In 2018, the Abbe Museum was awarded a three-year, nearly $170,000 grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services to develop the Museum Decolonization Institute (MuseDI). We will do this work with the support and advice of the Wabanaki people and with an integrated group of Indigenous and non-Indigenous people who are museum professionals and expert advisors called our Methodology and Practice (M&P) Group. This includes cultural anthropologists, decolonization practitioners, a community of practice experts, and an evaluator. We will be joined by participants from other museums interested in decolonization who will participate in workshops, webinars, and evaluation as we create MuseDI to further the community of practice. This grant award will also support the Abbe’s position as a teaching and inquiry-focused institution for decolonizing public approaches to documenting and interpreting Native American history and experience. It creates a format for sharing these strategies with museums as they address their own responsibility to end colonizing practices.
Why do we need MuseDI?
Today, the United States remains in a colonizing relationship with tribal communities. American colonialism is motivated by religious, political, and economic concerns, and museums were and are complicit. Our museums hold the spoils of colonialism - the artifacts and physical remains of Native people. During the late 19th and early 20th centuries anthropologists earned accolades and built careers by systematically collecting American Indian material culture, with and without the voluntary participation of the people being collected.
The remains of an estimated half million Native American individuals are still held in U.S. museum collections. Meanwhile public perceptions of Native people and Indigenous cultures are permanently shaped by the colonizers’ (trained anthropologists and museums workers) representations. The exhibitions they created and create reinforce the view of static, unchanging cultures: depictions of Indians as frozen in time, and displays near dinosaurs and other extinct animals; Native communities homogenized into one, disregarding the complexity and difference represented by well over 500 Indigenous Nations; and the use of Western scientific categories rather than Indigenous categories of culture and worldview. These practices continue to dehumanize Native history and create colonizing museum spaces. There is emotional, spiritual, and physical harm done when these colonized spaces and practices go unacknowledged and unaddressed.
To read more about the Abbe’s Decolonization Initiative, visit abbemuseum.wordpress.com.