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Masum Momaya Summary

Summary written by student participant Vickie Stone

Drawing on her work at the Smithsonian, as well as her personal experiences, Dr. Masum Momaya discussed an activist approach to museum collecting and curation.

Masum began with a story of how as a study abroad student, she was turned away from the British Museum after inquiring to see objects related to her Indian cultural heritage. This situation brought up questions about colonialization in museum practice and accessibility: “you advertise having these collections, but then why can’t I see those objects? How did this stuff get here in the first place? How can I learn about my own history when I can’t access things that are parts of it?”

Masum went on to explain that colonialism and concepts of race are embedded in collections. Museum objects carry the heavy legacy of how they were acquired, such as items that were stolen or pillaged.  Museum objects also serve to cement perceived social notions, which can be stereotypical, inaccurate, or even leave out certain histories.

Part of rectifying these issues is to address a complex curatorial legacy. Who gets to determine if an object is of national/regional/local historical significance? Masum stressed that the practice needs to lead to more dialogue and negotiation. She also warns that there are two extremes to be avoided, one person cannot act alone in making these decisions but crowd sourcing could be equally risky.

Finally, Masum shared her own manifesto - a declaration of what an activist approach to collections would look like. Some of the items in the manifesto include being transparent about how items were acquired, paying attention to objects that are in disastrous situations, and continually questioning if something should be collected in the first place. Most importantly, an activist approach would include having conversations with the communities in which the objects were found in. This would lead to a shared authority and co-construction of interpretive meaning; and this approach would place deaccessioning, repatriation, and loaning objects to source communities as a real option.