Reimagining Museums graphic
Reimagining Museums graphic

Decolonizing the Colonial Museum

A panel at the Peabody Museum on museums and decolonization covered topics like the repatriation of human remains, land acknowledgements, and ways that museums can continue to decolonize and promote ethical stewardship.
By Kendrick N. Foster

Lorén M. Spears, the Executive Director of the Tomaquag Museum in Exeter, R.I., has strong views on whether museums should hold human remains. “Would you want this to happen to your family, your grandfather, or your great-grandfather?” she asks. The way that museums hold human remains now, she continues, “is not leaving people at peace.”

Spears spoke at a Harvard Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology panel on Feb. 25 entitled “Reimagining Museums: Disruption and Change,” back by popular demand after a panel on similar topics in November 2020 sparked an important public discussion on the best ways to enact decolonization. Decolonization is defined by the Abbe Museum — a museum in Bar Harbor, Maine on the history and culture of the Wabanaki people — as “sharing authority for the documentation and interpretation of Native culture.” This second iteration covered topics like the repatriation of human remains, land acknowledgements, and ways that museums can continue to decolonize and promote ethical stewardship.

The panel began with Shelly C. Lowe, the Executive Director of the Harvard Native American Program, acknowledging that Harvard sits on land originally inhabited by the Massachusett tribe. Then, in a panel discussion organized and moderated by Peabody Museum Curator of North American Ethnography Castle McLaughlin, Spears, Chris Newell, the Executive Director of the Abbe Museum, and Jane Pickering, the Director of the Peabody Museum, discussed the importance of land acknowledgements. In the panel’s opinion, land acknowledgements are a first step towards decolonization. “So many people aren’t even conscious that they’re on Indigenous land,” Spears said. Land acknowledgements, she added, create an “a-ha moment for people who hadn’t realized that.”

Newell noted that land acknowledgements are part of the decolonization mentality. “Institutions must write the words themselves, shaped by communities to make sure they’re being culturally competent,” he said — and museums should avoid outsourcing this process to check a box. Both Newell and Spears agreed that while land acknowledgements are solid first steps, institutions must take further, concrete actions towards ethical stewardship.

The panel then turned to the question of repatriation of artifacts, in particular human remains. In an interview after the panel, Spears roundly criticized the holding of human remains and funerary objects. Museums, she said, often used “the deaths of our ancestors… for science [or] study, as opposed to respecting the people and their nations.”

In the panel, Newell commended the Peabody Museum for its positive steps on repatriating human remains. When Harvard President Lawrence S. Bacow apologized in January for past collection practices that had allowed the Peabody to accumulate more than 22,000 sets of human remains, Pickering issued a concurrent apology. “Our goal is to face that history and fulfill our obligations,” Pickering said during the panel. “We needed to step up and make that apology that was long overdue.”

Newell said that communities across what he refers to as “Indian Country” had received the apology well. “[Decolonization] is a long process and it’s going to take time, but it starts with truth-telling,” he said.

Despite Newell’s praise, the Peabody has faced criticism for dragging its feet on collections outside of the legal mandate that the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) set out, which only applies to objects and remains taken from federally recognized Native American tribes.

In an interview the day after the panel, Pickering said the Peabody has responded more slowly than the Tomaquag or the Abbe because the Peabody is such a large institution and has other stakeholders within Harvard. “What we want to do is not see that as an excuse for inaction,” Pickering said. “It just sometimes means that action doesn’t happen as fast as it should.”

To close out the panel, Newell highlighted several actions that museums should actively take to decolonize their collections. “If you’re a museum with a Native collection, it benefits you to have Native decisionmakers in your structure,” Newell said. “Look to the structure of the power … that’s where the rubber of decolonization hits the road.”

In our interview, Pickering noted that the Peabody had followed up on Newell’s imperative: According to Pickering, the Peabody’s NAGPRA Advisory Committee is 50 percent Indigenous, and an Indigenous voice also sits on the museum’s Faculty Executive Committee. The Peabody ultimately takes its direction from Harvard itself, though, and there are few Indigenous people represented at the University’s top levels.

Spears also offered ways for the general public to get involved in decolonization. “When you’re visiting a museum, ask the question: ‘Whose voice is being uplifted?’” she said. “The average passer-by visitor can push on this as well.”

This advice is consistent with the Tomaquag Museum’s own curatorial practices. Since it is a Native-run museum, it centers “our own cultural belongings, our own stories, our own history, and bringing that forth for the public,” Spears said the day after the panel.

Obviously, decolonization will not happen overnight. Spears expressed hope that the Peabody will repatriate Native remains and funerary objects “expeditiously,” but Newell cautioned that museums have to work on the timelines of Indigenous communities. He then cited a maxim about two boys who asked their elders how long a recipe would take to cook. In the maxim, the elder responds, “You cook it until it’s done.” To paraphrase a similar saying in English, decolonization will not be over until it’s over.

CORRECTION: March 12, 2021

A previous version of this article misstated the location of the Tomaquag Museum. It is located in Exeter, R.I., not Essex.

CORRECTION: April 8, 2021

A previous version of this article omitted the fact that Castle McLaughlin, Museum Curator of North American Ethnography at the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology, organized and moderated the event.

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