Museum Decolonization at the Abbe Museum
Museum history and modern practice are problematic. Museums were historically built as temples of culture and art, reflecting images of Europe as the ideal. Natural history museums especially used, and often continue to use, classification systems similar to those created for plants and animals to organize their content around non-Western cultures - the Hall of African Peoples, the Hall of North American Indians. Classifications may be convenient but they lead to a troubling practice of “othering” by those who work in museums - people who are predominantly white.
In this historic pattern, we find colonial institutions acquiring the belongings and the remains of people from Indigenous cultures. Ho-Chunk scholar, Amy Lonetree, writes “Museums can be very painful sites for Native peoples, as they are intimately tied to the colonization process.”
Decolonization means, at a minimum, sharing governance and authority for the documentation and interpretation of Native culture. Decolonizing practices at the Abbe are collaborative with tribal communities, privilege Native perspective and voice, and include the full measure of history, ensuring truth-telling.
Decolonization is the Abbe Museum’s touchstone and guiding principle: it is committed to an ongoing process of better understanding Wabanaki culture, history, and values and examining and changing its practices to assure they reflect those values. This is an emerging concept in museum practice in the United States and the Abbe Museum is deeply committed to work that positively impacts the tribal communities and the museum industry. The Abbe is already a resource and a model that the museum field turns to for ideas, solutions, and strategies for comprehensive museum decolonization and the board and staff will deepen and broaden that commitment.
The board approved a new strategic plan in August 2015 and it makes a clear commitment to decolonization. Initially the board and staff thought decolonization would be a “spoke” of the plan, but it became evident after stakeholder meetings and a convening of our Native Advisory Council that decolonization is our vision – the lens we look through to make decisions and set priorities. The plan introduced a new vision statement for the museum, “The Abbe Museum will reflect and realize the values of decolonization in all of its practices, working with the Wabanaki Nations to share their stories, history, and culture with a broader audience.”
In addition to our internal work to create museum decolonization practices, the plan identifies three goals with specific strategies for sharing the work we’re doing with the museum and history field.
Goal: There are expanded opportunities for learning from the Wabanaki people at the Museum, in the community, and virtually.
Work with the Native Advisory Council and Board of Trustees to develop processes and protocols for public education on legal, policy, and social issues
Develop resources and educational materials on core issues or questions related to decolonization for the general public and teachers
Actively support and contribute to professional development opportunities for the Museum and archaeology and anthropology communities regarding decolonization
Create or contribute to a network of organizations working on decolonizing museum practice
Goal: The Museum develops and disseminates new knowledge and understanding through collaborative models of archaeological research.
Create materials for archaeologists, lay people, and museums that share concepts, words, and phrases that are appropriate/constructive and those that are not when talking about Wabanaki history before colonization
Goal: The Museum is a responsible and ethical steward of all the assets entrusted to it.
Invest in professional development and training for staff, board, and volunteers to enable the Museum to work towards a decolonized approach to every aspect of its work
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 for 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. Until additional funding is secured, the Abbe staff will continue to develop decolonizing practices in our museum setting, expand our knowledge base through study and networking, and respond to referrals and training requests as much as time will allow.
For those looking to begin decolonizing, take a moment and visit our online strategic plan and blog here, as well as watch our President/CEO Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko’s TEDxDirigo talk about museum decolonization.