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Museum Ideas 2020 Book Recommendations

The Whole Picture: The Colonial Story of the Art in Our Museums & Why We Need to Talk About It
by Alice Procter @aaprocter

Should museums be made to give back their marbles? Is it even possible to ‘decolonize’ our galleries? Must Rhodes fall?

How to deal with the colonial history of art in museums and monuments in the public realm is a thorny issue that we are only just beginning to address. Alice Procter, creator of the Uncomfortable Art Tours, provides a manual for deconstructing everything you thought you knew about art history and tells the stories that have been left out of the canon.

The book is divided into four chronological sections, named after four different kinds of art space: The Palace, The Classroom, The Memorial and The Playground. Each section tackles the fascinating, enlightening and often shocking stories of a selection of art pieces, including the propaganda painting the East India Company used to justify its rule in India; the tattooed Maori skulls collected as ‘art objects’ by Europeans; and works by contemporary artists who are taking on colonial history in their work and activism today.

The Whole Picture is a much-needed provocation to look more critically at the accepted narratives about art, and rethink and disrupt the way we interact with the museums and galleries that display it.

‘Probing, jargon-free and written with the pace of a detective story… [Procter] dissects western museum culture with such forensic fury that it might be difficult for the reader ever to view those institutions in the same way again.’ Financial Times

‘A smart, accessible and brilliantly structured work that encourages readers to go beyond the grand architecture of cultural institutions and see the problematic colonial histories behind them.’ – Sumaya Kassim

The Brutish Museums: The Benin Bronzes, Colonial Violence and Cultural Restitution 
Dan Hicks, Professor of Contemporary Archaeology, University of Oxford; Curator, Pitt Rivers Museum; Fellow, St Cross College, Oxford @profdanhicks

Walk into any European museum today and you will see the curated spoils of Empire. They sit behind plate glass: dignified, tastefully lit. Accompanying pieces of card offer a name, date and place of origin. They do not mention that the objects are all stolen.

Few artefacts embody this history of rapacious and extractive colonialism better than the Benin Bronzes – a collection of thousands of metal plaques and sculptures depicting the history of the Royal Court of the Obas of Benin City, Nigeria. Pillaged during a British naval attack in 1897, the loot was passed on to Queen Victoria, the British Museum and countless private collections.

The story of the Benin Bronzes sits at the heart of a heated debate about cultural restitution, repatriation and the decolonisation of museums. In The Brutish Museum, Dan Hicks makes a powerful case for the urgent return of such objects, as part of a wider project of addressing the outstanding debt of colonialism.

‘An epiphanic book for many generations to come’ — Victor Ehikhamenor, visual artist and writer

‘Unflinching, elegantly written and passionately argued, this is a call to action’ – — Benedicte Savoy, Professor of Art History at Technische University

‘In his passionate, personal, and, yes, political account, Dan Hicks transforms our understanding of the looting of Benin. This book shows why being against violence now more than ever means repatriating stolen royal and sacred objects and restoring stolen memories’ — Nicholas Mirzoeff, Professor in the Department of Media, Culture and Communication at New York University

‘A startling act of conscience. An important book which could overturn what people have felt about British history, empire, civilisation, Africa, and African art. It is with books like this that cultures are saved, by beginning truthfully to face the suppressed and brutal past. It has fired a powerful shot into the debate about cultural restitution. You will never see many European museums in the same way again. Books like this give one hope that a new future is possible.’ — Ben Okri, poet and writer

Museum Activism
Edited by Robert R. Janes, Visiting Fellow at the School of Museum Studies, University of Leicester, UK, Editor-in-Chief Emeritus of Museum Management and Curatorship, and the founder of the Coalition of Museums for Climate Justice; and Richard Sandell, Professor of Museum Studies at the University of Leicester, UK @RSMuseumStudies

Only a decade ago, the notion that museums, galleries and heritage organisations might engage in activist practice, with explicit intent to act upon inequalities, injustices and environmental crises, was met with scepticism and often derision. Seeking to purposefully bring about social change was viewed by many within and beyond the museum community as inappropriately political and antithetical to fundamental professional values. Today, although the idea remains controversial, the way we think about the roles and responsibilities of museums as knowledge based, social institutions is changing. Museum Activism examines the increasing significance of this activist trend in thinking and practice.

At this crucial time in the evolution of museum thinking and practice, this ground-breaking volume brings together more than fifty contributors working across six continents to explore, analyse and critically reflect upon the museum’s relationship to activism. Including contributions from practitioners, artists, activists and researchers, this wide-ranging examination of new and divergent expressions of the inherent power of museums as forces for good, and as activists in civil society, aims to encourage further experimentation and enrich the debate in this nascent and uncertain field of museum practice.

Museum Activism elucidates the largely untapped potential for museums as key intellectual and civic resources to address inequalities, injustice and environmental challenges. This makes the book essential reading for scholars and students of museum and heritage studies, gallery studies, arts and heritage management, and politics. It will be a source of inspiration to museum practitioners and museum leaders around the globe.

‘Museums have woken from their slumber. Here is a clarion call to leave behind the “immorality of inaction” and confront a troubled world, a threatened planet, and threats to cultural diversity, equality and justice. This volume documents the extraordinary range of ways in which museum activism, as an integral and necessary part of contemporary museum practice, is at work in the 21st century. Janes and Sandell marshal an impressive line-up of authors across the globe who are using the “civic resource” of the museum to bring about environmental, social and political change. The book is a handbook for this urgent task. Read it and join the struggle!’ – Conal McCarthy, Victoria University of Wellington, New Zealand

‘Are museums shrines to the past, hubs of engagement for the present, or shapers of the future? Assembling dozens of contributions by leading and new voices in museum studies, Museum Activism targets the core values and principles guiding museum practice today with the aim of transforming the way we think about the social role of museums. This book offers a deep reflection on the limits and potential for museum activism at a time of deepening economic inequality and environmental collapse, a bold call for action for the international museum community, and a field guide to museum activism in practice. Slaying the zombie myth of institutional neutrality that excuses institutional complacency and inaction, it argues for a vision of the museum as an ally and agent of change. Activists around the world are calling on museums to leverage their cultural power to help shape the future for the common good. This book is an insider’s guide to making it happen.’ – Beka Economopoulos, Founding Director of The Natural History Museum, USA, a traveling museum and museum transformation project

‘Janes and Sandell have assembled a powerful volume of essays that encourages museums to transform themselves  from precious vaults into active agents of social justice. Museum Activism is a collective call for museums to become more mindful, moral, and courageous places of conscience. These timely essays challenge museums to become more aware of the toxic legacies and current devastation of colonialism, imperialism, xenophobia, homophobia, racism and sexism and to become unafraid in “addressing the big problems and the big questions” that confront us globally. This publication provides a needed wake-up call, a radical re-imagining of museums and a range of practical strategies for action!’ – Jennifer Scott, Director & Chief Curator of Jane Addams Hull-House Museum, University of Illinois at Chicago, USA

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