by Laure Rigaud-Soares (MA, 2020)
Editors’ Note: Today, we conclude our series on Museums as Keepers of the Future, with a report on the third and last part of Elizabeth Merritt’s public talk at the University of San Francisco on February 25, 2020. This post focuses on how museums can decolonize the future.
Decolonize the Future
What does Elizabeth Merritt mean by decolonizing the future? All too often, decisions we make as governments, as organizations, and as individuals may look responsible and sensible in the short term but only because decision-makers sidestep the impacts of those decisions on the future. Merritt defines colonization as the exploitation of laborers or resources from less unpowerful individuals and cultures. And what we do with those resources is often the cost for future generations.
She shared a quote from Roman Krznaric, founder of the Empathy Museum:
“We treat the future like a distant colonial outpost devoid of people, where we can freely dump ecological degradation, technological risk, nuclear waste, and public debt, and we feel the liberty to plunder as we please.”
Merritt admitted that while this observation is depressing, it is also accurate. What will it look like to make decisions that will give future generations a voice in the world?
She used two examples of museums that do not seem to be thinking in the long-term.
The first example is the building of new museums on the United States coastal seaboard. Merritt presented a risk map of the Gulf of Mexico shoreline, showing areas that are at the high storm and flooding risks. Over 30% of U.S. museums are under 100 km off the coast, and one-quarter museums are under 100 km off the coast with a higher vulnerability index. Yet more museums are being planned for these danger zones. Is this a good use of capital resources? Couldn’t that money be better spent helping our communities move to an area less risky?
A second, related example is classic to our field: museums over-borrowing to build extensions whose operations they may not be able to sustain or support. Years later, museums have to deaccession some works from their collection to pay their debts due to the new building construction. The few museums that have done this type of deaccessioning have lost their AAM accreditation.
Merritt argues that in these cases, museums did not create a stable resource that benefits the community. And they may even have created more financial problems for the future. Museums need to think intensively about what future generations would like us to save, whether it is tangible or intangible culture. Merritt offered examples of how museums can invest more in the future by preserving intangible cultures, such as languages and stories, fostering sustainability through socially responsible investing and resource use, and finally giving a tremendous voice and power to future generations.
Conclusion: Museums will change the world
AAM says, “Museum can change the world.” It is a positive and true motto, but Merritt provocatively suggests that we need to rephrase this sentence by saying: “Museums will change the world.”
But, how will the museum change the world? Merritt believes that museums can shift peoples’ attention and intention to what is happening in the world and what will happen if museums do not take specific actions to change the future. By changing their intention, museums can change direction and shake the future that we are all going to live in by creating a more equitable future for future generations. As a current museum studies student and future museum professional, Merritt’s talk was necessary and more than meaningful for me. She highlighted critical questioning in the museum field for present and future generations all around the world. With the current health crisis and social unrest, and the coming changes, I believe that the role that museums have to play in the preparation of the future are even more essential to address today