Work in Progress

Decolonizing the UMFA

What is decolonization?
To begin to answer this question, it is helpful to define colonization: a political, economic, social, and cultural process through which a country, government, or political or ethnic group exerts control over another country, government, or political or ethnic group. Throughout history, colonization has often created conditions in which groups of people are governed against their will by a foreign faction with greater political, economic, and military power.

Decolonization is a misnomer because it is not the opposite of colonization and undoing colonization is impossible. Instead, decolonization is a long, complicated process of assessing, analyzing, understanding, and reconciling the effects of colonization. We in the twenty-first century have all inherited many histories of colonization. We will be decolonizing for generations to come.

What does decolonization have to do with museums?
Museums are products of modern history, which includes numerous examples of colonization throughout the world. Many museums contain works of art that were obtained through situations of conflict, theft, coercion, and desperation. Some works may have been obtained under terms that were considered fair at the time but are no longer under today’s standards. These complex histories of objects become parts of the histories of the museums that hold them today.

What does it mean for a museum like the UMFA to work on decolonizing?
Decolonizing the UMFA means rethinking and redoing the ways we care for, study, and present works of art to viewers and visitors. Indeed, it involves much more than issuing statements, because truly committing to decolonization is answering a call to action.

These are some ways we are working to decolonize the UMFA:


  • Acknowledging that the UMFA and its collection are products of histories that are racist, white-supremacist, classist, imperialist, and discriminatory.
  • Taking responsibility for better understanding the histories of the works of art in the UMFA collection.
  • Building and sustaining relationships with individuals and communities who have endured colonization.


  • Prioritizing research about origins, cultural contexts, and provenance (record of ownership) of works of art in the UMFA collection.
  • Uncovering information from a variety of sources historians have traditionally relied on, as well as from the tremendous sources of knowledge in the shared histories of native and Indigenous communities.
  • Consulting with individuals and communities who have endured colonization, recognizing that their stories and oral histories are invaluable sources of knowledge.


  • Rewriting labels to provide more information about the origins and histories of works of art, including how they came to the UMFA.
  • Using photographs, videos, interactive, and other media to provide more information about works of art.
  • Revising labels to honor the cultural and ethnic origins of works of art, including formatting artists’ names as is customary to their cultures, showing artists’ names in their native characters or script, and privileging native and Indigenous cultural and ethnic identifiers before modern nationalities or nation-states.
  • Presenting all labels in English and Spanish to reflect our inherited histories of colonization in the Americas and to be more inclusive for viewers and visitors to the UMFA.
  • Avoiding the term “non-Western,” which dishonors cultures around the world by grouping them as “other,” and instead, identifying works of art by their geographical or cultural origin.
  • Promoting inclusive language and terminology that is consistent with approaches to decolonization today.


  • Centering the perspectives of individuals and communities who have endured colonization.
  • Exhibiting and acquiring works of art that inform us about colonization, thereby supporting artists and artistic communities whose work increases our understanding of our shared histories.
  • Returning works of art that are determined to have been obtained under unlawful circumstances to their lawful owners.

The UMFA is working to decolonize the galleries starting with the Ancient Mesoamerican gallery. Learn more here.