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Decolonizing the San Diego Museum of Man: a Case Study of Indigenous Voice and Authority in the Reimagined Museum


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Undoing the legacy of colonialism in museums is complicated but essential work. Decolonizing challenges a fundamental assumption: that museums are neutral and beneficent stewards of biological and cultural material. The San Diego Museum of Man is moving toward an institutional position of decolonization, and grappling with implications across our functions. Join representatives from the board, staff and a Kumeyaay partner organization for a discussion of this initiative and its impact.

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Decolonizing the San Diego Museum of Man: a Case Study of Indigenous Voice and Authority in the Reimagined Museum

  1. 1. Michael Connolly, Guest Curator Ben Garcia, Deputy Director Lael Hoff, Collections Manager Kelly Hyberger, Director of Collections George Ramirez, Board Chair
  2. 2. • Indigenous lands, bodies, and possessions were appropriated by settlers for their own use. • Indigenous beliefs, language and cultural practices were suppressed and criminalized.
  3. 3. Decolonization can be broadly defined as the process of reversing colonialism, politically and culturally. Decolonization in a museum context means inviting representatives of descendant communities to engage with collections and other aspects of the museum’s function as true partners. Reversing colonialism means sharing authority with (and sometimes ceding authority to) descendant communities.
  4. 4. Bring Indigenous perspective and voice into decision-making at all levels of the organization through consultation, and with staff and board appointments. Address the history and legacy of colonialism in the Museum (and broadly) in its policies and programs. Include the work and perspective of Indigenous artists, historians, anthropologists, archaeologists, and other content experts.
  5. 5.  Collections  Exhibits and Programs  Operations  Strategic Planning  Governance  Development  Communication
  6. 6. Anthropology Museums have a unique relationship to this issue. We hold collections with unmeasurable cultural value to indigenous communities. We hold human remains.
  7. 7. Peabody Essex Museum, Salem, MA; Denver Museum of Nature and Science, Denver, CO; Minnesota Historical Society, St. Paul, MN; Portland Art Museum, Portland, OR; Museum of Anthropology, Vancouver, BC; Abbe Museum, Bar Harbor, ME
  8. 8. • CEO was a drafter of NAGPRA • Native American art residencies • 12-week paid fellowship for emerging Native American museum professionals
  9. 9. • Reburial of 20 individuals from Museum’s collections. • No curation of human remains without the consent of the individual, next of kin, or community.
  10. 10. • Partnership between the Minnesota Historical Society and the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe. • Both groups worked together to select a location, an architectural firm, and the content of the exhibits.
  11. 11. • Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde Center for Native American Art opened in 2015. • Museum’s first Native American curator • Native advisory council • Co-curated with Native artists • $150K IMLS Community Anchors grant awarded in 2014
  12. 12. • Reciprocal Research Network Musqueam Indian Band; U'mista Cultural Society; Stó:lō Nation; Stó:lō Tribal Council; MOA • Collections staff practices subject to best cultural practice
  13. 13. Collections: Coastal Indian repatriations (Feb. 27); 50+ new individuals found in collections to date; photo and sound digitization procedures; Kumeyaay staff member and 2 interns; retreat and discussion of decolonization. Operations: Casts of human remains no longer used as decoration, all-staff trainings on NAGPRA and decolonization. Governance: Collections Committee central to NAGPRA conversations; has begun to explore questions of display of human remains.
  14. 14. Strategic planning: three Kumeyaay participants in charrettes. Exhibits: Naka Shin astronomy exhibit. Programs and events: December Nights Advocacy: Presentations at conferences and attendance at convenings.
  15. 15. Collections: NAGPRA; Kumeyaay ancestral repatriations Exhibits and Programs: Kumeyaay curation of Kumeyaay story; co-creation of school programs and space for Kumeyaay programs (Dec. nights) Governance: Considering a Policy on Curation of Human Remains
  16. 16. Policy on the Curation of Human Remains SDMoM will only accession and/or curate human remains when express written permission is given to do so by the deceased individual, their next of kin, or an authorized designee of the descendant community, and when those remains can be used to tell appropriate and compelling stories in support of the Museum’s interpretive goals. SDMoM may curate human remains without the express written permission of the descendant community, in cases where that community can be shown to broadly support similar curatorial activity for human remains.
  17. 17. How does this change from what we are already doing? Moving Beyond NAGPRA The Museum is already committed to being in compliance with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. We will now work to accommodate all legitimate requests for the repatriation of human remains from communities that fall outside of NAGPRA’s purview. Consent for Research, Curation, and Display For human remains where the deceased individual, next of kin or descendant community has approved their use for research or display, SDMoM will evaluate their applicability for a programmatic function and will either continue to steward the remains, or deaccession them according to our policy. Spiritual and Cultural Care Access to human remains will be given to spiritual or religious practitioners so that they may provide care to the remains of their ancestors.
  18. 18. What happens when there is no next of kin or descendant community to help determine how we should steward an individual’s remains? In the case of culturally and/or geographically unidentifiable human remains, the Museum will steward these individuals in a manner that reflects standard contemporary, local and non-denominational practices of memorialization. This may include continuing to hold the remains in a memorialization context or deaccessioning them for burial and/or cremation. Decisions about the ultimate disposition of these remains will be made in consultation with a local advisory body of funerary practitioners representing a variety of local religious and secular perspectives.
  19. 19. What does this mean for our institution and our collections? 1. Conversations SDMoM will have conversations with next of kin or descendant communities about how to most appropriately steward their ancestral human remains. 2. Consent The Museum of Man will only steward human remains with the consent of the individual, next of kin, or descendant communities. This will hold our institution to the highest ethical standard for the curation of human remains.
  20. 20.  Relationships with descendant communities will transform  New visitors/stakeholders  Alignment with field  Leadership position/Reputational yield  Updated content  Funding opportunities  Difficult conversations - like those we see with RACE  Loss of visitors  Stakeholder alienation  Donors may worry, fewer collections may be offered to us  Loss of data  Requires resources
  21. 21.  Do you have Native American and/or Indigenous collections?  Do you have archaeological specimens?  Do you conduct archaeological excavations?  Are you a general history museum?  Are you an anthropology/archaeology-focused museum?  Do you have an exhibit(s) about Native American or other Indigenous topics?  Do you offer educational programs about Native Americans or other Indigenous descendant communities? Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, Abbe Museum
  22. 22. Phase 1: Develop Awareness Research/reading Conduct conversations within departments Ask stakeholders what decolonization means to them Form advisory groups as applicable Create a guiding document/philosophy Phase 2: Create Strategy Prioritize areas for change and create strategy for each area Identify possible roadblocks and solutions
  23. 23. Phase 3: Implement Changes Establish timelines and work plans Create policies (gain highest level of buy-in possible) and procedures (all staff can weigh in for their area) Create communications strategy Phase 4: Maintain and Improve Create feedback loops Provide training to new staff and trustees Ongoing training will be required as with any ongoing aspect of the museum’s function Phases may not be sequential!!