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Seated Man in a Landscape by Richmond Barthé, c. 1950–58, Belton House, Lincolnshire, National

Decolonisation in museums and galleries, recognises and acknowledges the histories of people
without whom our art and historical collections, would not exist. It seeks to bring to the fore
the stories of those who have been erased or whose history has been appropriated and allows
other narratives to be spoken loudly and proudly. Within the heritage and art sector in the UK,
there has been a rapid growth in schemes to decolonise collections and to turn the curatorial
process on its head. There is a focus on how organisations store, display and write about
objects in their care, sometimes even deaccessioning and returning objects. Institutions of all
sizes are rapidly moving away from what historian Tanya Holding names “west and the rest”
framing. Whilst staff in the cultural sector have quietly been working towards change for many
years it can be a hard battle to win over some of the more conservative trustees, directors and
members who want to preserve the idea of the curator’s voice as authoritative.
The National Trust’s recent work towards decolonising their collections acknowledges the role
colonialism and slavery has had in shaping the buildings, gardens and objects under its care. It
does not look to erase colonialism but to examine these links and to dismantle out of date
world views. When the cultural behemoths recognise the importance of taking a hard stand on
these issues, this enables smaller organisations to do the same. Cultural theorist Olivier Barlet,
explains that ‘colonialism has been a dispossession of space, a deprivation of identity’ and so by
decolonising our institutions, we work towards cultural freedom for all people

Recently, a growth in diverse exhibitions has seen more black artists celebrated and displayed in the major art galleries around the UK. Better representation directly contributes to
decolonisation as it breaks down the tradition of European conventions as the measure of talent and quality. Tate Britain’s recent showcase of the work of Lynette Yiadom-Boakye explores notions of identity and stereotypes, whilst contributing to a
growing challenge to change the portrayal of black people within figurative painting. Works such as Yiadom-Boakye’s address the art world’s preference for traditionally white, western beauty standards. Confronting this preference is an integral part of decolonising the art world, and places intrinsic value on work that has previously been overlooked.
Similarly, The William Morris Gallery’s 2022 exhibition of the work of Althea McNish explores the long lasting and pioneering impact the textile artist had on British textile design.
Retrospectives do contribute to change, but projects such as UAL’s Decolonising Arts Institute’s 20/20 scheme goes deeper into addressing the imbalance within the emerging artist field by funding 20 placements of emerging artists of colour in 20 public art collections, culminating in permanent acquisitions of their work to the collections. Involvement and growth of meaningful
partnerships with audiences, practitioners and sponsors can bolster the efforts of curators
when working towards changing the narrative of collections.

BLOG Helen Woollison - Decolonising our cultural spaces (2)2

 Lynette Yiadom Boakye The Cream and the Taste, 2013

There have been calls to diversify the art history canon in many texts since the 1980s, and by drawing from the rich literature of postcolonial, feminist, and queer theory we can develop a new, intersectional art history that reevaluates the traditional Western standards that have
dominated our galleries and curriculums for far too long.

BLOG Helen Woollison - Decolonising our cultural spaces (2)3

Trinidad, furnishing fabric, designed by Althea McNish
for Heal’s, 1960, The Victoria and Albert MuseuM