USC Pacific Asia Museum Decolonizes Its Collections

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From the demise of Aunt Jemima to the toppling of Confederate statues, the protests in support of the Black Lives Matter movement have transformed U.S. visual culture, even reaching into the hallowed halls of the museum world.

Guggenheim Museum curators have demanded immediate reforms to “an inequitable work environment that enables racism, white supremacy, and other discriminatory practices." Nan Keeton, deputy director of external relations at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, resigned after the museum censored a social media comment critical of its response to the protests. And the San Francisco Asian Art Museum removed a bust of its founding collector, Avery Brundage, a known Nazi sympathizer and racist, from its lobby.

Here in the Southland, arts professional Anuradha Vikram has initiated an open letter to SoCal museums, demanding they “take immediate steps to reflect the ethnic, racial and class makeup of the region and to eradicate entrenched white supremacist assumptions and practices.” Vikram was inspired to draft the letter with a group of BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, people of color) arts workers because she is “disgusted with the treatment that I and others have received in the institutions where we labor,” she wrote in a Facebook message, “SoCal museums have a lot of colonial baggage.”

The Enlightenment Room at the British Museum | Flickr/Creative Commons/Jack Ketcham/Public Domain
The Enlightenment Room at the British Museum | Flickr/Jack Ketcham/ Creative Commons (CC0 1.0)

Part of this baggage is the collections themselves, which were often built on the imperialist and exploitative practices of collectors who obtained artworks through questionable or violent means. By the time an object enters a museum collection, its ownership history may be obscured or poorly documented. For example, Nazi-looted art is a persistent problem, and in late June, the Los Angeles County Museum of Art agreed to return four Buddhist artworks to Korea that were stolen by U.S. soldiers after the Korean War. 

One institution leading the way in decolonizing its collections is the University of Southern California Pacific Asia Museum (USC PAM) in Pasadena. It has not only declared solidarity with Black Lives Matter but has announced plans to reevaluate its collection in this transformative moment. “We have a moment right now to deconstruct everything, take us down to the studs,” said USC PAM director Dr. Bethany Montagano, who sees the museum as a human-centered space for social healing, “If we don’t confront the fact that our collections are really loaded with the freight of racism and colonial and imperial structures, destructive forces, then we can’t do that healing work,” she said.

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The museum’s approach to reevaluating its collection centers around two questions: “Who did this hurt?” and “Who does this hurt now?” Some items are sculptural heads that were severed from their bodies when they were “collected.” Others are made of ivory, now prohibited due to inhumane and unsustainable hunting practices. Still others represent a colonial perspective that reinforces harmful stereotypes, “It’s not only problematic provenance, but also this exotic gaze,” said Montagano, “We do have things in the collection that were done by French or British colonial gaze, artists looking at Asian people, and that’s not okay, and it doesn't belong in the collection." Items like these will be repatriated, used as toolds to teach about racism or destroyed, she said.

Two people look at art in a gallery | Flickr/OPC/Creative Commons/Public Domain
Two people look at art in a gallery | Flickr/OPC/Creative Commons (CC0 1.0)

In navigating these issues, Montagano looks to the Asian American communities of the San Gabriel Valley for guidance. “I’ve heard a lot from these communities in saying, ‘We don’t feel represented by this collection,’” she said. “If the collection is unsafe, how can I provide safe structures for them?” She also wants to ensure that the USC student body, which includes many international students, and the Black and Latinx kids who visit the museum, feel included. “They have to be able to see themselves in this experience of this museum, or else we’re not doing our jobs,” she said.

All of these efforts will culminate in an exhibition in fall 2021, on the occasion of the museum’s 50th anniversary.

While USC PAM is certainly not alone in its desire for reform, it is one of the earliest to come forward with plans. “Museums, we’re slow, that’s how people look at us, and I don’t think we have time to be slow. I think that we have a responsibility to be active and to be a part of this dialogue,” Montagano said. “You don’t get many opportunities in life or in the museum field to be able to take a stand and do the right thing, and I think this is it.”

Top Image: USC Pacific Asia Museum exterior | Courtesy of USC Pacific Asia Museum

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