This post comes to us from Danielle Bennett, a first-year student in the History and Museum Studies Master’s program.
At the 99th Annual New England Museum Association Conference held in Falmouth, I attended a session that was so in demand people were sitting in the aisles and leaning against the walls of the room. Decolonizing Museums was a panel discussion with three Native American women who work at museums and have spent a long time thinking about how to negotiate working with primarily white audiences, staffs, boards, directors, and communities while preserving native culture and making it more widely available to native communities.
The panelists were:
Jennifer Neptune, Penobscot Nation, Penobscot Nation Museum
Loren Spears, Narragansett/Niantic Tribe, Tomaquag Indian Memorial Museum
Jennifer Himmelreich, Dine (Navajo), Peabody Essex Museum
Loren and Jennifer Himmelreich both introduced themselves first in their native languages before moving into English. Loren stated that she uses her native language as much as possible to upset visitors’ sense of place and to remind them that English has not always been the native or expected language in this land.
The panel was moderated by Julia Grey from the Abbe Museum. The Abbe is a non-native museum that is exclusively devoted to the Wabanaki people. She briefly discussed the guiding principles the Abbe uses to work successfully with native communities to tell their stories without using oppressive practices. She emphasized privileging Native voices and perspectives, collaboration with tribal communities, and working to tell the “full measure” of truth, including difficult stories. Above all, she spoke of remembering that museums are not neutral spaces, and that we must acknowledge that we start from a negative place when it comes to colonizing practices and history that must be undone. The Abbe uses the work of Amy Lonetree, a Ho-Chunk nation member and history professor at UC Santa Cruz, as a guide for their efforts.
The panel began by defining Colonialism, which is when a nation or state assumes control over an area, its people, and its resources and exploits the resources of the place for profit. They also defined Settler Colonialism, which is when a colonizing state attempts to replace the native population by bringing in people to take over the land and displace the original people. The United States, Canada, and Australia are all examples of states resulting from this type of colonialism. They also defined aspects of Decolonization as: the undoing of colonialism; self-determination for colonized people; returning land, resources, knowledge, power and other tangible and intangible things.
The most important practical suggestion the panelists emphasized was the requirement that relationships be created before commencing work on a project involving native culture. This does not mean shooting an email to a tribe member or even having a meeting. Rather, it requires sustained interactions with multiple members of a tribe or nation – possibly even meetings with the entire community – where, over time, you establish a relationship based on mutual trust and good faith. Eventually that trust ought to be used in a collaborative manner to elevate the voices and perspectives of the native community to tell the story. Consent is a crucial element in these relationships, and it is good to remember the maxim, “Nothing about us, without us.”
Much of the work the panelists discussed involved opening up museums, archives, and resources to both tell native stories in culturally white spaces and to make the information and content available to native people who might not otherwise have access to these institutions and collections. In this effort, they reminded the audience to remember that the cultural materials in our collections have been taken from tribes – from families — and placed in “alien” spaces. They asked us to orient and explain settings to native people coming into the spaces to view these objects, and to be kind and polite and respectful when we do. There are several online resources devoted to enabling access to and rights over tribal content and objects including localcontexts.org and mukurtu.org
The panelists made it clear that they believe it is possible for any and every museum to participate in this work. They reminded the audience that many New England museums have indigenous content in their collections and that we should leverage it to tell a different story than we might have told previously. They asked us, “Are you telling the story of your town? What year does that story start?” When displaying examples of a native art, like basket-making, why not display antique examples alongside modern versions of the same objects to underline that the “vanishing Indian” trope is false. By reframing the concept of relevant history, we can bring much richer stories and more voices to light.
As the panel drew to a close, they issued a takeaway for us to consider as we hurried to our next panels: Decolonization is an ongoing process — it will not be finished in our lifetimes. The most important thing museum professionals can do is listen, know that they will make mistakes, and learn to be OK owning those mistakes and learning from them. Such small requests, but their impacts can be felt by many nations.