Catherine Lu headshot

Representing Humanity: the Role of Museums in Addressing Colonial Alienation

Catherine Lu | Professor, McGill University

Friday, October 22, 2021 2:00 PM to 3:30 PM



Modern museums of natural history, ethnography, civilization, and/or cultures typically claim to represent humanity, in its unity and diversity. Yet how did such museums come to be the representatives of humanity? And what has shaped the way such museums have represented humanity? These questions point to the heart of major contemporary controversies surrounding modern museums across Europe and North America. I understand the critical scrutiny of modern museums to be sparked by increasing acknowledgement of their colonial origins, and to be sustained by increasing recognition that the legacies of colonialism have afterlives in museums’ custodianship and representations of material culture, which function to reproduce forms of colonial injustice and alienation. Museums are thus sites where contemporary agents fight over the unfinished project of decolonization. In this paper, I aim to clarify what it might mean to decolonize museums, and what decolonization practices aim towards with respect to redressing different forms of colonial alienation.