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Decolonize This Place Demands Repatriation of “Imperial Plunder” at the Brooklyn Museum

Parallel to today’s protest at the RISD Museum, organizers from Decolonize This Place gathered at the Brooklyn Museum to decry stolen objects in the Brooklyn Museum’s collection.

Decolonize This Place activists in the third-floor Egyptian galleries (all images by the author for Hyperallergic unless otherwise noted)

Simultaneous to today’s protest at the RISD Museum, activists from Decolonize This Place gathered at the Brooklyn Museum to protest the objects in the museum’s collection acquired by past imperial conquest.

The organization has protested at the museum on numerous occasions, adamant that its administration establish a “Decolonization Commission.” An organizer with Decolonize This Place, Amin, said as the activists prepared to enter the museum, “This action, in a way, is a reminder to the museum. It lays out what the museum has yet to respond to, which is why we’re here.” He explained, “This is about us being present and delivering a message. It’s really not a protest.” Amin called the banners they had prepared an extension of the shows on display, saying they were art in conversation with the exhibitions.

The group first entered the museum’s top floor, the entryway to the expansive and well-received exhibition Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power.

The front of the handout disseminated at today’s action (courtesy of Decolonize This Place)

“Our action today begins in the galleries of the Soul of a Nation: Art in the Age of Black Power, surrounded by works of militant beauty from the 1960s and 70s,” the organization wrote on flyers they disseminated through the galleries. “From Betye Saar to Emory Douglas, the Black Arts movement was crucially concerned with the connection between the liberation of Black people in the United States with the histories, cultures, and anti-colonial struggles of Africa. It is with this powerful exhibition as a backdrop that our gathering sets out to make visible a violent legacy that runs through this institution.”

They began the action by unfolding their first banner in a room of assemblage works by artists including Betye Saar and Noah Purifoy. Organizers gathered in a circle and began reading their day’s mission from the handout and offering their own testimonials. An early Friday afternoon, there were a number of school groups meandering throughout the galleries.

“Colonial plunder is a perfect example of the misuse and disrespect of artworks,” one Decolonize This Place member explained to the group in their quiet discussion.

Initially, gallery security seemed confused, but soon after, senior security staffers entered the gallery to confront the collective. They asked the banners to be folded and taken out of the gallery and said they required permission from the museum to move forward with an action of this manner. “This is completely not related to what we have here,” one guard said. A visitor services employee arrived, and the organizers and staffers continued to debate. As they did, patrons asked members to see copies of their flyer.

Arguing the banners were art, the protesters held the banner against one participant’s back, to the disdain of museum security, and walked toward the front of the gallery to exit. A visitor services staff member escorted Amin downstairs to discuss the museum’s regulations for hosting protests.

One Decolonize This Place member, Amy, told Hyperallergic that such a reaction from security during organized actions was not uncommon. She says the group understands that the hired security are told to stop anything that might disrupt the art, but says their intention was not to be disruptive. “This is an education thing for us as a group, and also for the people around us who are curious.”

The group walked through the remainder of the Soul of a Nation exhibition. When they entered the third-floor exhibition of Egyptian artifacts, they began to unfold their banners once again, but after a longer stretch of time than their initial attempt, five security personnel entered the gallery and asked them to desist. They exited the museum, handing out flyers on the way, in the café and throughout the lobby.

Amin returned from his discussion with visitor services just as they were being asked to fold up their banners once again. He told Hyperallergic that he met with two visitor services staff members, who, “communicated how they’re supportive and it’s an uncomfortable position.” He says they tried to contact Brooklyn Museum administration but were unable, instead forwarding them a letter from Decolonize This Place.

Hyperallergic has not yet received a response from the Brooklyn Museum.

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