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Growing Movement Pushes Museums to Cut Ties With Colonialism and Apartheid

Museums have profited from colonial violence for centuries. Strike MoMA and other activists worldwide say, “no more.”

Activists lead an Anti-Columbus Day rally at the American Museum of Natural History on October 8, 2018, in New York City.

Every Friday for the past nine weeks, artists and activists have been carrying on weekly rallies, assemblies and teach-ins in front of the Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York City. Building on several years of earlier organizing work calling out the ties of board members at the Whitney Museum and MoMA to carceral violence, war and climate crisis, the Strike MoMA initiative was sparked early this year by revelations about the close association between museum chairman and private equity magnate Leon Black and the late billionaire sexual abuser and rapist Jeffrey Epstein. Strike MoMA has grown into a challenge that extends beyond powerful individuals to the institution as a whole. The Strike MoMA campaign is a flashpoint in a broader national and international struggle to variously decolonize, reimage, and in some cases, even abolish institutions like the museum during a time of intensifying social and environmental crises.

Taking aim at MoMA, the crown jewel in what cultural critic Macarena Goméz-Barris has recently called “the museum-industrial complex,” movements are challenging the way in which oligarchs “artwash” the profits of extractivism. The Strike MoMA protests have helped weave together resistance to multiple forms of oppression, with protests in recent weeks focusing on the complicity of members of the MoMA board of trustees in Israel’s apartheid policies toward Palestinians and in the brutalization of communities resisting mineral extraction in the Dominican Republic.

As artist and activist Luna Picart puts it, “taking aim at the interlocking directorate of museum boards is becoming a way to amplify the interconnected struggles of our movements, from Palestine to Colombia to the Bronx.” The initiative will culminate on June 11 with a gathering to determine next steps for what organizers call a just transition to a post-MoMA future. By bringing foreclosed futures into view, Strike MoMA opens space for something different to emerge, a space and a set of possibilities “under the control of workers, communities, and artists rather than billionaires,” in the words of the Strike MoMA framework document.

In recent years museums have emerged as significant sites of political struggle and transformation, from historic unionization drives to calls for the redressing of racialized and gendered inequalities built into the operational fabric of cultural institutions. This trend was evident on a sunny afternoon in mid-October 2019, when I joined a group of roughly 700 activists gathered on the steps of the American Museum of Natural History in New York for the first stop in what organizers called the Fourth Anti-Columbus Day Tour. The communities and organizations that met at the museum — including the immigrant-rights-focused New Sanctuary Coalition, the prison abolitionist organization No New Jails, and the artist/activist group Decolonize This Place — voiced the same demands that they had articulated during previous demonstrations against Columbus Day: Rename the Day, Respect the Ancestors, Remove the Statue.

None of these demands had been met: At that time, October 14 was still officially named after Columbus in New York; the American Museum of Natural History had resisted establishing an overarching plan for decolonization and refused to institute a policy prohibiting display of human remains without the consent of descendent communities; and perhaps most glaringly, the equestrian statue of Theodore Roosevelt flanked by an enslaved African and a Native American continued to stand on the stairs leading up to the museum’s grand entrance. In response to protesters who pointed out that the statue is an offensive symbol of white supremacy, the museum had placed a plaque in front of the statue saying that “some see the statue as a heroic group; others, as a symbol of racial hierarchy.” At the Fourth Anti-Columbus Day Tour, Decolonize This Place responded to this plaque by saying, “There are not ‘two sides’ to genocide and white supremacy,” underlining that Roosevelt’s stance as a conservationist does not erase his history as an imperialist and eugenicist. It wasn’t until June 2020, amid nationwide Black Lives Matter protests and movements to remove statues commemorating Confederate generals, that Mayor Bill de Blasio agreed to take down the statue — although it remains standing today.

The American Museum of Natural History is no outlier in its deep entanglement with a legacy of racism. As British science curators Subhandra Das and Miranda Lowe argue, natural history museums functioned from their inception during the 18th century as repositories for the objects and specimens collected on European colonial expeditions around the globe. Most of these objects are still on display, while the museums themselves remain organized around the paradigms of colonial knowledge on which they were built. Museums as institutions are thus deeply connected to settler colonialism and forms of scientific knowledge production and display that played a key role in legitimating racial capitalism and colonial genocide.

This ugly legacy is not just a bit of detritus from the past: The origin of the museum in colonial-capitalist extractivism continues to shape how most contemporary museums function — what gets displayed in their halls, who makes curatorial decisions, and who sits on the governing boards that subtly shape the orientation and future of these institutions.

In recent years, activists have agitated to spread awareness of the history that has shaped museums, and the ways in which extractivist capitalism continues to determine the character of museums. Weaving together struggles for an end to gentrification and displacement, for abolition of racist policing and prisons, and for climate justice, social movements have called out museums as sites where many interwoven forms of oppression coalesce.

In response to this mounting public scrutiny and criticism, museums have begun to shift some of their policies. In 2015, for example, the California Academy of Sciences announced that it would divest from fossil fuels. Reacting to longstanding criticism from environmental groups, the museum’s director wrote that “it seems difficult to reconcile the mission of a public science museum focused on ecology, evolution, and sustainability and the practice of investing in fossil fuels.”

In Britain, the Tate Galleries declared a climate emergency in 2019, pledging to “interrogate our systems, our values, and our programs, and look for ways to become more adaptive and responsible.” This step was only taken, however, after years of stinging criticism and direct action protest on the part of organizations like Liberate Tate. In an indication of the turning tide, the American Alliance of Museums recently gave space on its blog to a project exploring the potential role of museums as catalysts for climate action.

But many of these reforms come from the top down, leaving the hierarchical institutional structure of museums intact. Few museums have truly turned over their spaces and social capital to communities on the frontlines of the climate crisis.

An indication of what museums allied with frontline communities’ struggles for climate justice might look like can be seen in the Museum of Vancouver’s “Acts of Resistance” exhibition (2020-21), which showcased the artwork of seven Indigenous artist-activists from the Pacific Northwest whose designs were featured in protests against the Trans Mountain Expansion pipeline project.

Another groundbreaking collaboration will be on view at the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian this autumn, when the “Red Road to DC” will go on display: This exhibition will highlight the cross-country tour of a totem pole created by Indigenous carvers, connecting 20 Native-led struggles in the U.S. where sacred lands, waters and wildlife are imperiled by extractive industries, dams and climate change.

But what about more recently established museums, ones that may initially appear to have little connection to the racist forms of social ordering and exterminism embodied in natural history museums? What, for instance, of museums of modern art, institutions ostensibly dedicated to iconoclastic, forward-looking artworks?

I got an intimation of these institutions’ complicity in extractivist logics the first time I visited the Tehran Museum of Contemporary Art (TMoCA). Just as one does at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, one enters TMoCA by walking along a spiral ramp past galleries that branch off a central air-filled atrium. But TMoCA’s ramp goes down rather than up, and as I walked down into the bowels of the museum, I became aware of a strange smell, heavy and tar-like. At the bottom of the ramp, I saw a large shiny black square, an object that gleamed like polished stone. The odor of naphthalene revealed that this was no stone but a huge pool of crude oil. Installed by Japanese artist Noriyuki Haraguchi shortly before the 1979 revolution, the 14-by-21 foot pool contains nearly 2,000 gallons of oil. Officially titled Matter and Mind, the oil pool in the basement of TMoCA constitutes a blunt reminder of the webs of material and cultural power that bind contemporary aesthetic production to extractivism and fossil capitalism.

The Strike MoMA campaign is currently highlighting the metaphoric giant oil slick lurking in the basement of New York’s Museum of Modern Art (MoMA). For instance, MoMA established its preeminent collection of modern art by drawing on the Rockefeller oil fortune. Strike MoMA insists that the museum must be seen in relation to other policy arms of the Rockefeller dynasty, including the Rockefeller Foundation, the Council on Foreign Relations, Chase Bank and the Trilateral Commission — entities fueling practically every sector of global capitalism and its geopolitical dynamics in the 20th century and beyond.

As is true for natural history museums, this toxic legacy of extraction, financialization, dispossession and pollution continues to play out in the present. Witness the climate criminals who populate the MoMA board today: Larry Fink, CEO of BlackRock, the Wall Street goliath which maintains massive investments in fossil fuels and agribusiness industries that lead to deforestation, despite recent headline-grabbing announcements about the firm’s divestment from coal; Marlene Hess, heir to the multibillion-dollar Hess Oil corporation; and Jeffrey Epstein associate Glenn Dubin, head of the major energy trading firm Castleton Commodities International. As the Strike MoMA framework document puts it, “their accumulation has only been possible through our dispossession.”

While it would be incorrect to suggest that today’s robber barons directly determine everything that appears in the halls of MoMA and similar museums, it would also be naïve to imagine that they play no role in shaping the museum’s priorities. After all, MoMA’s foundational benefactor John D. Rockefeller Jr. famously destroyed Diego Rivera’s mural at Rockefeller Center when he learned that the painter had incorporated an image of Lenin in his mural. Rockefeller’s son, Nelson, who served a stint as chairman of MoMA’s board of trustees, described the abstract expressionist works that the museum championed as “Free Enterprise Painting.” No surprise then that the CIA helped finance MoMA’s international exhibitions, turning the museum into an arm of U.S. cultural warfare during the Cold War.

What would institutions that eschewed toxic philanthropy be capable of? What new ways of seeing, creativity and dreaming might such a decolonized institution help cultivate? In the recent words of a letter published by 150 artists and arts workers, “museums and other arts institutions must pursue alternative structures, Land Back initiatives, reparations, and additional ideas that constitute an abolitionist approach towards arts and arts patronage, so that they align with the egalitarian principles that drew us to art in the first place.” Strike MoMA opens a space where institutions truly dedicated to the common good may develop, places that reject the toxic ties between extractivism and the climate crisis that undergird so many museums today, and instead foster infrastructures of repair, care and mutual aid.

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