The messy and rancorous upheaval at the National Gallery of Canada is the result of efforts to “decolonize” the institution at the pinnacle of the country’s museum hierarchy. But it is hardly an isolated case. Similar battles are playing out at museums across Canada and the West as institutions conceived as repositories of the collective memory are morphing into agents of social change and redefining themselves in the name of reconciliation.
What could go wrong? Plenty. The saga unfolding at the NGC shows what happens when good intentions are undermined by a mixture of naiveté, overzealousness and political score-settling. And make no mistake, the decolonization exercise – aimed at correcting curatorial errors of the past by placing an obsessive emphasis on inclusiveness and Indigenous perspectives – is steeped in politics.
We have entered an age of curatorial activism. Indigenous and minority artists are being co-opted into this exercise to satisfy the agendas of museum directors and, in some cases, their political masters. It follows the final report of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, which called for “a national review of museum policies and best practices to determine the level of compliance with the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples.” The rise of the Black Lives Matter movement further supercharged efforts by museums to feature works from minority artists.
The new approach was evident in the NGC’s Rembrandt in Amsterdam exhibition that ended in 2021, which juxtaposed the 17th-century Dutch master’s work against the crimes of colonialism committed in his era. The museum “took a new curatorial approach by integrating newly commissioned and acquired works from Indigenous and Black artists, bringing multiple voices to contextualize the period in which Rembrandt lived and the devastating impact of colonialism then and now for Indigenous and Black people,” the museum’s annual report explained.
The NGC also went through a rebranding exercise in 2021, led by an advertising agency, that resulted in the adoption of the term Ankosé (an Anishnaabemowin word meaning “everything is connected”) to embody the museum’s new approach. “This powerful word invites us to find hope and joy in difference and encourages us to seek out the perspective and knowledge of those who are not around the table,” said Sasha Suda, then the NGC’s director.
There would be something wrong if major cultural institutions did not seek to question their practices in the face of evolving societal expectations. Things start to go awry, however, when decolonization takes the form of erasure and leads to the purging of those who question its methods, pace and consequences. That, along with an archetypal power struggle among those leading the decolonization effort, is what now appears to be happening at the NGC.
“It is literally a coup d’état. It resembles the Russian Revolution; the methods are the same,” former NGC director Marc Mayer told La Presse last week.
Seven former high-level NGC staffers wrote to Heritage Minister Pablo Rodriguez to denounce the recent dismissal of four senior museum employees by interim director Angela Cassie, as well as the departures of at least half a dozen others during Ms. Suda’s three-year tenure. They warned the NGC risks falling into “irrelevance” as it neglects core aspects of its mandate.
“The message conveyed to Canadian and international audiences in recent years has been sadly devoid of celebrating art, the Gallery’s collections, and its artists, without which there is no National Gallery of Canada,” they wrote. “The newest dismissals of senior staff will impact the security of the artworks, the development of knowledge of the collections and future acquisitions, and the delivery of a world-class exhibition programme.”
For now, the NGC’s board of trustees is standing behind Ms. Cassie. NGC chair Françoise Lyon, appointed by then-heritage minister Mélanie Joly in 2017, last week put out a statement saying that the initiatives around racism, diversity and decolonization are “not politically driven platitudes” and reflect “the sentiments of the government of Canada.” Nothing less.
The decolonization of museums is a culture war for the highbrow set. The International Committee for Museology last year devoted a virtual symposium to the topic, hosted by the Université du Québec à Montréal. The academic papers presented at the event highlighted the tensions within the museum world that decolonization has unleashed.
“This polarisation seems, at first sight, to be similar to the quarrel between the Ancients and the Moderns that spread through the cultural world in Europe in the 17th century,” UQAM professor Yves Bergeron and Michèle Rivet, vice-chair of the Canadian Museum of Human Rights, wrote in an anthology on the symposium. “Ultimately, we believe that the museum is not doomed to disappear … but there is no longer any doubt that museums are most certainly on the road to reform, while a conservative faction seems to be moving towards counter-reform.”
The NGC is Exhibit A, and not in a good way.