember, the self is a trick of memory . . . history is the remembered tightrope that stretches across the abyss of all that we have forgotten.” How might we understand the intersection of the tightrope and the abyss within the archival context? I posit that intersectionality may hold an answer.

Explicated by African American academic Kimberlie Crenshaw in 1989, intersectionality is a critical framework which recognises the interconnection of social categories such as race, class, and gender as they apply to an individual or group. To illustrate the fluidity of this paradigm, Crenshaw uses the metaphor of a traffic intersection:

Discrimination, like traffic through an intersection, may flow in one direction, and it may flow in another. If an accident happens in an intersection, it can be caused by cars traveling from any number of directions and, sometimes, from all of them.(5)

Intersectionality critiques the ‘single axis framework’ through which modes of oppression are often discussed.(6) Within this framework, oppression is viewed through either a lens of gender or race, not allowing room for multiple identities to intersect within one individual. Crenshaw’s argument was that both feminist and anti-racist movements diminished the experience of Black women who encounter both gendered and race-based discrimination. It is within this notion of ‘the intersect’ and the resulting analysis of power and oppression where I believe intersectionality could be helpful in an archival context. Objects, including archival objects, implicitly reject ‘single-axis’ readings:

Objects speak the language of primary processes. They are analogous [sic]. Like dreams they do not know the word “not”. Objects say “also” rather than “not”. Like dreams they heap images on top of each other. They say “both/and”. These multitudes of images may contradict each other and the sum total may be paradoxical. But objects do not carry negation…(7)

Employing an intersectional framework encourages us to understand museums, archives and their collections as sites where multiple identities intersect. It allows us to conceptualize the archive as an identity in itself, encouraging us to think of these spaces as dynamic forces with the capacity to both create and deconstruct power. This framework inherently rejects the default apolitical status ascribed to archives and instead reimagines them as complex identities in their own right, allowing us to reconsider them not as passive repositories but as active participants in the ‘real world.’

“Power recognised becomes power that can be questioned, made accountable and open to transparent dialogue and enriched understanding”

Intersectionality places power at the centre of analysis and encourages its examination on all levels, from all directions — a level of interrogation which must occur in archives. It understands identity as shifting and complex — meaning different things at different times and often simultaneously. Immersed as we are in sites of historic enquiry, archival/museum practitioners are well versed in understanding the significance of context: it is how we build collections, how we put exhibitions together and how we build narratives around our collections. And yet there is a reticence to examine deep institutional context and how it continues to impact our work in the present day. Perhaps there is a feeling that to do so would undermine the perceived authority of our institutions. To which I would ask — whose authority? The same constructs of power and exclusion also lie at the root of the assumption of a benign, default authority. These layers must be peeled back and made explicit.

However, understanding power to be everywhere and to be a primary shaping agent in our lives and work does not negate the possibility of resistance. While framed negatively, the question that opened this article is not intended to render us hopeless; rather it provides a point of departure for further examination of power, particularly in the archival context which needs significant critical examination from within the field. As archival scholars Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook have said: “When power is denied, overlooked, or unchallenged, it is misleading at best and dangerous at worst. Power recognised becomes power that can be questioned, made accountable and open to transparent dialogue and enriched understanding.”(8) So how do we begin to challenge power from within the archive?

Centering the Body: Power and Resistance in the Archive

“Far from serving as passive slates on which the past has written, bodies have consistently been agents in their encounters with history.”(9)

Archival collections are dynamic; they are active; they existed before they became part of the ‘collected’ and they retain their agency despite their suspended reality. Part of that ‘irredeemable colonial project’ is to view them as static, removed and existing only for the sake of us to find them. This project has decided that history is and should be quiet and that we too must be quiet when we are in the presence of history. However, the voices that call out from archives, from all museum collections, resist this silence and it is our job to draw them out. Intersectional theory provides a lens through which to examine the complex identities that exist within archival collections and a way to seek resistance.

One way to do this is by locating the body in archival collections. As a fundamental site of power and resistance on both macro and micro levels, bodies inherently resist simplification. They are sites upon which both control is exerted and through which resistance is performed. It is through bodies that we experience the world but archival contexts push against this — their perceived neutrality seemingly stripping the tangible embodied experience from both the individual and the collective within the collection. Work that recenters the body is concerned with railing against this perceived passivity and instead placing action and agency at the centre of archives. To do so resists hegemonic, reductive readings of history and enables us to surface previously silenced voices.

“Intersectional theory provides a lens through which to examine the complex identities that exist within archival collections and a way to seek resistance”

And yet the body and bodily experience are largely missing from our readings of archival collections. Is it that these experiences simply are not there? Or is it that historically, concern for the body has itself been gendered? Political theorist Iris Marion Young outlined this very concern when she wrote:

It is most natural that feminist concerns should have led scholars to uncover and challenge tendencies of Western philosophical and socio-theoretical traditions to ignore or repress the significance of embodiment for thought, action and feeling. Because much feminist reflections begin from the socio historical fact that women’s bodily differences from men have grounded or served as excuses for structural inequalities, inquiry about the status and malleability of bodies in relation to social status is for us a matter of some urgency.(10)

In more recent decades there has been a bodily turn in scholarship and a move toward understanding it as a critical site of power and agency in the historic encounter. The work of scholars like historian and academic Tony Ballantyne has been essential in my own understanding of the centrality of the body in reading historic encounters and resisting hegemonic narratives. In an archival context this reading foregrounds intimate, embodied experiences in order to disrupt hierarchical notions of value and to question, as feminist theorist Judith Butler, has posited, “whose bodies matter.”

Bad Blood: Challenging Power From Within
Women’s bodies in particular have been a locus of political, cultural and religious control and anxiety. Historically women’s bodies have been read as occupying simultaneously oppositional meanings: moral/amoral; dirty/pure; hypersexual/virginal. Māori scholar Ngāhuia Murphy writes of these dichotomies in the opening pages to her work on menstruation, Indigenous knowledge systems and colonisation:

Feminist theorists focusing on the body are engaged in troubling the sexist and racists dualisms that underpin Western systems of knowledge…Dualisms, purported as neutral and natural categories, are far from it. Rather they maintain politics of power and control, dominance and subordination.

For Murphy, locating pre-colonisation wahine Māori(11) experience/knowledge systems around menstruation is a crucial act of resistance in the struggle to dismantle colonial constructs of knowledge. I too believe that finding the body, particularly what has been perceived as the ‘unruly’ body, in archival collections is an essential step in the process of deconstructing and finding resistance from within the colonial framework of our archives.

There are many of these inherited dualisms in the archival space like those mentioned above. In the museum in which I work (Auckland War Memorial Museum Tāmaki Paenga Hira), part museum and part war memorial, there is one such dualism around acceptable and unacceptable forms of blood. The presence of blood spilled through conflict and on battlefields is ubiquitous in such a space through words, images and objects; its presence is universally accepted despite the deeply complex circumstances which surround it. And yet menstrual blood remains a site of discomfort. Why does this blood make us more uncomfortable than the blood associated with war and conflict? This dualism exists in a complex power dynamic: blood spilled through conflict is active, public, associated with heroism and masculinity. Menstrual blood is not. As Murphy implores this delineation is not neutral but rather part of the historic silencing of women’s experiences and of situating women’s bodies as ‘other.’

“Hidden and unspoken things are part and parcel of the archival landscape. Part of my role as a curator is to look to these moments of silence, provide a counter narrative and at the same time ask – why is this necessary?”

Looking to the collection I work with, finding menstruation is difficult. As oral historian Carla Pascoe Leahy has asserted, “silence shrouds the history of menstruation.”(12) It is even more difficult locating this experience from an actual woman’s perspective with most representation coming in the form of advertisements in women’s magazines pushing pills or tonics to help remedy ‘weak blood’ or shot nerves. Illustrations of pale and incapacitated women look out from the pages of these magazines. For all of their fragility though, the women in these images are tidy, clean – their ‘shame’ alluded to but hidden and unspoken. As historians Barbara Brookes and Margaret Tennant wrote on the subject of menstruation and advertising, “the lived body keeps subverting the ideal of femininity” that is still presented to us via popular discourse.(13)

Hidden and unspoken things are part and parcel of the archival landscape. Part of my role as a curator is to look to these moments of silence, provide a counter narrative and at the same time ask – why is this necessary? What circumstances both within and outside the archival context has made it so we must actively counter this narrative? What historical, ideological trajectory must we interrogate to understand our present? This is what increasingly is being called ‘activist’ curatorial practice. In her recent book Curatorial Activism: Towards an Ethics of Curating, Maura Reilly lays out the simple premise of this as “a practice that commits itself to counter-hegemonic initiatives that give voice to those who have been historically silenced or omitted altogether.”(14) While speaking specifically about art curation, Reilly’s premise echoes the same concern that has been identified across the GLAM sector regarding the fact that a predominant and hegemonic “white Western male viewpoint…has been unconsciously accepted as the prevailing viewpoint…” or the default authority. Acknowledging this is an essential part of enacting intersectional methodology — that this construct has been and continues to be a core part of the identity of the modern museum/archive.

One way to counter this is to give agency to lived experiences which challenge this viewpoint, either by ‘reading between the lines of history’ in existing collections or by engaging in thoughtful contemporary collecting. Earlier this year I collected material from The Period Place, a social enterprise campaigning to open up conversations around period stigma, the environmental impact of mainstream sanitary products, and period poverty. The material related to a pop-up store The Period Place opened during First Thursday, a regular community centered arts and culture event held in central Auckland twice a year. The enterprise defined the objectives of the pop-up as providing:

• a safe space in the community for people of all genders, identities, ages, cultures and sexes to come and learn about periods, talk about them openly – in a public setting, ask questions and share their personal experiences

• information about ethical, environmental and healthy period products (disposable, reusable/washable and make your own)

• a platform for the stories of people in Aotearoa who have experienced period poverty, and give attendees the chance to experience what it’s like through an interactive activation.(15)

The material collected was ephemeral — items whose very value lies in the fact that they were not necessarily designed to last let alone be acquired into a museum collection. Ephemera is also often the medium of protest. Given this it is no surprise that ephemera collections are often rich in the voices of those not represented elsewhere in museum collections — Auckland Museum is no exception here.

The collection consists of illustrations by Renee Jacobi, written provocations, and Post-It Notes on which visitors who attended wrote their thoughts on menstruation and what it meant to experience such open dialogue on such a taboo subject in a public space.

This small collection adds to the narrative of ‘the protesting body’ — the body not just as the carrier of the protest but also the subject. All bodies are political; however, in this context the body is complicated by that politicisation being made overt and unavoidable. In particular, the handwritten post-it notes reflect an assertion of agency in the public space. One responder writes, “I spend $16 a month on pain relief – wonder what women who can’t afford products let alone pain relief do? I couldn’t function without it,”. Another wrote that they are working on not feeling “period shame.” Here the simultaneously public and private body subverts the expected by refusing to adhere to the political, cultural and societal norms/confines of appropriate femininity. It pushes against the perceived vulnerability of the menstruating female body and becomes a site of resistance and reclamation of bodily autonomy in the public space. Now part of a permanent collection it works to disarm what Murphy called the “politics of power and control” within the archival space, providing a moment of rupture and reflection while simultaneously hinting at the absence of similar narratives elsewhere. And so the function of this collection within the archive reflects that of The Period Place in the outside world. Within each of these contexts they make explicit how historic and contemporary forms of social, cultural and political othering intersect to render the female body as a site of both power and resistance.

To come back to the opening question — are museums/archives irredeemable colonial projects? Maybe. Probably. But I do not believe that considering this question to be a real possibility means abandoning them. It means quite the opposite; it means we work harder to question the default narratives we have inherited and perhaps unwittingly perpetuate; it means we challenge power.

“We should not stop striving for what can only come through critical reflection, rejecting neutrality and interrogating the divergent ways archives create and resist power”

There is no end state for museums and archives; they are and will continue to be works in progress, as those of us who work within them strive for new understandings, new frameworks, new ways to talk about ourselves, our histories and the world around us. We may never ‘arrive’ at this destination. But we should not stop striving for what can only come through critical reflection, rejecting neutrality and interrogating the divergent ways archives create and resist power. By centering the body, and specifically the female body, I have illustrated how resistance can function within this space by seeking agency — both the agency of ourselves as practitioners, by embracing ideas like curatorial activism, and the agency found within collections. Searching for menstruation, as Ngahuia Murphy has shown, opens space to interrogate colonial constructs and the inherited dualisms of Western ideological tradition on which so many of our archives are based. These are disruptive forces which bring to light the complexities of the contemporary archival space and its intersection with its many histories. Questions like the one that opened this article force us to live in this state of discomfort, change and uncertainty by grounding us in our pasts and thus enabling us to imagine new futures.

Nina Finigan
Curator Manuscripts, Auckland War Memorial Museum – Tāmaki Paenga Hira, Aotearoa New Zealand


1. A term used to describe New Zealanders of European descent
2. Indigenous people of Aotearoa New Zealand
3. Linda Tuhiwai Smith, Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples (London and New York: Zed Books; Dunedin: Otago University Press, 1999), p.58.
4. For more on this see Puawai Cairns, ‘Decolonisation: We aren’t going to save you,’ American Alliance of Museums
5. Kimberle Crenshaw, ‘Demarginalizing the Intersection of Race and Sex: A Black Feminist Critique of Antidiscrimination Doctrine, Feminist Theory and Antiracist Politics’, University of Chicago Legal Forum, (1989), p.149.
6. Ibid., p.140
7. Jette Sandahl, ‘Proper Objects among Other Things’, Nordisk Museologi: The Journal of Nordic Museology, 2 (1995), p. 102
8. Joan M. Schwartz and Terry Cook, ‘Archives, Records, and Power: The Making of Modern Memory,’ Archival Science, 2 (2002), p. 2.
9. Tony Ballantyne and Antoinette Burton, ‘Postscript: Bodies, Genders, Empires: Reimagining World Histories,’ in Bodies in Contact: Rethinking Colonial Encounters in World History, (Duke University Press Durham and London, 2005), p. 407
10. Iris Marion Young, ‘Introduction,’ On Female Body Experience: “Throwing Like a Girl” and other essays, (Oxford University Press, 2004), p. 4
11. (noun) Te Reo Māori (Māori language). woman, female, lady, wife
12. Carla Pascoe Leahy. “Silence and the History of Menstruation.” Oral History Association of Australia Journal (2007): n. pag. Print.
13. Barbara Brookes and Margaret Tennant, “Making Girls Modern: Pakeha women and menstruation in New Zealand, 1930-70,” in Women’s History Review, (1998), p. 578.
14. Maura Reilly, ‘What is Curatorial Activism,’ Art News, (retrieved 30 May 2019)
15. The Period Place, ‘The Period Place at First Thursday,’ (retrieved 30 May 2019).


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