Museum decolonization is a difficult conversation to have. Most of our visitors enter the Museum soaked with stereotypes that are harmful to Native people. And many visitors have a racial bias that they don’t know they have. This makes for uncomfortable conversations all day, every day at the Abbe.
When I first started working at the Abbe, I picked up on the fact that working on the front line (admissions, gift shop, educational programming) can be really challenging, especially for a Native person. The barrage of visitor questions and observations can be upsetting and harmful, so we started collecting them. This list pointed to the fact that we were ill-equipped to interact with visitors when they say certain things, and we’re certainly ill-equipped to turn it into an educational moment because it can be very jarring and emotionally disturbing. To be effective, we need to respond to these micro-aggressions with poise and skill. And, we need to support and protect those who are most harmed by these interactions. An excerpt from this list is provided here –
- “Those pictures don’t look like Indians, they look European. They probably aren’t real Indians anymore.”
- “Are your Indians poor?”
- Staff: “…and the bathrooms are downstairs.” Visitor: “Bathrooms? I bet they didn’t have those in the tipis!”
- “Can I touch an Indian?”
How do you work your way into an educational opportunity when confronted with these types of questions? We have found dialogue facilitation is an excellent tool, especially when combined with racial bias training.
The racial bias training teaches us how to recognize bias in ourselves and others, empowering us to discuss it and resolve it. And, dialogue helps us move people and groups through important concepts and ideas that may be completely foreign to them but require personal work and interaction. Combined, this training helps us respond calmly in any given moment and has inspired us to change the design of our educational programming to be proactively dialogic. New for us this year will be daily tours, during the peak season, that include a dialogue-based discussion. We are excited to see where this takes us and will be sure to report results!
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).