Foto aus der Ausstellung "Curating Discomfort"

Curating Discomfort

Curating Discomfort

An intervention in post/colonial power relations in museums

During a major excursion in the geography degree in June 2022, Sybille Bauriedl and Inken Carstensen-Egwuom visited the Hunterian Museum in Glasgow. The museum is part of the University of Glasgow and a ‘curator of discomfort’ has been working there for just under two years. Zandra Yeaman is shaping this role with her long experience as an anti-racist activist and with the aim of impacting on other Scottish museums. Shortly before our visit, in April 2022, the intervention ‘Curating Discomfort’ was opened. ‘Curating Discomfort’ is a project that aims to critically engage with the museum as an institution. Through this intervention, the museum aims to become a more ethical place.

Museums are places where narratives about the identity of nations and cities are created and disseminated – often these narratives are shaped by the notion of white cultural superiority and thus privilege white groups. Museums were created in colonial contexts and often display objects that were “donated” to the museum by people who benefited from colonial exploitation – often without much background knowledge or demand. By allowing white and Western ideas to determine the objects on display, their descriptions and contextualisation in museums, white supremacy is maintained and the continuation of colonial practices such as exhibiting and collecting objects is cemented.

These colonial references of museums have long been ignored and many museums are just beginning to reflect on their own role within colonialism and racism. ‘Curating Discomfort’ is an attempt to create a provocative intervention. It aims to expose discomfort, trigger discomfort and enable further conversations. In this way, the exhibition marks the beginning of an engagement with post/colonial power relations at the Hunterian Museum.

A central starting point here is to involve people from diverse contexts and fields of work, who are often marginalised in historiography and museums, as equally as possible in the intervention. In Glasgow, a team of six ‘community curators’ from different geographical and professional backgrounds spent six months planning the intervention set up today. This intervention includes a ‘Declaration of Discomfort’ and the stories of selected objects in the Hunterian Museum from different perspectives. More about the process of creating the intervention can also be read on the Hunterian Museum website. In addition, a podcast is published on the website in which the community curators present their perspectives on some objects in conversation and reveal different dimensions of discomfort in the Hunterian Museum.

This project inspires us as part of Flensburg Postcolonial Network: many people in Flensburg also feel a sense of discomfort when Flensburg’s entanglements with colonialism and enslavement are addressed – and also when they are glossed over, romanticised and told as a heroic story. The ‘Curating Discomfort’ project in Glasgow encourages using such discomfort constructively. It encourages conversation about different kinds of discomfort and critical engagement with museums, public spaces, theatres, schools and other institutions to work together for a more inclusive, just society.