Changing the Status Quo: Museum Decolonization Institute

The Abbe Museum, a Coalition member in Bar Harbor, Maine, showcases the history and cultures of Maine’s Native people, the Wabanaki, through changing exhibitions, special events, education workshops, archaeology field schools and craft workshops for children and adults. To do this, the Abbe works directly with Wabanaki communities to center Indigenous voices – a practice that is all too rare among cultural organizations past and present.

Aiming to change this, in 2018 the Abbe launched the Museum Decolonization Institute (MuseDI), a national center and inquiry-based institution focused on educating practitioners on decolonizing public approaches to documenting and interpreting Native American history and experiences. Sarah Pharaon, a consultant on the Coalition’s Methodology and Practice team, served as an advisor to the project, providing guidance on dialogic approaches in museums, the management of multi-site programs, and the development of training curriculums.

In the interview below, Angela Raup, the Abbe’s Manager of Guest Experience, and Starr Kelly, Curator of Education, share their thoughts on how museums can address the wrongs of the past and pave the way for a more equitable future.

What is the Museum Decolonization Institute?

The Museum Decolonization Institute (MuseDI) emerged from the Abbe Museum’s strategic planning. The Abbe has been undergoing its own decolonizing efforts, and through this we’ve seen a need, and an opportunity, to include other organizations in our journey. The practice of decolonizing museums is relatively emergent, but also essential. The colonial legacies of museum practices continue to do harm. The goal of MuseDI is to expand the discourse around Museum Decolonization and to build a network of practitioners committed to decolonizing. It is intended to offer guidance and support to organizations who are prepared to do decolonizing work. In 2018, the Abbe Museum was awarded a three-year, nearly $170,000 grant from the Institute for Museum and Library Services, to move MuseDI from concept to reality.

Before launching MuseDi, the Abbe reached out to the International Coalition of Sites of Conscience to serve on its advisory council. Can you speak a bit about that relationship and how the idea for the Institute developed? 

As we mention on the Institute’s website, the United States today 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. It is not necessarily easy to have conversations around this topic. Realizing that, we turned to Sarah Pharaon at the Coalition as she had previously trained Abbe staff in dialogue facilitation. Given this and her experience in creating other communities of practice through her work at the Coalition, we knew her insights would be invaluable to our process of creating such a community. Sarah continues to be a wonderful asset to our advisory council, also known as the Museum Decolonization Institute’s Methodology and Practice group (M&P group)

Back row (l to r): Sarah Pharaon (International Coalition of Sites of Conscience); Patricia Ayala Rocabado; Deanna Dartt (Coastal Chumash and Mestiza); Dr. Darren Ranco (Penobscot); Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko; Angela Raup; Ben Garcia Front Row (l to r): Jaime Arsenault (White Earth Chippewa); Jamie’s daughter; Starr Kelly (Algonquin Anishinabeg); Jodi DeBruyne; Taline Kuyumjian; Suzanne Greenlaw (Maliseet) Photo credit: Abbe Museum, 2019

How do you envision the Institute functioning? Will it be a virtual Institute? Or will there be physical workshops hosted at the Abbe Museum? 

The institute itself will be a physical workshop that will take place at the Abbe Museum, where participants will learn directly from MuseDI staff, and from each other. Of course, our goal is to curate a community of practice so the learning can extend beyond the workshop itself.

What stage are you at now in development? What lessons have you learned thus far?

We are still very much in the planning phase. Decolonizing is complicated. It will look different for every organization. The Abbe doesn’t have all the answers; we are still learning ourselves. We also recognize that this work cannot be done alone. Our first step was to develop our own Methodology and Practice group (M&P group). This group of Indigenous and Non-Indigenous individuals includes cultural anthropologists, decolonization practitioners, a community of practice experts and an evaluator. The M&P group are working together to design the actual Institute, to determine how it will be structured, who the audience is, who the teachers are, and how it will be evaluated.

What are the various facets of decolonization – from collections, archives and exhibits, to language, educational programming and community engagement?

Photo credit: Abbe Museum, 2019

Oftentimes when museum professionals discuss decolonization it’s within the constraints of the exhibits department. The Abbe has made decolonizing an organizational priority, and MuseDI will help practitioners identify opportunities for doing decolonizing work on an organizational level. Teams of every size and scope can start thinking in a decolonizing manner by prioritizing Indigenous voices, working collaboratively with Native people, and by committing to truth-telling. Each facet of museum work will have different needs, concerns and nuances, but at the heart of it all is truth, collaboration and Native voices.



Photo credit: Abbe Museum, 2019

As the Curator of Education and Manager of Guest Experience respectively, what are your roles at MuseDI?

The Abbe Museum is unique in that it houses our frontline department directly under the education department. This means that the two departments are able to work cohesively with one another to consider how staff are trained, how programs are designed and delivered, how visitors engage with content, and even what products are available within the museum shop. This level of creative control allows us to make sure that our frontline staff understand the role of decolonization within the Abbe, and are comfortable working through difficult interactions with visitors who are bringing their biases into the museum galleries.

We’re both involved with the Methodology and Practice group that is working to design the Institute itself. We’re attuned to the particular situations that the Abbe encounters, but also prepared to engage in a conversation regarding the greater museum field. We had our first in-person convening of the entire M&P group in April 2019. It was so rejuvenating to work with individuals from a variety of backgrounds and experiences who were in agreement that this work is deeply necessary, and that the time is right to expand the conversation around decolonizing museums.

Photo credit: Abbe Museum, 2019

Why is it important to create educational tools for museums and museum professionals? What do you hope these educational tools change?

We’re ultimately trying to dismantle oppressive colonial standards, and create learning environments where museum practitioners and visitors alike feel supported and appropriately represented. It’s about undoing harm. Museums are trying to be more inclusive, but you can’t be inclusive if you’re not committed to shifting power structures and questioning organizational best-practices. The museums of tomorrow require decolonizing today – without it, can we truly say that we, as practitioners, are making inclusivity a priority?