I’d like to go have coffee with Roopika Risam. She has beautifully articulated exactly why it is of the utmost importance to working to remedy the damages of colonialism, and is simultaneously aware and honest about the complicated challenges that institutions face in this effort. This is a conflict I have seen play out many times during my tenure at Gilcrease Museum, and I happen to have a decent example of my ability to exercise self-control as the Museum’s social media personality when presented with this comment from a Gilcrease Museum member on this Facebook post that featured the exhibition I-Witness Culture: Frank Buffalo Hyde. (For Context: The exhibition features artwork by artist Frank Buffalo Hyde (Onondaga/Nez Perce), and it "investigates the space where Native Americans exist today: between the ancient and the new; between the accepted truth and actual fact; between the known and the unknown.")
Currently, Museum policy is that I can’t troll people who comment in this manner, although I would love to do that. Fortunately, we had some supporters step in and show their love. Richard illustrates the dangerous belief that many other Gilcrease donors and members hold: history and politics should remain separate. Risam makes it very clear early on that there are “disruptions within the digital cultural record produced by colonialism and neocolonialism” (Risam, 3.) People like Richard, however, prefer to remain unaware of those disruptions because of how they were taught history long ago. They believe what they learned was fact, and now those facts that they cherish as cannon are being shown in a new light. This is problematic because, as I said, Richard is a paying Gilcrease Museum member. His opinion is taken more seriously by museum leadership because he contributes to covering our operating costs, and we don’t want to lose his support.
Risam addresses comments like Richard’s head-on, stating “digital humanities practitioners must contend not only with the colonial hangovers from the cultural record, but also with the forces that are actively constructing the medium of the digital cultural record—the internet—as a hostile environment where universities, libraries, and the cultural heritage sector are under threat, right along with the knowledge being produced and made publicly available by them” (Risam, 6.) Comments like Richard’s are not unique to Gilcrease Museum. They are an exhausting reality many museum social media managers face, but fortunately, it does appear that more museum followers are empowering themselves to fight back. However, Facebook comments only go so far. If people like Richard are unable to bring themselves to fund institutions like Gilcrease Museum because of their alleged politicization of history, which is more accurately postcolonial discourse, how will Gilcrease continue to operate?
Fortunately, people like Richard aren’t the only source of income for institutions with postcolonial pursuits. There are plenty of grant opportunities, foundations with similar interests, donors who see the value in uncovering voices that had been marginalized for far too long. Risam notes, though, that to best move forward in postcolonial efforts, institutions must “cultivate diverse communities; challenge the myth of democratized digital knowledge; make the case for and actually make new tools and methods” (Risam, 143.) All of these examples, if enacted successfully, can also help welcome more contemporary voices on social media to counter those like Richard’s. It takes time to shift brand perception and engage a new, more diverse audience, but historical and cultural institutions globally are making concerted efforts to do so. It will be rewarding to see fewer comments like Richard’s as this work continues.