A museum insider reflects on the importance of Colonial Memory in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collections

This groundbreaking new exhibition deciphers the elements of colonial power within the iconography of certain works in the Thyssen-Bornemisza collections. Here, museum curator Juan Ángel López-Manzanares discusses the responsibility he felt in sharing often difficult stories—and his hope that it results in a positive dialogue.

Museo Nacional Thyssen-Bornemisza

When Juan Ángel López-Manzanares was tasked with leading the team curating the new exhibition Colonial Memory in the Thyssen-Bornemisza Collections, he felt the gravity of the assignment.


The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum's curator and chief content officer knew he needed to provide an honest, clear-eyed narrative depicting the consequences of the colonial process initiated by Spain in the sixteenth century and its lingering effects on modern society. But the resulting exhibition also needed to strike the right balance to spark meaningful reflections and positive discussions among viewers.


López-Manzanares achieved this balance by relying on the support of a talented, diverse team of co-curators who provided invaluable perspectives.


Juan Ángel López-Manzanare sitting in a chair


As López-Manzanares explains, the team sought a "middle ground between, on the one hand, the risk of transforming the exhibition into a recreated trauma space and, on the other, the risk of whitewashing the harsh reality of colonisation."


Among the team's many challenges in curating the exhibition was knowing that its goal of shining a light on harsh truths would compel serious, sometimes painful introspection for some visitors.


"Quite possibly the most daunting hurdle of this exhibition is the resistance that exists in modern Spanish society to confronting the consequences of our colonial past, along with all the racism and violence that past entails," he says. "We strived to overcome this ... through conscientious analysis of historical fact and educational action."


The exhibition is part of a decades-long endeavor by the Thyssen team to reevaluate the museum's collections and attempt to link the institution to current cultural debates. Referencing iconic works, it focuses on the global capitalist market based on extraction and appropriation, racial construction of "other," slavery and colonial domination, the myth of new Arcadias, the body and sexuality, and resistance.


A painting by Frans Hals, part of the Thyssen-Bornemisza museum collection


A tall order, in other words, but for López-Manzanares, getting it right was a labour of love—as well as a moral responsibility.


"Working on this exhibition has allowed me to draw on both my artistic vocation and my social conscience," he says. "It may be the most motivating project I've ever undertaken in all my years working at this Madrid-based institution."


It's not the first time López-Manzanares has immersed himself in creating major, thought-provoking exhibits. In his more than two decades at the museum, he's curated Madama Butterfly and the Appeal of Japan and Impressionism and Open-air Painting from Corot to Van Gogh, among many other powerful projects. Over the past five years, he's focused on bringing the museum closer to the prominent issues and debates playing out in society, hoping to make the Thyssen a more open, pluralistic, and relevant institution.


"In my daily work, what is priceless is constantly being in touch with the artwork and with professionals from both inside and outside the museum, and the opportunity to shed light on areas of art history that have been left by the wayside," he explains. "Most importantly, [the opportunity] to work on something that not only contributes to visitors' delight whilst contemplating the artwork, but also to people's critical awareness and empowerment."


The Thyssen-Bornemisza Museum hall