Decolonizing the UMFA

The UMFA is assessing its collection—how it arrived at the Museum, how it is cared for while it’s here, and how it is interpreted.

We recognize that many of our exhibition decisions have prioritized Euro-American academic perspectives above the voices of the Indigenous makers and communities whose cultural heritages we care for and interpret. It should be the opposite.

We recognize that the concept of a collecting museum was conceived and built from a Eurocentric worldview. Collecting museums reflect an unjust colonial legacy and, unchecked, they can perpetuate harm and systemic oppression.

As the UMFA works to enact its mission to inspire critical dialogue and illuminate the role of art in our lives, it is  committed to: 

  • being transparent about the collection’s place within a colonial legacy in ongoing changes to exhibitions, programs, and community partnerships
  • finding new ways of collecting, researching, and exhibiting works of art that center Indigenous knowledge
  • repatriating any work of art that may have been looted or obtained in an unlawful manner
  • embracing art’s power to promote justice and create meaningful connections in our lives

As you visit our galleries and consider the artworks that we care for and share with you, you might find yourself wondering about the following questions.

Who is the artist?
Museums often don’t list the names of artists on labels for non-Western art for a number of reasons: makers might be unknown because of how the object was unearthed, because it was believed to be divinely created, or because the functional properties were deemed more valuable than authorship. In many instances, Western collectors simply neglected or made a conscious choice not to register artists’ names. This historical collecting practice reflects a lack of respect and a colonial power imbalance that negatively impacts us today. For this reason, the UMFA uses the term “Unidentified artist” to acknowledge that individual artists created these objects, even if Western collecting practices have resulted in the erasure of their identity.

What is missing?
Object labels are often based on institutional records that may not be complete or accurate. Museum staff is continually researching objects in the collection, including when and how an object left its place of origin. These discoveries are made accessible on labels and in the Museum’s public database. If you notice a mistake or have additional information about an object in the collection, please contact

What about context?
Many artworks on display were made with aesthetic intent but would have been admired or used in contexts quite different from that of a museum. In their original settings, objects may have been worn,  displayed, used in daily life, played a role in performances, or created to capitalize on Western interests. Object labels and exhibition texts are intended to help convey this cultural background, but ultimately museum visitors experience these works in new ways.

NOTE: This language is drawn from the UMFA Strategic Plan and UMFA collection planning documents. It was also inspired by the work of curator Dr. Christa Clarke and our colleagues at Smith College Museum of Art and the Museum of Us.