You are here: Home / Events / Meetings / Reports / Museums in the Colonial Horizon of Modernity

Museums in the Colonial Horizon of Modernity

Main Report and Full text Real time broadcasting

CIMAM 2005 Annual Conference
“Museums: Intersections in a Global Scene”

Session 4

Museums in the Colonial Horizon of Modernity
Walter Mignolo


I will argue that Museums in the modern/colonial world (that is, the way of life, economic principles, political structures and models of subjectivities that originated in the sixteenth century with the emergence of the Atlantic commercial circuits) had and still have a particular role to play in the colonization of knowledges and of beings. The question then is how to de-colonize the museum.

I. On modernity/coloniality and de-colonial thinking

Regarding the colonization of knowledge, just remember that at the same time that Europe accumulated money through the extraction of gold and silver in the sixteenth century, and through the exploitation of the Caribbean plantations and the massive slave trade in the seventeenth century, Europe also accumulated meaning. Museums and universities were and continue to be two crucial institutions for the accumulation of meaning and the reproduction of the coloniality of knowledge and of beings. By this I mean a certain ideal of the subject of subjectivity than, in its extreme manifestations, you can see today in television, the marketing and advertising in the NYT magazine or in any equivalent magazine or any major newspaper in the world. There is a horizon of expectations driven by the will to posses (cars, watches, brand-name clothing, you name it) and be thin, have a certain figure, lose weight, not to think about yourself except in terms of being successful; and being successful means to buy a certain kind of watch and car, certain clothing and responding to a certain look. In a nutshell, to be according to how you would like to be seen in a market-driven society. That is what I mean by colonization of being. Slavery in the sixteenth century was another form of colonizing beings, and is still in force today on a global scale.

One of the tasks before us is to engage in de-colonial projects, learning to unlearn the principles that justified Museums and Universities, and to formulate a new horizon of understanding and of Human living conditions beyond the sacred belief that accumulation is the secret for a decent life. Now, once we analytically unveil the colonizing roles of the Museum, what is next? De-colonization, of course, and de-colonization of the Museum shall take place both in scholarship and in Museum exhibits and performances. How can museums contribute to the de-colonization of knowledge, being as they are in a milieu where the media is in a full colonizing mode (with the exception of independent media), and where universities are becoming more and more corporate, losing the space for critical and de-colonizing thinking?

I will flesh out some of these ideas by looking at “Mining the Museum” as an exemplary case of a de-colonizing perspective, and my own argument will, on the one hand, support the exhibit and, on the other, continue its work in the domain of scholarship.

I want to bring forward, in this talk, the parallels and complicities between the accumulation of money and the accumulation of meaning in the modern/colonial world. The Museum, as a Western institution, is a paradigmatic example of such a confluence. “Accumulation of money” is a metaphor for capitalism, and “accumulation of meaning” is a metaphor for Western cosmology since the Renaissance, built upon Greek and Latin languages and categories of thoughts.

Please keep in mind these three expressions: coloniality of power, coloniality of knowledge and coloniality of being. I will go through some specific cases first and return thereafter to these three expressions and to the main thrust of my argument.

II. Museums, Accumulation of Meaning and Accumulation of Money

Let’s start with the definition of the word. By the year 1615 it was defined as:

Museum: 1615, "the university building in Alexandria," from L. museum "library, study," from Gk. mouseion "place of study, library or museum," originally "a seat or shrine of the Muses," from Mousa "Muse." Earliest use in ref. to Eng. institutions was of libraries (e.g. the British Museum); sense of "building to display objects" first recorded 1683 (Online Etymology Dictionary). Museum in the Western world is closed related to University.

The institution we call today the University began to take shape in Bologna at the end of the eleventh century, when masters of Grammar, Rhetoric and Logic began to devote themselves to the law.

But, as everything else, museums and universities, as institutions of learning, were caught up in the radical changes of the sixteenth century. What changes were those? Simply put, the re-organization of Western Europe (from Italy to the Iberian Peninsula and from France and Germany to Britain, going through Holland). These are the places where the idea of Europe as Western Civilization was invented. Museums and universities quickly entered into the sphere of capitalism—as we know it today. The rhetoric of modernity (the triumphal march of history toward a better future for humanity) conceived of museums as an accumulation of meaning, very much like encyclopedias. However, because museums emerged during the Renaissance, they have been also linked to the logic of coloniality (the need to convert and civilize the inhabitants of the planet that were still out of history, the barbarians and primitives). Consequently, museums followed two complementary directions in the accumulation of meaning: one type of museum documented and consolidated the genealogy of European history. Art museums were and still are the epitome of this direction. The second type was the ethnographic and natural museum, which documented "other cultures," including their art. As for the University, since this is not our topic today, let’s just mention that the European University that saw its beginnings in Bologna was followed by similar institutions in Salamanca and then in Coimbra; and, in the sixteenth century, the Universidad de Santo Domingo, the Universidad de Mexico, the Universidad de Lima and the Universidad de Córdoba, Argentina, were created. In 1636, Harvard University was founded. All of these universities were at once modern and colonial—modern because they were the pillars in the very self-definition of modernity; and colonial because they became a crucial institution for the coloniality of knowledge and of being. Sophisticated learning institutions among the Aztecs, Maya and Incas were disavowed and eroded and replaced by a Western system of education. In Santo Domingo, with the indigenous population wiped out, the university became an institution for the education of Creoles of Spanish descent and, occasionally, of Mestizos. The Museum was not an institution in the colonies but, rather, in the metropolis.

It was in the metropolis that a new kind of museum emerged. Frantz Boaz described it as the ethnographic museum. That is, museums began to be divided into two large types: the Museums that contributed to building the internal history and identity of Europe (from Greek and Roman antiquities to painting and other artifacts); and those that focused on the external history of Europe: that of the colonies and that of the strangers, like the Chinese, who were never colonized but whose history was not part of the history of Europe. Boa’s ethnographic museum is indeed the most striking example of the radical changes in the accumulation of meaning of the sixteenth century as Europe capitalized on both: the meaning of its internal history and the meaning of the histories of the Other(s). There is an interesting overlap between Ethnographic and Natural History Museums. Let’s take the example of The Field Museum, in Chicago.

The Field Museum was incorporated on September 16th, 1893—one year after the four-hundred-year celebration of the discovery of America—as “The Columbian Museum of Chicago.” Its purpose, the literature of the Museum tells us, was “the accumulation and dissemination of knowledge and the preservation and exhibition of objects illustrating art, archaeology, science and history.” In 1905, the name was changed to the “Field Museum of Natural History.” The reason for the change, also stated in the literature of the Museum, was “to honor the Museum's first major benefactor, Marshall Field, and to better reflect its focus on the natural sciences.” In 1921 the Museum moved from its original location in Jackson Park to its present site on Chicago Park District property near downtown, where it is part of a lakefront Museum Campus that includes the John G. Shedd Aquarium and the Adler Planetarium.

These three institutions are regarded as among the finest of their kind in the world and together attract more visits annually than any comparable site in Chicago. And the Field Museum is also a place of observation, where Ethnographic and Natural History objects get under the microscope.

Thus, in a very natural narrative the reader has been taken from a Museum that celebrated Columbus’ discovery with art, archeology, science and history, to Natural History. Furthermore, the Museum was moved next to the lakefront to be in good Natural History company: the Aquarium and the Planetarium. When, instead, we look at the literature of the Art Institute of Chicago, we find images like this one:

That is, nothing to do with Ethnography and Natural History but, instead, with Art and Civilization.

III.  The Role of Museums in a Corporate Oriented World and the De-colonial Shift.

When Fred Wilson did an installation at the Maryland Historical Society in 1992, he shook up the museum world. Co-sponsored by the historical society and the Contemporary Museum, Mining the Museum did not involve artwork made by the artist; rather, it involved reinstalling items from the historical society's collection in such a way as to make us reconsider them.

Cabinetmaking, 1992

In “Cabinetmaking” he exhibited a set of four wonderful antique chairs, most likely from the nineteenth century, belonging to Baltimore wealthy families. He arranged them as one can imagine they might have been arranged for a piano soirée during an evening in the spring. The imaginary guests of that soirée are elegantly seated on the chairs, as if they were facing an accomplished pianist, or perhaps a poet, from the distinguished elite of Washington, D.C. Instead, for their entertainment, Fred Wilson placed a whipping post, a gift to the Baltimore Historical Society, from the Baltimore City Jail Board.

For those of you not familiar with the exhibit, let me run a couple more examples before continuing and closing my argument.

Some of the most striking and most commented on scenarios along the lines of “Cabinetmaking” were the vitrine, labeled "Metalwork 1793-1880." In this exhibit, he placed ornate silver goblets and pitchers alongside a pair of iron slave shackles.

Metalwork, 1793-1880

One particular room of the exhibit was titled “Modes of Transport, 1770-1910.” As you entered the exhibit, what you saw was more or less this:

Modes of Transport, 1770-1910

Walking about in the room, looking at the details, you would have probably shivered (as I did) when you suddenly realized what the baby carriage was carrying:

Modes of Transport, 1770-1910 (Detail)

In fact, as soon as visitors walked out of the elevator onto the third floor where the exhibit was located, the impact of the exhibit was like a slap in the face. As you got out of the elevator, and just in front of you, you were confronted with this:

Welcome to “Mining the Museum” ; the reception hall.

You may have recognized the faces or not, at the first glance, depending on your particular education. However, even if you did not recognize them (as I did not recognize Henry Clay and Andrew Jackson), what I saw was the larger picture, the horizon behind the pedestal and the “torsos”: the horizon was the Renaissance and the re-construction of Greek and Roman prominent founders of Western Civilization. And I knew without thinking that that horizon came to me from all the Museums I have seen, from my university years (I lived in a small town of 10,000 people until I went to the University and begin to travel and visit Museums). As you can see in the picture, the pedestals on the right, with the “torsos” are much shorter than the pedestal on the left, which are empty. The effect was shocking, to see Napoleon so low that instead of looking at viewers at eye-level, it was necessary to look down, producing some strange sensations in your body and in your brain.

Approaching the empty pedestals on the left, probably at the height of around 5’ 10”, the viewer had to make an effort to read the inscription of the name on the top of the pedestal. I recognized the name in the middle, Frederick Douglas, as I had recognized the face in the middle of the busts on the right hand side, Napoleon. I did not recognize the other two names, Harriet Tubman and Benjamin Banniker, but, once again, the horizon was immediately heating your body and your brain: the silences, the absences— both created by the white Men on the right—and the discourses that justified and glorified the right Men on the right and made invisible the invisible “torsos” of the pedestal on the left.

Most of the articles I read that justly praised Fred Wilson’s achievements in this exhibit, as well as in his previous work, were enthusiastic comments but glossed over what, for me, is the most astute and powerful statement of the exhibit: a de-colonial statement in the heart of the Museum as an imperial/colonial (and of course national) institution.

Let me explain what I have in mind here, and let me soften the statement that the Museum is an imperial/colonial institution by adding that they are not only that. There are, of course, other functions that Museums, as houses of learning, have performed and perform. The future is open.

IV. What is Fred Wilson up to?

Holland Cotter published an article in the New York Times (April 30, 2004) about Fred Wilson’s exhibit “Objects and Installations, 1979-2000” at the Studio Museum in Harlem. Cotter gave the article a very suggestive title: “Pumping Air into the Museum, so it is as Big as the World Outside.” To make sense of Wilson’s work and to convince his readers of the importance of Wilson’s work, Cotter goes where? To post-modernism. And, sensing that his audience may have a negative reaction to this, he begins with a disclaimer and then a description of post-modern novelties that he found helpful to interpret Wilson’s exhibits—both at the Harlem museum, and the groundbreaking “Mining the Museum,” to which Cotter returns to in his article. Apologies for quoting Cotter at length, but it is very important to understanding the context of my point and to show Cotter’s well-intentioned blindness. Cotter writes:

Call it an attitude, a phase or a fad, but postmodernism did at least one good, big thing. It rained hard on the mostly white, mostly male, by-invitation-only party that had long been Western art.

It did so by asking pushy, deflating questions about beauty, quality, authority and who really owns what. It pegged as corrupt an aesthetic hierarchy shaped by a cozy alliance of market interests and critical – read personal – opinion. It told reigning tastemakers: sorry, but your best thinking is old, parochial, stale. It forced inside players to either look outside their suddenly uncharmed circle or be uncool.

To me, postmodernism primarily meant that art and the world expanded, and connected. My white, middle-class, American credentials no longer put me at the center of the picture, but over there somewhere, among the many others over there. And this was fine, since Over There turned out to be the new Here. If such repositioning made sense to you, you were unlikely to look at art, or the art world, or museums, or yourself the same way again.

They made sense to the artist Fred Wilson, who is the subject of a traveling survey now at the Studio Museum in Harlem, and who played a significant role in defining a fresh critical perspective on art and its institutions.

Well, you tell me: according to what you know or, if you did not know before, of the little you saw of Wilson’s work in my presentation, is post-modernism a frame that explains what Wilson is up to? When was modernism attentive to coloniality and racism? Never, as far as I know and can imagine, because post-modernism, as its name indicates, is restricted to the histories and experiences of Western Europe and the U.S., as is its very foundation, modernity.

I will claim that Fred Wilson makes a radical contribution to de-colonial (not even post-colonial) thinking, but de-colonial thinking through and by way of the Museum.

Let me unpack this.

On de-colonialism and post-colonialism first. Post-colonialism or coloniality was a consequence of post-modernism or post-modernity—the other or complementary side of post-modernity. It emerged in the North Atlantic, Paris, London and the U.S. And it emerged bringing together post-structuralism (Foucault, Lacan and Derrida) in conversation with Orientalism and post-partition India. Edward Said frames Orientalism as a form of colonization of knowledge, following Foucault’s “archeology of knowledge.” Hommi Bhabha and Gayatri Spivak read post-partition India and its British colonial past through Jacques Lacan and Jacques Derrida, respectively. Thus, in that sense, post-colonialism was introduced mainly in the U.S. academy through post-structuralism and colonialism, after the post revealed, intentionally or not, the missing side of modernity (as in post-postmodernity and post-modernism).

De-coloniality is something else in many respects. First of all, as a concept it has de-colonization as its ancestor during the Cold War years, with the de-colonization of Asian and African countries. In Latin America, the term was adopted in the social sciences (Fals Borda), in philosophy (Dussel, philsophy of liberation) and in the theology of liberation. It was not a central concept, but it was there. And when it wasn’t there, like in dependency theory, it was implied in the sense that if developing (Third World) economies cannot develop and modernize while they remain dependent of developed, industrial, First World economies, then the next step would be to de-link them, as Egyptian sociologist Samir Amin argued. De-linking is part of the grammar of decolonization. But de-colonization here is no longer used in the sense that the native bourgeoisie of Third World countries used the term: sometimes it was used to reproduce internal colonialism, by taking in their own hands what imperial domination had done for several centuries. The term was re-defined in the late eighties and early nineties in relation to the unveiling of the colonial matrix of power: the underlying socio-economic, political, epistemic and subjective logic of coloniality that was hidden under the rhetoric of progress and modernity. De-coloniality means, then, de-coloniality of being and knowledge, of gender and sexuality, of authority (politics, the state) and the economy (land appropriation, exploitation of labor, financial legal extractions, etc.).

“Mining the Museum” is just that, a de-colonial move of being and of knowledge that, on the one hand reveals the underlying assumptions in the institution itself and, on the other hand, uses the institution to reveal what has been hidden in colonial histories of slavery and also the consequences of racism. Let me read you a few statements made by Fred Wilson in a conversation with Lesli King-Hammond. Wilson made several very revealing observations, critical (statements about museums and artistic performances), as well as autobiographical. Let’s go through some of them. King-Hammond asked him what was the difference “between feeling like an outsider in Europe, as opposed to your experiences as an outsider here in this country…”

There I was feeling bad about myself because of how I was being treated, and meanwhile everybody’s acting like there’s no problem. In the museum, you’re in this environment you’re supposed to understand and you’re supposed to feel good about. All of these “supposed to’s”—and the artwork’s all there, but there’s all this stuff that’s not being talked about as it relates to the real world (p. 29).

The “the supposed to” is, as I have been arguing here and elsewhere, the rhetoric of modernity, the rhetoric of progress, of well being, of salvation, of democracy, of the beautiful and the sublime. It is a faith that allows for arguments such as “moving forward” and hiding the reality of “being left behind and outside.” Behind “the supposed to,” there is the logic of coloniality, “the way it is” (the disavowal, the silence, the refusal, racialization as a structure of supremacy-subalternity, exploitation and oppression at all levels). Keep in mind that the first step of de-colonization is precisely to unveil and then undo—and do something else—the rhetoric of modernity as the “supposed to” hiding the logic of coloniality, the way it is. “Denial” is the word used by Wilson:

All this denial, all this history of America, all this history of Europe, and the relationship between people is not being talked about. Museums just pretend that we can overlook it, that we can experience “culture” without having those feelings of oppression. This compounds those feelings. That’s why I like working in museums, because they’re so much of America to me, unconsciously (p. 29).

Oppression and denial are just two of the aspects of the logic of coloniality that operates at the level of being, of the coloniality of being—precisely what Wilson is expressing here. De-colonization of being is the direct consequence of the awareness, of the consciousness of being colonized. One of the enormous contributions of “Mining the Museum” is the contribution to the de-colonization of being. The other is to the de-colonization of knowledge. Let’s see how the de-colonization of being and of knowledge go hand in hand.

Then comes, for Wilson, the experience of Africa (after growing up in the Bronx and visiting Europe). He was in Ghana, Nigeria, Gogo and Benin, in 1975. “It was the perfect time, it was the time. It was totally different from everything I knew.” Remember, he was talking about America and Europe, about what he knew, about how his knowledge was naturalized, or colonized. In Africa, he realized that he was not seen as Black: “They looked at me and said, ‘you are not white, but you are not black either.’ And I was thinking,” Wilson continues, “I have been suffering all this time and now you are telling me I am not black?” (p. 29). Both situations unveil the logic of coloniality of knowledge and of being. The first sentence makes visible a classification that is not natural, of course, but has been implanted by the hegemonic imperial knowledge. That is, the classification of people is not a natural outcome of the people themselves—neither a classification invented by Blacks or Indians—but is invented by those who had the power to classify and the control of knowledge. The second sentence by Wilson asserts a rejection of that classification and, in the act of rejection, an epistemology grounded on the geo- and bio-location of the knower is at work. But Africa, Wilson recognizes, re-centered him: he knew there was another space that was not Europe and not America, and Blacks (as well as other denied and racialized people) lived in both of those places, particularly in America. It was Africa in this case, but it could have been any other place for any other non-white (as Wilson mentions in the paragraph below: Hispanics, Asians, Native Americans) heterosexuals, males and dissenting females: It is that difference, the difference of “Afro-America,” the awareness of the coloniality knowledge and being that all came together in “Mining the Museum”:

I was beginning to see a lot of African-American, Native American, Hispanic, and Asian artists dealing with their history and their cultural identity in their work. At the time there were a lot of European Americans that were doing work that referred to the Renaissance and to Western art history. I thought, well, wouldn’t it be interesting to put this artwork in these different museum environments to see how they might be affected by the different settings? …You could put them in the American Museum of Natural History and they would blend in. I said to myself, “What does that mean about what’s happening in that museum? How can we think about the work of contemporary artists of color in the same way we think about an African’s work, considering the way it’s being presented?” (p. 31)

There are a couple of points in this paragraph I would like to highlight. First, the success of his exhibits alerted the Establishment, and Wilson was quickly accepted and recognized in the main circuits of art and museums. Then, the McArthur Foundation selected him as one of its fellows in 1999. Which of course I think is excellent. When Wilson’s work was invited to the Venice Biennale, in 2003, Judith E. Stein stated with appropriate emotion that,

“It is a rare honor to represent one’s country at the Venice Biennale, one of the most prestigious venues in the world for showing contemporary art. This year the United States gave the nod to Fred Wilson, who addressed the visual history of Africans in Venice by assembling a group of old master Italian paintings and wooden figurines of blackamoors. The artist even hired a Senegalese tourist to dress up as a street vendor and stand in front of the US Pavilion, flogging knock-off “Prada” bags that Wilson designed (, p.1).

It is indeed absolutely wonderful that Wilson received all this recognition. The problem, however, is that at this point there is no other alternative, or another paradigm in which to cast Wilson’s splendid achievements: The MacArthur Foundation and the Venice Biennale. So the de-colonial paradigm to which Wilson’s work contributes is erased and his work is integrated into the imperial paradigm that he not only contests, but also de-links from. The problem we face now is that the de-colonial paradigm is a practice without institutions. The institutions still belong to the imperial/colonial paradigm. Thus, recognition is great at this point since it is better to be recognized than be reduced to silence. But recognition should not make us forget that it is recognition in and from the imperial/colonial paradigm. We all know things have to change in order to remain the same, Lampedusa’s well-known dictum. De-colonial thinking and practices (from philosophy to political theory, from performances and art exhibits to social movements) work toward another frame of mind, a frame of mind in which Wilson’s main contribution is not its “artistic achievements” according to modern standards, but its de-colonial thinking, revealing the imperial underpinning of artistic modern standards and the imperial foundations of Museums and the Venice Biennal.

Let’s go back to Wilson’s previous quotation when he was thinking of organizing the same exhibit in different Museums, specifically the Frick, the Metropolitan, and the American Museum of Natural History (which return us back to the beginning of my presentation). Let me remind you of Wilson’s words I just mentioned a few minutes ago: How would European Art look if you placed it in the American Museum of Natural History? “How can we think,” Wilson asked, “about the work of contemporary artists of color in the same way we think about an African’s work, considering the way it’s being presented?” (pp. 31)

So, imagining Tintoretto and Rafael, El Greco and Picasso in the Museum of Natural History? There is a long history of the colonization of being and of knowledge that generated the illusion that African art looks very “natural” in a Natural Museum; and the same would be in the case of Native American art. Imagine a Navajo sand painting in the permanent collection of the Institute of Contemporary Art in Chicago, or any of the examples analyzed by Lucy Lippard in her Mixed Blessing: New Art in a Multicultural America (2000). In art, as in different branches of knowledge, "philosophy" and "science" will be the words that monopolize knowledge and control and colonize whatever doesn't fit the standards of what the philosophical and scientific elite considers “knowledge.” There is a strict correlation in the modern/colonial world between race and epistemology that extends from the color of human beings, to their supposed “original” location in the planet (this notion of location comes together with certain languages and systems of beliefs that are controlled by the concept of “religion” in the imperial West). That illusion, which is naturalized through education, is precisely the colonization of knowledge and of being.

Wilson responds that, in Europe, he did not feel bad for feeling like an outsider because he was supposed to be an outsider. But in America, he said, “You are supposed to be part of this place and everyone is pretending than you are.” This feeling of disavowal and, at the same time, awareness of the bad faith (feeling and knowing among the white community that you are not the same, and pretending you are) is better expressed in the following paragraph:

The museum is like American society at large. I grew up in an environment where I was alienated, and yet perhaps better placed in the Museum of Natural History than in between Tintoretto and Rafael, mixed with el Greco and Picasso, even if these last two were “Hispanics.” (p. 28)

Hispanics, but marginal Castilians—El Greco was from Greece as the name indicates, and Picasso was Catalan: Spanish but not Castilian. In a nutshell, Wilson is being recognized for something else, not for his dismantling of the imperial logic that is recognizing him. Thus, the need to construct narratives and conceptual frames that, while recognizing Wilson’s official recognition, brings him back to the terrain of his struggle: de-colonial thinking.

V. Fred Wilson’s de-colonial shift.

De-colonial shift is not just a change in content, but in the logic of conversation. Wilson has been recognized for his “revolutionary” content, while the recognition (by the MacArthur Foundation, by Venice Biennal and by progressive art critics) contributes to hide its really revolutionary motive. Wilson’s Pachakuti—to use the Aymara expression—could be correlated with the invasion of Spanish troops and missionaries into the Andean region of the Inca Empire. From the perspective of the inhabitants of Tawantinsuyu, the world was suddenly turned around (turned upside down, to use Waman Puma de Ayala's expression). Wilson’s work is contributing to a Pachakuti in reverse in the modern/colonial world, undermining the very principles of knowledges and beliefs on which modernity has been built, since the initial Pachakuti. He uses the Museum as a point of articulation. Others choose music; others scholarly research and arguments; still others articulate change through social movements, like Evo Morales in Bolivia. Thus, Wilson’s work read in the de-colonial shift cannot be restricted to art histories and Museums (where he is recognized and co-opted) but, enjoying his official recognition, it should be supported and re-mapped in the de-colonial turn: unveiling the logic of coloniality (at all levels, knowledge and subjectivity, and not only authority and economy) and opening up the gates to imagine possible futures detached from the mono-topic cosmology of the modern world.