Challenging Persisting Narratives: The Role of Oral History in Decolonizing Museums

Elisabeth Rios-Brooks

Authors:  Elisabeth Rios-Brooks

Faculty Mentor: Dr. Rosana Resende

College:  College of Liberal Arts and Sciences


I propose that to radically decolonize means to go beyond raising awareness of the lack of alternative perspectives in which history is taught and represented in museums. Rather it calls on the need to socially and personally interrogate our own ingrained prejudices and biases. Further, it seeks to recognize the age-old colonialist structures of power, in which our society is grounded, as unequal and inherently racist to then to create a pedagogical framework that centers historically marginalized perspectives. This thesis will propose a methodology to decolonize museum exhibitions, primarily centering my experience at the National Museum of Natural History and Science in Lisbon, Portugal. I was tasked with diversifying the narratives presented in the exhibition “Moranças: Traditional Habitats of Guinea-Bissau” by executing my own oral history project titled “Voices from Guinea-Bissau.” I interviewed 5 Bissau-Guinean women to gain their perspective – this provided a deeper understanding of the images exhibited through their personal and ancestral anecdotes. I aim to propose a methodology to integrate a decolonial framework that can be used cultural heritage spaces. This thesis also hopes to encourage researchers, curators, and educators to remain critical of who is being represented, how they are being represented, and for what end.

Poster Pitch

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17 Responses
    1. Elisabeth Rios-Brooks

      Hi Dr. C,

      Thank you so much for your comment! This research is important because there is a lack of literature on how one can decolonize cultural heritage spaces. Taking on something like the decolonization of a space is an opportunity to take the theoretical into the practical. This can be overwhelming without a manual. I am creating a methodology that is versatile and also grounded in real-life examples.

  1. Ollie Trac

    What a cool poster, and amazing work! In all the ways we should all be proactively decolonizing our minds and this is a great way to bring the subject to light.

    1. Elisabeth Rios-Brooks

      Hi Ollie,

      I could not agree more! It is important to recognize the structures of power that dominate our society as unequal. In our struggle against these institutions of power that uplift some but not all, I find that immersing myself in feminist, decolonial literature (e.g. Maria Lugones) as well as literature by African independence/community leaders (e.g. Amílcar Cabral) can help transform our perspectives and worldviews.

  2. Pranav Chinmay

    Hi Liz,

    This is great stuff, we should talk more about it. I’ve experienced plenty of frustration at how most spaces are colonised, even language. This kind of pervasive thing leads to reductive perspectives, which causes unconscious bias. “Masks”, at the Harn’s African night, for instance…


    1. Elisabeth Rios-Brooks

      Hi Chinmay,

      Thank you so much for stopping by! I completely agree that many museums today are guilty of perpetuating colonial narratives. There are objects in the “Masks” show that are actually contemporary. I often wonder why the Kehinde Wiley at the Harn is not placed next to other objects in the “Masks” show. Why must we continuously frame Africa in a context that divorces it from the present? What type of narrative about Africa does that perpetuate to all those that leave the “Masks” exhibition?

  3. Josh Steele

    What an amazing project! Many of our cultural artifacts/exhibits/museums transpose our own biased lens, and projects such as yours help us to critique these representations and bring suppresses voices to light. I’m curious if you think if these methods would alter what is preserved as well? Would value be placed differently if a community was part of collection construction from the start?

    1. Elisabeth Rios-Brooks

      Hi Josh!

      Thank you so much for taking the time to review my research. In regard to your question, I strongly believe that once museums begin the process of engaging with their communities authentically (e.g. taking a moment to understand their needs and wants), the museum will STOP being about its collections and become a place of co-creation. What I mean by this is that the museum will be reflective of the needs and wants of their immediate community. In the future, I see museums as cultural hubs of exchange and learning. The moment we listen and begin to center the voices of our communities, is the moment we begin to divorce ourselves from traditional, western-imposed standards that have hurt our communities so deeply!

  4. Melanie Hechavarria

    Incredible job Elisabeth! Very interesting work you are doing! I look forward to all that you will accomplish moving forward in life and following your passions!

  5. Melanie Hechavarria

    Elisabeth! You did a fantastic job! Your poster was very well written and organized and your presentation blew me away! I’m very excited to see all that you will accomplish moving forward in this pursuit of your passions and justice.

  6. William Zelin

    I love this project! Probably my favorite one yet. I would love to talk about this project and similar issues with you in more depth. Keep up the great work!!

  7. Rosana Resende

    I’m so proud of you and this work! Most people here don’t even realize that this is Elsiabeth’s SECOND project and her first one is just as impactful and well researched.

  8. Jennifer Sonaly Vale

    Hi Elizabeth,

    I absolutely love your poster and presentation! Your poster looks amazing! And I love that you also did a qualitative method! The questions you asked in your project and in your video were very interesting. And I’d love to hear more about your project.

    Anyways great job!! #McNairBeware