‘Decolonisation’ is destroying our museums

Now curators are removing objects from display to appease regressive religious beliefs.

Inaya Folarin Iman

Inaya Folarin Iman

Topics Identity Politics UK

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We’ve become all too accustomed to hearing about Britain’s ‘decolonisation’-obsessed museums removing certain exhibits from display. Usually, it’s a portrait of a slave trader or a painting that depicts black or brown people in a dehumanising manner. But now something more absurd is taking place in the name of decolonisation. Museums are removing exhibits because they claim that certain cultural groups either don’t want certain objects to be seen, or they have superstitious beliefs about the objects in question.

Take the Pitt Rivers Museum in Oxford. This week, it was reported that, for some visitors to its website, it would blur and add content warnings to pictures of an African mask because the Igbo people of Nigeria forbid women from seeing it. Apparently, the mask in question – which is not on display, but is available to view online – would have been used as part of a ‘male-only ritual’. The decision was taken as part of the museum’s attempt to ensure what it calls the ‘cultural safety’ of taboos around secret ceremonies, human remains, nudity and gender roles.

Not to be outdone, the Great North Museum: Hancock, in Newcastle, also announced this week that certain objects deemed ‘sacred’ and unsuitable for women by certain cultures may also be withdrawn from view. These objects ‘should not be seen in public’, it said, and ‘will not be used or displayed in any way that could upset or cause offence’.

This is a deeply regressive move. Museums and public galleries used to want to educate and enlighten people. They were founded on the belief that the works of humanity across the ages should be available to everyone, regardless of race, gender or cultural background. It was assumed that such works were the inheritance of all of humanity, rather than the property of the particular group that produced them.

It seems that some institutions have turned their back on this universalist, educational mission. They’ve succumbed instead to identity politics. They assume that the significance of cultural products can only be understood by the particular identity group that created them – that every group’s distinctive morality, behaviour and ‘way of knowing’ is unintelligible to every other group.

This thinking has clearly addled the brains of museum managers. It has led them to stop people from seeing some of the precious and unique items they hold. Which does rather go against the whole point of a museum.

What are curators and management thinking? This kind of posturing will do nothing for those in whose name the museums claim to be acting. Worse still, this cultural relativism effectively endorses regressive attitudes, not least towards women.

The decisions on the part of the Pitt Rivers Museum and GNM: Hancock are just the latest examples of museums, galleries and other institutions acting in this way. Earlier this year, Oxford University’s Oriel College removed a painting of an 18th-century duke because it featured a black servant boy. Before that, the Wellcome Collection made the absurd decision to close its decades-old Medicine Man exhibition in 2022 on the grounds that it was ‘racist, sexist and ableist’.

Worse still are the numerous examples of museums and galleries removing depictions of the Prophet Muhammad, even when they were created by Muslims themselves. In 2015, the Victoria and Albert Museum attempted to conceal its ownership of a devotional image of Muhammad, citing security concerns. Four years later, the Saatchi Gallery covered up artworks featuring an Islamic declaration of faith after Muslim visitors complained that they were blasphemous. Why on Earth should that be a concern for a contemporary art gallery?

Museums and galleries are letting the public down. They ought to be allowing us to engage with and learn about diverse traditions and histories. But instead they’re hiding objects from view on the most spurious of grounds. This is a total betrayal of their mission.

Inaya Folarin Iman is a spiked columnist and founder of the Equiano Project.

Correction: An earlier version of this article implied that the Pitt Rivers would block visitors to its website from seeing images of an African mask. We are happy to clarify that users can still access these images.

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Topics Identity Politics UK


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