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Blog: Your Postcolonial is different from my Postcolonial

April 11, 2023
By Varda Nisar

A group of people, mostly men, wearing traditional dhoti and kameez standing on the roof of a train and on the platform unloading their luggage. Pakistani army officers can be seen helping them get off the train. One man can be seen injured lying, while two women and a child also sit on the platform. The scene of refugees on a train as they make their way to Pakistan after the partition of India and Pakistan, 14th August 1947. | Credit: Varda Nisar.

In academia, there has been a rightful shift away from metanarratives. The rejection of the metanarrative has entailed re-evaluating how survey courses are taught and whose and what perspectives are included. There is an understanding and acknowledgement that histories of indigenous, minorities and racialized communities can’t simply be formulated along a singular, linear timeline within art history.

However, when it comes to museum and museological studies, there still exist some glaring gaps. Knowledge production and debates in these fields remain rooted in colonial and imperial power centres. As such, most perspectives on museums and theoretical frameworks are Euro-centric.

When it comes to postcolonial museums in former colonialized nations - which is the focus of my research - there appears to be an even less understanding of the nuanced context of these institutions. Museums in former colonies didn’t automatically attain a decolonized status because the nation achieved independence from their former colonial masters. In fact, much of the colonial narrative continues to maintain its strong roots. The postcolonial museum then - in a post-colonial context - is an ever-evolving spatial entity that exists between the push and pull of the local, trans-local, and global. As such, the postcolonial museum can’t be understood as a singular phenomenon which can be decolonized through strategies that might suit the North American-European context.

In a recent roundtable discussion – which I moderated - titled “The Logic of Postcolonial Museums: South Asia Edition”, I had two primary objectives. One, engage in dialogue with other South Asian scholars working on museums in South Asia. And two, to emphasize the specificity and diversity of the issues museums face in this region. The roundtable hosted scholars from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, yet it lacked the perspectives of five other countries in this region and the diasporic community at large. And as was rightly pointed out, the roundtable didn’t touch on how French and Portuguese colonial discourses impacted South Asia.

Despite being unable to get a holistic picture, one thing became clear: the postcolonial museum is a much more complicated phenomenon than we have acknowledged.

If the postcolonial museum was realized through the discourse on modernity in Pakistan, then that was not the case in Bangladesh, which chose to do it by centering its folk arts and heritage. At the same time, identity discourses which became more pronounced post-1947, are realized through the ecology of Sikh museums and continue to respond to contemporary socio-political events.

The postcolonial museum is also marked by its erasure: the erasure of narratives and communities – which I suppose is familiar to most museums worldwide. But also, the erasure of collecting. How does one understand this in relation to the euro-centric museums where the desire to collect stays strong? What does it say about a post-colonial nation-state? Does this mean the nation is now complete, no longer amendable, or open to evolving?

To appreciate the complexity of the postcolonial museum, I have employed a case-study methodology in my research. This methodology allows me to understand each museum as a holistic entity without relying on meta-narratives or even generalizing museums within Pakistan. Taking each museum as a case-study enables me to focus on one particular museum at a time, understand the rationale behind its conception, and the varied political, social, economic and cultural goals it was intended to perform. This approach allows me to appreciate the uniqueness of each museum and how it is intrinsically linked - and responds - to global-political dynamics at play at that moment.

The study of former colonial and postcolonial museums in a post-colonial context allows me to understand how colonial techniques manifested themselves in the space of the museum, was adapted within the postcolonial museum, and in this present moment, are again being reimagined.

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