Lafayette course explores how ‘imperialism,’ ‘looting’ shaped museums
Lafayette College students are being taught that modern museums are instruments of “power,” entrenched in “violence” and colonialism, according to a new anthropology course offered this fall.
Professor Monica Salas Landa, who teaches the “Museum Studies: History, Theory, and Debates” class at the private Pennsylvania university, said she wants to give students a new perspective about museums and their collections.
This month, her class organized an exhibit, “Potential History and Unlearning Imperialism,” with museum objects that have had “imperialist ties erased from them” and “their histories reframed,” The Lafayette student newspaper reported.
Salas Landa said popular museums like the Met and the British Museum often “sanitize” objects and displays in a way that obscures “the very violent context of their extraction.”
The purpose of the class exhibit, which is on display through Dec. 6, “is to address the deeply entrenched violence inherent in museum collections through thought-provoking textual interventions,” she told the college’s news office.
Students presented the information to make people think about where the objects came from and how they were taken, including by using “indigenous names for the objects,” Salas Landa told The Lafayette.
“We do not use quotation marks, because they can be perceived as othering,” she said. “We pay a lot of attention to grammar and to those little details that we don’t notice but end up reproducing imperial ways of writing, of seeing, of thinking.”
Salas Landa added: “Most of these objects were extracted under very violent circumstances. This very violent process of extraction was tied to imperial projects.”
Offered for the first time this fall, the anthropology class teaches students to think about the modern museum “as an instrument and technology of power,” according to the course description.
The course involves discussions about “how the practices and ideologies of colonialism, looting, and exploitation have shaped the construction of museums and their collections since the cabinets of curiosities of the Enlightenment.”
It also asks students to consider if “museums can be transformed into spaces for restitution, repatriation, community building, and the unlearning of the imperial foundations of knowledge.”
Other colleges also are adding DEI thought into anthropology and museum curation courses. Tufts University began offering an Anti-Racist Curatorial Practice certificate in 2022, The College Fix reported.
IMAGE: Lafayette College Library/Instagram