How Did We Come to Decolonization?

nafsweetgrass_THINKHISTIf you’ve been reading the plan, reading the blog, or paying attention to our chatter on social media, you might be wondering how we came to decolonization. What was the impetus?

In late 2012, the Abbe Museum Board of Trustees established a Decolonization Initiative Task Force. The Initiative was an outgrowth of the 2012 Board Annual Retreat, facilitated by Jamie Bissonette Lewey, where trustees and staff tackled the complex issue of sovereignty. To quote Jamie, “The understanding of what is encompassed in the idea of sovereignty and how it is achieved is crucial in the building of relationships between Native and non-Native people.”

An outcome of the retreat was a commitment from trustees and the staff to:

  • better understand Wabanaki culture, history and values
  • examine the Abbe’s museum practices at every level to see whether, in what ways, and to what extent they reflect those values
  • take steps toward practices that embody this commitment.

In our discussions following the retreat, terms like “colonialism,” “colonization,” and “decolonization” surfaced, suggesting a framework for engaging this commitment. A Decolonization Initiative (DCI) began and a Task Force was appointed to lead the effort.

During its initial convening, the Task Force considered the scope of its work, and identified key concepts that underpin the discussions board and staff are having. These include, but are not limited to: sovereignty (cultural and legal), culture, decolonization, colonization, racism, history of the Abbe Museum, and vocabulary/jargon. As we consider and understand these concepts, we will also conduct phased work that will move the Abbe toward decolonized museum practices.

  • Phase 1: Develop Awareness
    • establish scope of the initiative and a management plan
    • research and reading
    • conduct colleague interviews with standardized questions; compile results
    • prepare an annotated bibliography
    • create a guiding document/philosophy
  • Phase 2: Assess the Abbe
    • determine subject areas
    • identify needed changes and possible roadblocks and develop alternatives/solutions
  • Phase 3: Implement the Changes
    • establish timetable and impacts of the recommended changes
    • makes changes (document and communicate)
    • develop evaluative measures
  • Phase 4: Maintain and Improve
    • develop a training strategy for incoming board and staff
    • do regular check-ups/offer trainings
    • respond to feedback loop

The DCI Task Force identified sectors of museum operations that must be considered in the decolonization process: collections, operations, governance, strategic planning, exhibits, advocacy, programs and events. Other sectors may be identified during the research phase.

This phased approach seems to be a great start. Over the past year, Abbe staff has been sharing these concepts and strategies at national museum meetings and workshops. We’ve gathered feedback and we’ll continue to do so.

Are there other approaches we might take?


Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko is the President and CEO of the Abbe Museum. Working in museums for more than twenty years, she believes they have the power to change lives, inspire movements, and challenge authority. A museum director since 2001, Cinnamon is a frequent presenter at national museum meetings and is often asked to comment on national museum issues. She has been the driving force behind the Abbe Museum’s decolonization initiative, working with the Native communities in Maine to develop policies and protocols to ensure collaboration and cooperation with Wabanaki people. In 2016 Cinnamon gave her first TEDx talk, We Must Decolonize Our Museums. She’s the author of Museum Administration 2.0 (2016), The Art of Healing: The Wishard Art Collection (2004), and co-editor of the Small Museum Toolkit (2012).

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