We must decolonize our museums

On November 5, 2016, I had the honor of standing in the red circle on the TEDxDirigo stage in Portland, Maine. The theme of Dissonance made the audience’s hearts, souls, and minds pound with new thought, re-ignited passion, and diligence to do good in this world. The following is my talk, in its entirety. Nerves made me lose a few words once I was on the stage so I share my talk here so the words can all be heard. The video of my talk will be available in a month and we’ll post it then. In addition to the individuals recognized in my talk, I’d also like to mention Ben Garcia, Sandy Wilcox, Kyle Shank, and my coach, Alice Ruvane, for helping me craft this talk.  – Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko

Update: You can now watch my talk in its entirety.

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For as long as I can remember, I’ve been in love with museums. I was a kid raised on public television and on vacation we traveled to museums and historic places. My parents were just as interested in dinosaurs as my brother and me.  

On summer vacations in Colorado, we’d visit old mining towns and trace disappearing rail centralcitycolines, imagining the past and wondering what life was like way back when. We would spend vacation time researching these towns in public libraries and archives, looking for photographs of when they were bustling with people. My parents filled our home with art, antiques, and American crafts. We never met a museum we didn’t love.

As I headed into the college years, I knew I wanted to work with precious collections, reveal the exciting stories that can be found in history, and inspire audiences to consider the human condition. You see, I believe in museums. I believe they have the power to change lives, inspire movements, and challenge authority.

But, all is not right with my beloved museum world. Museum history and modern practice are terribly problematic.

Museums were historically built as temples of culture and art, reflecting images of Europe as the ideal. Natural History museums especially used, and continue to use, classification systems to organize the contents…the Hall of African Peoples, the Hall of North American Indians… you get the picture. Classifications may be convenient but they lead to a troubling practice of “othering” by those who work in museums, people who are predominantly white, like me.

In this historic pattern, you find non-indigenous people, acquiring the belongings and the remains of people from other cultures. It’s no wonder that  Ho-Chunk scholar, Amy Lonetree writes “Museums can be very painful sites for Native peoples, as they are intimately tied to the colonization process.”

Let’s unpack this term – colonization – for a minute. Colonization occurs when a  population of invaders plants colonies in the homelands of other peoples. American colonialism is motivated by religious, political, and economic reasons.

People whose lands are colonized do not fare well. It leads to war, massacres, enslavement and other atrocities. The real work of colonialism is the extraction of resources of colonized peoples. Cultures and human lives are always harmed and often destroyed during colonization. Always.

Right now, today, the United States remains in a colonial relationship with tribal communities. And our museums hold the spoils of colonialism- the artifacts and human remains of Native people.

The history of museum representation of Native peoples begins with the development of anthropology as an academic field – modern day representation stems from the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Anthropologists earned accolades by systematically collecting American Indian material culture – collecting the authentic for museum collections.

They were also collecting the skeletal remains of Native people, from executions, traditional burials, and battlefields, and depositing the ancestors in museums. To this day, the remains of an estimated half million Native American individuals are held in US museum collections, and an equal number are held in collections in Europe.

So our perceptions of Native people and Indigenous cultures are shaped by the work of colonizers – people like me, trained anthropologists and museums workers. What does this look like in our memories and experiences in museums?

  • Exhibitions tended to reinforce the view of static, unchanging cultures. Certainly, the diorama supported this by depicting Indians as frozen in time and by displaying them near dinosaurs and other extinct animals.
  • Objects were presented and defined by Western scientific categories and not by Indigenous categories of culture, worldview, and meaning. The human story is often removed from the material culture on exhibit.
  • Native communities were homogenized into one Native American community, disregarding the complexity and difference that well over 500 indigenous nations represent.

These practices that may have informed your memories also dehumanize Native history and create colonizing museum spaces. In museum spaces, emotional, spiritual, and physical harm is done when these colonized spaces and practices are not acknowledged and addressed.

So it makes sense that many Native people would find American museums to be painful institutions.

What is to be done? We need to decolonize museums. Undoing the harm caused by colonization is the focus of my work at the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, Maine.

Our organizational and strategic questions ask what can and should our museum do that is a service to Wabanaki people? Decolonization means, at a minimum, sharing governance structures and authority for the documentation and interpretation of Native culture.

  • Borrowing again from Amy Lonetree, decolonizing practices at the Abbe are collaborative with tribal communities. This means that when an idea for a project or initiative is first conceived, we have a conversation with Native advisors and make sure it’s a story, it’s an activity that we have the right to share or pursue. We don’t get halfway down the planning timeline and then check with Native advisors about how we’re doing and if we’re getting it right. Native collaboration needs to be at the beginning and threaded throughout the life of the project.
  • The second characteristic of decolonizing museum practices is to prioritize Native perspective and voice. The vast writings on the human experience are without little exception written by white academics and observers. When we begin to prioritize the writings and observations of indigenous scholars and informants, the story broadens, expands, shifts, and brings clearer and non-oppressed perspective of Native history and culture.  And to this point, I have many indigenous voices to credit: Amy Lonetree, Susan Miller, Tate Walker, Jamie Bissonette Lewey, Bonnie Newsom, George Neptune, and Darren Ranco. Their words shaped this talk and influence my thinking on a regular basis.
  • And lastly, decolonizing museum practice includes the full measure of history, ensuring truth-telling. Histories of Wabanaki people connect to today’s challenges. Issues around water quality, hunting and fishing rights, and mascots are connected to the past and the present. When we present this full history we have a better opportunity to identify harmful statements and practices.

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There are certainly museums across the U.S. and even around the globe who are incorporating decolonizing practices into their operations, but what we’ve found in our research is that this is typically limited to exhibit development. We’re concerned about that at the Abbe as well, but we’re also looking at all of our operations – governance structures, hiring practices, collections management, educational programming – and creating decolonizing pathways.

The Abbe Museum is committed to developing decolonizing museum practice that is informed by Wabanaki people and enforced by policies, managed by protocols, and overseen by inclusive governance structures.

And, we will have structures in place that maintain its commitment to decolonization, regardless of the players involved – meaning the staff, trustees, and advisors.

I know I won’t always get this right.

And I know our work won’t be as urgent as it needs to be.

And the work will never be done so long at the U.S. persists as a colonizing force.

indigenouspeoplesdayprotestTo the museum worker, my friends, and colleagues, it’s time to internally assess our colonizing practices. How are we constructing white, Eurocentric gallery spaces? Why do we keep doing it over and over again? Museum leaders, how are we setting the tone and pace for decolonization? How are we modeling the way and, more importantly, whose voices are missing?  

And to the future museum visitor, how will we use this information? What can we do with this learning? I encourage all of us to be discerning museum-goers. Go visit a museum. Question the artifacts on display, voice your concerns to museum management. Museums exist within the public trust and we are the people–all of us.

At the Abbe, we’ve made the decision to no longer be complicit. We’ve made the decision to begin. Thank you.

TEDxDirigo image courtesy of TEDxDirigo, Micheal Berube, and David Dostie.

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