Advocating for museum decolonization

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Recently the Abbe applied for federal funding to support the staff and a team of consultants and advisors in developing a Museum Decolonization Institute (MuseDI). It became apparent to the board and staff that our work is not only important to the tribal communities we work with in Maine, but it can have an equally positive impact on other tribal communities. Devising a way for the Abbe to teach decolonizing museum practices easily became our advocacy position in our strategic plan and practice.

In keeping with our decolonizing practices, the staff has considered why the Abbe is the right or appropriate organization to develop a training institute and create resources. Certainly, the demand for our training services is growing and we are developing as a leading resource on museum decolonization. Organizationally, there are more reasons why this is a fit for the Abbe:

  • In practice, we are open to collaboration and partnerships with colleagues and peer organizations. This makes us available to others.
  • We’re still figuring out museum decolonization in our own practice and our openness about this makes us accessible and relevant to other museums and historic sites.
  • We operate with a small budget and our staff size is also small. If the Abbe can do it then any museum can do it.
  • Despite recent recruitment efforts in the Native American communities, the Abbe is still predominately a white-led and run museum. Our training style will be inclusive, collaborating with Native academics and educators in Maine, Canada, and as needed, from other tribal communities. This balance of instructional voices is something we are willing to be critical of and evaluate regularly.
  • There is a purpose for white allies. It’s not the “job” of Native people to tell white people how to behave or how to be appropriate. Because of our history and our present, the Abbe is positioned to demonstrate how the onus is on white museum professionals to make change, not communities of color.
  • Because of recent staff presentations at national conference and staff networking, it has become clear that the field is watching what we’re doing and the expectation is growing. To not deliver training opportunities would be a missed opportunity and would adversely impact our strategies. And, Native communities are watching too – discussions at a recent creative summit and at Native Advisory Council meetings, as well as our work with tribal museums proves this to us.
  • Since we are a work in progress, creating a community of practice will help us develop our processes, policies, and strategies better and with greater resources, which in turn will benefit student learning.
  • Our new core exhibit, People of the First Light, was created through a decolonizing exhibit development process and provides a visual representation of MuseDI goals.

Relying on tribal partners locally and nationally, and securing partnerships with organizations who are actively adopting decolonizing practices, the Abbe will serve as a convener and clearinghouse when needed. As we build the methodology, assessment tools, and overall training structure, we will keep in mind that our goal is to help museums and historic sites develop their “right” content and practice. Our job is to help them get started in museum decolonizing practice. They will have tools for museum decolonizing work that can be customized for any setting or organizational culture. We can’t tell them which direction to go in but we can fix their compass. Working collaboratively with tribal communities, museums will then know where to go once they’ve initiated.

From left to right: Lael Hoff, Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, Amy Lonetree, Heather Anderson, Jaclyn M. Roessel, and Kelly Hyberger presented on decolonizing museum practices at the 2017 American Alliance of Museum conference.

Interest in this Institute looks positive with the President/CEO, Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, regularly fielding referrals and training requests. Since 2014, Abbe Museum staff have been leading and serving on panels for regional and national museum and history conferences, resulting in a growing network of museums interested in decolonizing practice. In the fall of 2015, the President/CEO led a sold-out, day-long workshop for the Association of Midwest Museums at the Eiteljorg Museum of the American Indian in Indianapolis and since 2014 she has served as a faculty member for the Seminar for Historical Administration, teaching future history leaders about decolonization.

To better understand interest for the MuseDI concept, we issued a survey to over 100 museum workers, resulting in a 55% response rate:

  1. How are you currently working with Native people or communities? Answers ranged from not at all to extensive decolonizing practices.
  2. Would you characterize your museum as a decolonizing museum? Respondents indicated that 62% of their museums are decolonizing museums.
  3. Would you be interested in learning decolonizing museum practice? Despite this relatively high rate of decolonizing museum practice, 94% indicated they would be interested in learning more.
  4. Would you recommend that other members of your staff team learn decolonizing museum strategies? Here too, 96% indicated yes.
  5. How would you like to learn? The majority of respondents, 77%, indicated an interest in webinars, while 67% would like to see a multi-day workshop. Additionally, 71% would like to see more conference sessions. Of those who are interested in the workshop concept, 53% indicated it should be over two days.
  6. Demographic questions. In addition to general contact information, we asked how many are tribal museums, only 3%.

These responses and staff experiences compel us to develop MuseDI so we can learn from a broader community of practice and, in return, the museum field will have concrete steps they can take toward museum decolonization.

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