The New Museum Paradigm 2021 Seminar Series, by Samuel Aylett


The Postcolonial Heritage Research Group (PHRG) and The University of Sussex School of Media, Arts and Humanities are excited to present a new seminar series titled The  New Museum Paradigm, which seeks to provide a common platform to promote complex and provocative research concerned with the social role of museums. Our seminar welcomes approaches that engage critically with key themes and issues relating to the study of museums and their place in society in the hope of drawing interdisciplinary links between different contexts of museum traditions in how they engage with the themes of imperialism, colonialism and slavery (and other intersecting issues). We are interested in bringing together perspectives from Europe, North America, South America and Africa to explore new subjects, methods, philosophies, approaches, temporalities, geographies and practices under the guise of the New Museum Paradigm in the hope of producing a more high-resolution picture of the current museumscape.

This seminar series will follow on from our successful 2019 inaugural symposium Empire and the New Museum Paradigm, which was also hosted by The University of Sussex (funded by CHASE). A summary of the symposium can be found here:


We welcome speakers from across academia and the museum & heritage sector, and we aim to ensure maximum representation of those from underrepresented groups as well as postgraduate students and ECRs.  We aim to have 6 sessions in total, all focusing on decolonisation in museums, touching on important themes concerning the social role of museums:

  1. Museums and Education (Convenor: Laharee Mitra, MA Goldsmiths, University of London)

  2. Museums and Science (Convenor: Mike Rayner, PhD student, University of Sussex)

  3. Museums and Race (Convenor: Matthew Jones, PhD student, University of Sussex)

  4. Museums and Anti-Slavery (Convenor: Adiva Lawrence, PhD student, University of Hull & Dr Lennon Mhishi, Postdoctoral Research Assistant, University of Liverpool)

  5. Museums and Restitution (Convenor: Dr Samuel Aylett, Visiting Fellow at The Open University)

  6. Summary session: The New Museum Paradigm? (Convenor: Dr Samuel Aylett, Visiting Fellow at The Open University)

Each session will last around one and a half hours. Each session will comprise 3 speakers with papers of no longer than 10-15mins, followed by a Q&A. We also welcome presentations that take the form of artistic interventions in the broadest sense, and those that diverge from the usual format. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have decided to hold these seminars virtually. This also presents us with the opportunity to broadcast these seminars to a global audience. We will also be recording them and uploading them onto YouTube. 


We welcome proposals from academic, practitioners, artists, activists, and heritage and museum professionals that speak to/contradict/challenge the thematic panels (detailed below).. Please submit a short bio (no more than 200 words), and a proposal of no more than 300 words to Further explanation of each thematic panel can be found below. PLEASE SUBMIT YOUR PROPOSAL NO LATER THAN THE 16TH APRIL 2021. We expect papers to take place during the summer term. 


Applicants from underrepresented minority groups across the humanities, academia and the arts & heritage sector  can apply for a bursary of £200. Whilst the conference is online, and therefore travel is not necessary, we are acutely aware of the underrepresentation of minority groups across the Humanities.  The Royal Historical Report on Race, Ethnicity and Equality released in 2018, demonstrated, for example, that in the history profession ‘…93.7% of historians are White, a figure considerably higher than that for the sector as whole (85%) making the discipline one of the least diverse in the sector. Almost all BME (Black and Minority Ethnic) groups are underrepresented, but the proportion of Black academics is especially low. Across the sector, only 1.5% of academic staff are Black. In History the proportion is 0.5%.’ Experiences of exclusion, bias and discrimination need to be challenge if we are to attract the best intellects, and it is with this in mind we encourage those fro
m underrepresented groups to apply for a bursary when submitting a proposal. A total of 15 bursaries are available

As this is a chase funded event, Please note that Chase students are not eligible for bursaries but may be able to receive support as part of their training fund.

Thematic panels:

  1. Museums and Education

One of the primary justifications for the foundation and survival of museums has been the ‘educational’ role of museums. Museums have served as important resources to aid the school curriculum, seeing their institutions teeming with school children during term time. Learning programmes and facilities are advertised predominantly to engage more directly with general visitors.

Recently, learning and engagement professionals have been placing greater emphasis on object-based learning, sensory, and emotional experiences in museums. These efforts challenge traditional modes of learning practices, and reevaluate the distinctions between the ‘expert’ and ‘student’. Behind the scenes, both museum professionals and academics have been labouring to unpack the colonial legacies of museums. How can this important research be communicated, without falling back on traditional didactic models of education? Can museum learning be used as a tool for ‘decolonising the museum’? What changes do institutions need to make ? This session seeks to explore the cross-roads between decolonial museum practice and museum learning and engagement.

  1. Museums and Science

In 1969, Joseph Needham wrote, ‘it should be clearly understood that Europe did not give rise to ‘European’ or ‘Western’ science, but to universally valid world science.’ Recent postcolonial interpretations of science have challenged this both on the grounds of the universal validity of Western science and its Eurocentric origin. Postcolonial histories of science have explored how indigenous knowledge contributed to the establishment of modern science, while Foucauldian epistemology explores the role of power within knowledge production.

In the current ‘post-truth’ age, public communicators of science face the dual challenge of contextualising science within a nuanced historical perspective and counteracting the subjective relativism caused by the politicisation of scientific theories. This session seeks to situate science museums in a network of scientific institutions and explore their role as public communicators of knowledge, including: concerns around legitimacy of authority; the development of public trust; their navigation of the current socio-political climate; and their efforts to decolonise their own practice.

  1. Museums and Race

This panel will explore museums as white institutions which are deeply imbricated with histories of white supremacy, racism, and violence towards people of colour. It will look at this from different perspectives such as the temporary staff, permanent staff, researcher, artists in the museum, and being a visitor to the museum. It aims to discuss the emotional and intellectual experiences of this, how these experiences have changed over time, the root of these issues and what the future might hold with reference to current developments in practice and discourse around museums towards developing decolonial museological practice.

As entry point into understanding the multifaceted ways race and heritage are connected this panel will take the events of the summer of 2020 regarding the Black Lives Matter as a starting point to explore the emotional, intellectual and social experiences of people of colour when they interact with heritage and museums either as working with or visiting these spaces. This approach aims to situate these events within longer term movements of anti-racism activism and decolonisation movements in order to understand them, and their relationship to heritage, more fully. 

  1. Museums and Anti-Slavery

In March 2020, the International Slavery Museum of Liverpool appointed a Curator of Contemporary Forms of Slavery, with the mission to work on developing the Museum’s collection, and to prepare material for a large permanent exhibition on the subject. The post description reads ‘Working closely with NGO’s, government, law enforcement, academics and communities the post holder will be responsible for researching, and developing content for the display galleries, exhibitions and public programming on contemporary forms of slavery including (but not limited to) forced labour, domestic servitude, sexual slavery and human trafficking.’ It indicates an understanding of the Museum’s mission to operate as an active agent of political change. However, we are also aware that the museum space is not separate from the forms of power and hierarchical modes of relation in wider society. Even today, it is generally admitted that museums’ responses to calls for radical change and decolonization have not yet succeeded in transforming the way publics engage with the histories and legacies of slavery and colonialism such as racism, or the growing issues related to extractive economies. It is therefore also of interest to this session to highlight some of the limitations museums tackling the issue of contemporary forms of slavery may be faced with, which may be in part due to their own entanglement with colonial and oppressive structures. 

How, then, do we curate the present relations of power and exploitation? What methodologies may be put in place to challenge the histories and structures of oppression and dispossession that birth the kinds of exploitation we are contending with today? We welcome contributions that explore these questions from a variety of approaches, and are particularly interested in scholarly perspectives that engage in a critical reappraisal of the conceptual tools most commonly deployed to address them. Of particular interest to this session will be to think though the paradigmatic field of ‘modern slavery’. We are equally interested in devising curatorial methods that do not reproduce the colonial visual regimes and their pitfalls in dealing the lives of oppressed subjects in exhibitions. Additionally, if museums are places of anti-slavery activism, what concrete uses of their materials and resources can be displayed by museums as gestures towards liberation?

  1. Museums and Restitution

Since the release of the 2018 Sarr-Savoyr report on the Restitution of African Culture Heritage: Toward a new Relational Ethics, the debate around the restitution of  African material culture has reached fever-pitch. Provenance research projects that are posited to underwrite restitution efforts have become the focus of museums and universities across the globe. In Germany, for example, Prof. Monika Grütters (The State Minister for Culture and Media) announced a new strategy for the recording and digital publication of collections from colonial contexts, with the hope of developing improved cultural relations with former colonised peoples. And whilst such projects help to develop relationships with those communities d
emanding restitution, many would argue there has been little in the way of actual restitution, and that such efforts overemphasise long-term ‘loans’, often reinforced by disingenuous universalist arguments. More recently, the French senate voted unanimously to return 27 looted objects within one year, though, as the culture minister Roselyne Bachelot stated, this in no way ‘challenges the principle of inalienability’. Inalienable from whom?

Of course the debate around restitution goes back much further than 2018, but as Dan Hicks, author of The Brutish Museums has rather shrewdly pointed outrhetoric is hardening, and debate has been obfuscated by the language of press officers, rather than academics and activists, ‘driving the misunderstanding of restitution as a choice between retaining everything or the spectre of empty galleries’. With this in mind, we invite papers that speak to the history and present of restitution critically.

  1. The New Museum Paradigm? Summary Session

In 1989, more than 30 years ago, Peter Vergo declared The New Museology. Less concerned with the ‘how to’ of museum management and curatorship, The New Museology was concerned with ‘the purpose of museums’. Foundational texts that emerged alongside this new museological approach sought to ‘deconstruct the historical and structural narratives [of the museum], practices and strategies of display, and the concerns and imperatives of governing ideologies.’ These ideas, as they began to inform curatorial practice alongside the presence of more radical voices emerging both from within the educational and heritage sectors and from without, gave rise to more equitable methods of interpretation that focused on, but that were not limited to, who was being represented, how and what for. More recently, the very existence of museums, and the western colonial philosophies on which they’re built, have been challenged as part of a broader decolonial movement. 

2020 has been a year in which both old and new global challenges have called into question the role of the museum in shaping our past, present and future, and their very necessity. Black Lives Matter, for example, has focused minds on the way in which racial injustice and racism continues to operate globally, and how the legacy of colonialism persists in our arts and cultural institutions. There are, however, those museums that have fundamentally challenged what a museum is and what it is for. The District 6 Museum in Cape Town South Africa, now threatened with closure, was born out of a need to capture the memories and stories of District Sixers who had been forcibly removed from their land under the Apartheid regime. And, whilst a physical location exists, much of the museum ‘work’ takes place outside the museum, and focuses on the goal of successful land claims and land restitution. Designed with the recognition that museums occupy space already politically and socially charged, museums can and must be a force for good in the world. 30 years on from the New Museology, to what extent has there emerged a New Museum Paradigm? Many of the key museological questions remain the same, but focus has  shifted from the institution as the central location of analysis, to relational dynamics between museums and human flourishing.

DEADLINE for PROPOSALS: 16th April 2021

We expect the conference to take place during the Autumn Term 2021

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