Exhibition design and (de)coloniality: contesting museums’ language

Cláudia Garradas
CITCEM – Transdisciplinary Research Centre “Culture, Space and Memory”, Faculty of Arts and Humanities, University of Porto, Portugal

Sofia Carvalho
CITCEM – Transdisciplinary Research Centre “Culture, Space and Memory”, Faculty of Arts and Humanities, University of Porto, Portugal

This poster explores the intricate relationship between museums, language, colonialism, and racism. Museums, often perceived as apolitical spaces dedicated to aesthetics and the past, are increasingly recognised by society as active participants in the social and political realm. The ongoing discourse surrounding the decolonisation of museums underscores their relevance to rethink the connections between the past and present, and to imagine and create possible futures detached from the colonising worldviews.
In this regard, language plays a decisive role in decolonising museum practices. The power of language in shaping narratives, perceptions, and emotions is especially relevant, with words being a vital tool in exhibition design, capable of fostering inclusivity or perpetuating conflict and displacement. This poster delves into the use of language by museums when dealing with colonialism and coloniality, acknowledging the inherent challenges and conflicts arising from the historical titles of cultural objects, some containing discriminatory and racist terms.
Drawing from Grada Kilomba’s conceptual framework (Kilomba, 2019) of five crucial stages to attain a critical awareness of the intricate connection between colonialism and racism, this poster proposes that museums are positioned in the “shame” phase, confronting the discrepancies between self-perception and external perception.
Central to the analysis proposed by this poster is how museums and their professionals can deconstruct racism through language in exhibition design. Ultimately, the poster represents the collective questioning, doubt, and discomfort process in the global endeavour to decolonise museums.

Keywords: exhibition design, museum decolonisation, language, conflict

Cláudia Garradas is a PhD fellow in Heritage Studies specialising in Museology at the University of Porto (Portugal), Faculty of Arts and Humanities with a scholarship from the Foundation for Science and Technology, Portugal, with a project entitled “Maritime Museums: Exhibition Representations and Narratives of Mediterranean Cultures” ID – 2022.13713.BD. This doctoral research aims to describe how maritime museums interpret and display Mediterranean cultures, including conflict and (de)colonial processes. Ultimately, it investigates how Maritime Museums can act as bridges between cultures and as instruments of intercultural dialogue. She is a research fellow at CITCEM at the University of Porto. She holds a bachelor’s in history of art (1998), a two-year specialisation in Museology (2000), and a Master´s degree in Museum and Curatorial Studies (2007), all from the University of Porto. Between 2021 and 2022, she worked at the Malta Maritime Museum as an Archival and Museum Collections Manager. Between 2016 and 2021, she was the Site Director for the Malta Study Center at Hill Museum and Manuscript Library. Previously, she was Head Curator of the Fine Arts Museum of the University of Porto (1997-2013). During this period, she was responsible for research, inventory, cataloguing, and documentation of museum collections and archival material.

Sofia Carvalho is currently a PhD fellow in Heritage Studies specialising in Museology at the University of Porto (Portugal), with the project “(De)colonial narratives in museums: mechanisms for the (de)construction of racism in Portugal” (2021.05924.BD) supported by the Portuguese Foundation for Science and Technology (FCT). She holds a bachelor’s degree in Art History from the NOVA University of Lisbon (2014), a master’s in Information and Documentation Sciences from the University of Lisbon (2018), and a Specialization Course in Museology from the University of Porto (2021). She is a researcher at CITCEM – Transdisciplinary Research Centre “Culture, Space and Memory”, and Editorial Assistant at MIDAS – Museus e Estudos Interdisciplinares (Museum Interdisciplinary Studies). Her research interests focus on the relationship between museological narratives, colonialism, coloniality and racism.