On a day traditionally devoted to memorializing imperialist poster child Christopher Columbus, a crew of cultural renegades crashed the American Museum of Natural History in Manhattan with an alternative Indigenous Peoples’ Day celebration. The artist-activist collective Decolonize This Place occupied the vaunted institution with—what else—an educational tour.
The crowd of about 200 mostly youthful observers embarked on a subversive walk-through, snaking around displays of “native” artifacts poached from different continents, gazing at the scenes of “primitive” societies in a new light as their radical tour guides gave their own explanations of the exhibits. Their route was mapped out on a red-and-white printed brochure, with a cover depicting the Theodore Roosevelt statue at the museum’s entrance surrounded by police barricades.
At the Hall of Asian Mammals, standing amid a macabre menagerie of decorated carcasses, Tongan artist Vaimoana Litia Makakaufaki Niumeitolu proclaimed, “Shot down, stuffed, and hauled to the museum for display, these species made their way here through the circuits of empire.” Rooted in colonial plunder, she explained, the project that began with the embalmed animals continues today with the ongoing expropriation of native land throughout the world for “conservation,” with wildlife preserves that have been “depopulated for the use of tourists, just as the tradition of indigenous resistance continues.”
The tour proceeded to examine the antiquated orientalism of the “Hall of Islam,” which depicted the Muslim world as a primitive anti-modern cultural sphere; exposed the eugenicist ideology underpinning the “Man’s Rise to Civilization” exhibit, which placed Western modernity and technology at the pinnacle of social development; and dissected the “Hall of African Peoples,” in which black bodies are displayed as specimens and “the vast multiplicity of African social and cultural life is thinned out and labeled like flora and fauna.”
The collective behind the alternative tour, Decolonize This Place, grew out of the academic and artistic collaborations that began percolating during Occupy Wall Street five years ago. Their museum takeover was a symbolic protest against the gentrification and displacement unfolding just outside the marble walls, in poor communities of color of the surrounding city that are excluded from such elite cultural spheres.
The action was incubated in Artists Space in Soho, a freewheeling downtown studio that cultivates innovative contemporary art projects. During their three-month “takeover” at Artists Space, Decolonize is hosting meetings, performances and film screenings, along with art builds, in which activists gather to create protest signs, paint banners, and construct other DIY productions focused on gentrification, global labor activism, Palestinian resistance, and movements for indigenous rights around the world.