The vision of the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, Maine, describes how the museum “will reflect and realize the values of decolonization in all of its practices, working with the Wabanaki Nations to share their stories, history, and culture with a broader audience.” But what does it take to decolonize a museum? How does it change the governance structure and the practices of the board? What kinds of frameworks and internal work are necessary to shift the balance of authority within the institution, and turn theory into actionable change?
In this episode of Museopunks, Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, President & CEO of the Abbe Museum, delves into the complexities of decolonization.
Working in museums for more than 20 years, Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko has been a museum director since 2001. Prior to joining the Abbe Museum as President & CEO in 2009, Cinnamon was the director of the General Lew Wallace Study & Museum where she led the organization to the National Medal for Museum Service in 2008. She is currently a board member of Maine Humanities Council and the American Alliance of Museums. She is the co-editor and chapter author for the Small Museum Toolkit, a six-book series, was published in 2012. Her most recent publication Museum Administration 2.0 was published in 2016.
Compiled by Ben Garcia and Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, 2017.
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Smith, Linda Tuhiwai. Decolonizing Methodologies. London: Zed Books, 2012.
Tuck, Eve and K. Wayne Yang. “Decolonization is not a Metaphor.” Decolonization: Indigeneity, Education & Society 1, no. 1 (2012), 1-40.
Wilson, Waziyatawin Angela and Michael Yellow Bird. For Indigenous Eyes Only: A Decolonization Handbook. Santa Fe: School of American Research, 2005.
Read the Transcript
Suse Anderson: Good day, and welcome to Museopunks, the podcast for the progressive museum. My name is Suse, and I will be your host today as we explore progressive bounds of museum practice in all its forms. Now, in today’s highly political environment, it is becoming increasingly difficult to ignore the implications of the troubling history of museums as bastions of colonial conquest. Museums are not neutral spaces, and much of the work that we do exists as the result of conquest and colonialism, of domination, destruction and exploitation. These are traditions that have not disappeared nor been fully grappled with. The impact of our history, our traditions, and the broad institutional context which is interlinked with many other institutions shapes our collections and our exhibitions, our governance structures and hiring practices, the way knowledge is created, categorized, communicated and valued, and so much more.
In this context, questions about who is and isn’t included in the work that museums do, about whose voices are heard or rendered mute, and whose histories are being told and how those histories are given life take on pretty sharp focus. So while academic criticism and internal critique of the history and nature of museum practice has existed for decades, the last few years have brought a significant uptick in public discussion and awareness about the more troubling aspects of museum practice.
Perhaps the most visible example of this is found in Marvel Comics’ record-breaking movie, Black Panther, which was released in February this year. In one five-minute scene filmed in the fictional Museum of Great Britain, a pretty disturbing picture of museum work emerged. It included exploitative and problematic acquisition practices, the telling of false or inaccurate narratives about cultural objects, and the dismissal of the knowledge of people of color. Surely, the inclusion of such a scene in the tenth highest grossing film of all time brings home this moment as something of a reckoning for the sector.
So today we’re going to address one of the most challenging questions facing museums. How can museums decolonize? Is decolonization even possible? These are the questions at the heart of today’s discussion with Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko, CEO and president at the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, Maine. The Abbe has decolonization at the heart of its vision and practices, and Cinnamon is going to share some of what she has learned so far on the journey towards decolonization. Of course, a single podcast episode is limited in its capacity to unpack these deeply complex issues, but this was a really interesting interview to record, and I hope you find it as useful and interesting as I did.
Working in museums for more than 20 years, Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko has been a museum director since 2001. Prior to joining the Abbe Museum as president and CEO in 2009, Cinnamon was the director of the General Lew Wallace Study & Museum, where she led the organization to the National Medal for Museum Service in 2008. She’s currently a board member of Maine Humanities Council and the American Alliance of Museums. She’s the co-editor and chapter author for the Small Museum Toolkit, a six-book series which was published in 2012, and her most recent publication, Museum Administration 2.0, was published in 2016.
Cinnamon, welcome to Museopunks.
Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko: Thank you. I’m glad to be here.
Suse: It is so wonderful to be here, and in fact to be here in person. It’s something that I don’t normally get to do is sit and have a face-to-face conversation with my guest, so it’s so lovely to have you here.
Cinnamon: Delighted to be here.
Suse: So, before we start, we’re going to talk today about decolonizing the museum, which is something that you’ve been thinking about a lot and working and building really deliberately into practice at the Abbe Museum. But I think it’s useful for us to get a sense of the Abbe Museum before we start in to talk a little bit about the context. I know that the vision for the museum says that the museum “will reflect and realize the values of decolonization in all of its practices, working with the Wabanaki Nations to share their stories, history, and culture with a broader audience.” Can you talk a little bit more about the Abbe, about Bar Harbor and about the museum in general?
Cinnamon: Sure. The Abbe was founded long ago, 1928, inside what is now Acadia National Park, which is a major destination on the Eastern seaboard. Big tourist area, was then, still is today. And then in 2001, they opened their downtown facility, which was that modern, exciting, new way of doing museum work. I inherited a really wonderful working relationship with the Wabanaki communities when I arrived in 2009. Programs have been delivered led by Wabanaki people for years, exhibits being done collaboratively, everything you can imagine. Just to clarify too, the Wabanaki Nations refers to five tribes: The Penobscot, Passamaquoddy, Mi’kmaq, Maliseet and Abenaki. We focus really on Maine, but the homeland is New England up through Canada, New Brunswick in to the Maritimes, so it’s a really large geographic area that Wabanaki people consider their home and our closest tribal community to us in Bar Harbor is about an hour away, so it’s massive geography that we’re trying to communicate to a really quick visiting audience.
So the best way for years had been to really be collaborative. We have those traditional practices and have had that all along. We still operate that original location inside Acadia National Park in the peak season in the months which is a very short season. So it’s this really intense, exciting, beautiful place to be, and we’ve added to that mission a focus on decolonization, which became so apparent to us as we were moving along thinking about how do we work collaboratively in a full-scale, across-the-board way. It’s not just exhibits. It’s not just programming. We can’t persist in that way, and we were talking more and more about how engagement can deepen, how content can change with Wabanaki people, and with our first Native Advisory Council convening, which would have been in about 2012, it became quite clear that my board of trustees didn’t really know how to wrap their heads around it. I joke often that trustees don’t really sit around reading museum history. They don’t.
Suse: Huh. What?
Cinnamon: As much as I wish they would. Why would they? And so, just to understand that relationship of museums and Native people was really fresh information, and that’s really where the story begins. The complicated board meeting.
Suse: Do you feel comfortable telling us a little bit more about that complicated board meeting?
Cinnamon: I do. Yes. It’s so vivid in my memory too. It was that complicated. As I mentioned, the Native Advisory Council, they convened, and we designed the Native Advisory Council to be, and this was a collaborative conversation with tribal members, each member is appointed by tribal leadership from the communities in Maine.
Cinnamon: So there are five, so two per community, so that makes 10 people. We have our first convening. We’re really excited as a staff. Our board chair’s there. Really excited to hear and communicate. We have this full agenda, and toward the end of the day, we ask what should governance look like at the Abbe? What should it be? Because there had been, I would say, intermittent engagement at the board level, and at that point there was only one Native person at the time, maybe two actually, on the board, if I’m thinking correctly.
The question being asked seemed quite simple, and the response was quite simple from council, but it wasn’t when it translated to the board. The response from the council was there should be one person from each community appointed by tribal leadership, so five seats available on the board always. A chief may decide I’m not going to appoint right now. I don’t have the person. That’s their jurisdiction, but there would always be a symbolic seat. We loved that idea. We’re like oh my gosh, that’s a great place to begin.
Fast forward to the next board meeting where we make the report. Darren Ranco who’s one of my wonderful colleagues in this work, he’s a Penobscot anthropologist at University of Maine. He was on the board at the time, was at that meeting. He was charged to deliver the report from council, and it didn’t go well. There were concerns, and at the end of the day when I do the analysis, it was fear. It was uncertainty, but there were comments like, “Well, five people could create a voting block.”
My response, and I think Darren’s response probably too was if five Native people tell you not to do something, you shouldn’t be doing it. Very clear.
Cinnamon: There was fear about, a really flippant thinking that, “Well, we just don’t need to worry about this. We can all just get along.” Well, that’s not reality, and your privilege is showing, so let’s dig a little deeper, and a lot of confusion. We paused. I was really only asking them at that board meeting for their support to start having the conversation because I didn’t feel like I could just go out and start changing governance without their support. I just wanted to start talking to tribal leadership and see if the interest was there. They agreed I think hesitantly to that, but the next week we had a debriefing between Darren, as I mentioned, and my board chair, Sandy Wilcox, who was a hero and champion through all this, to really look at what happened. It was very clear that there’s no point in moving forward at this point in time because they needed to understand what sovereignty is. If they don’t understand sovereignty, how in the world are they going to begin to understand why governance should change, why authority should be questioned, why ownership should be a complicated conversation.
They couldn’t even, and I don’t blame them, I mean, we hadn’t provided space for that either. The staff had already been working in a direction that was around that, but we needed a net to catch us quite frankly. We’d been working from gut. We’d been working collaboratively, but we hadn’t been working as a staff with a strategic approach or a … It’s more than that. It was more one-on-one relationships. So one person can tell you something. The next person might tell you something differently, but if there isn’t unified messaging as you communicate with tribal communities and back and forth, then it’s going to get muddled, and we were in that place.
So fast forward again that same year. 2012 was a big year for us. We had a board retreat, and that’s what we decided was the thing we needed to do was focus on sovereignty and understanding that as a board and staff. Big joint meeting. Brought in a facilitator, Jamie Bissonnette Lewey, who’s Abenaki. She is currently the chair of the Maine Indian Tribal State Commission. Long, wonderful career in community health and healing practice, social justice. Rock star. She’s not a board member, so I’m very lucky to have her on board. She led them through a day-long conversation.
At the end of the day, and I don’t know if many people have the opportunity to experience this, but when a change is happening, you can really feel it. It becomes emotional. Your skin starts to tickle. At the end of the day, we were all tingling. We could feel, I even get excited now thinking about it. You could feel something was going to happen, and a commitment was forming. In the next board meeting after that retreat was when we created a decolonization initiative and task force. Five years later, you have the vision that you just shared and a whole framework for operating.
Suse: So let’s talk a little bit more about that framework. You have a great blog which actually talks about a lot of the work that you are doing at the Abbe. On the blog, I noticed that as applied to the relationship of institutions such as museums to the Native people of the United States, decolonization means at a minimum sharing authority for the documentation and interpretation of Native culture. But it sounds like you already had a lot of practices that were collaborative, so going to this idea of a framework, what actual practices have you started embedding that are then different from something that is collaborative and just working together? It feels like you’re being both more deliberate. You’re creating structures that are around these practices to actually change what your work looks like. What does the framework start to look like, and in what areas does it impact?
Cinnamon: For us, it’s everything. We did some research in those early days calling our friends and peers across the U.S. in tribal and non-tribal museums asking a series of questions to find out how decolonizing work was representing itself. We suspected that it was hiding out in academia. Really being written about, good writings, especially the work of Amy Lonetree, who we work with still today, and her writings have been really informative. We suspected academia had a hold on this, but we didn’t have a sense of practice. That bore out quite well in the research. We found that most people didn’t even use the word, but they might have elements of it. For us, the framework we use, which comes from Amy Lonetree’s work is collaboration, privileging indigenous voice and perspective, and truth-telling, which I’ll dig into in a minute for you.
They were kind of doing that here and there, but only around exhibits. Maybe some programming, but really only exhibits. We were more interested, obviously because of where we started with the question of governance, we were more interested in the whole operation. How does a museum work within that framework? So we realized we didn’t have many peers in this pretty quick. We’ve since really been growing a community of practice, which is exciting. There are good examples now, but it just didn’t exist.
For us though, moving forward with that understanding, we did assess our exhibits. We looked at them with this cute little grid that I could show the board and say, “Hey, this is how we’ve been coming along, and this is where we need to go with those three parts.” But as we began to look at governance, we had no idea where to turn, and I can talk more about where we are today, because we are really in it deep, but just to back up a little bit, say more about the framework.
For us, collaboration means so much more than the word. It’s at the very beginning of a project… an idea. We check in with permissions. We check in to make sure it’s an idea that we should share, or we receive an idea from the tribal communities and make sure we collaborate, and then we stay connected throughout the whole life of a project. Does that mean every single activity I do or one of the staff does? Not necessarily, but we make sure messaging is out there. People can provide input. We meet often. Our Native Advisory Council now meets monthly by phone to really check in, so we’re trying to make sure that it’s a full collaboration, beginning, middle and end. Mostly sees itself with exhibits, I will confess, but that’s probably going to change soon.
Second part would be privileging indigenous voice and perspective, and that means, in all honesty, really setting aside non-Native scholarship. We’ve heard a lot from non-Native scholars, and bringing forward what is coming from the communities, what Native people have written, what has been published, what hasn’t been published, to really build the content from there…
Cinnamon: … and have that personal perspective really carry through. There is room of course for all scholarship in every conversation and they can be in conflict, and I’m okay with that. We’re all okay with that so long as it’s not creating harm. That’s the thing.
Suse: Okay, and is that one of your driving questions or motivations? Will this create harm?
Cinnamon: Absolutely. We’re always asking that question because we might find as if you’re a non-Native person looking at content for the first time, you might find it so energizing. It’s so interesting, but it could be really painful for somebody else, so that really leads to the third one, truth-telling. We cannot understand the issues of today unless we understand the deep issues of the past. We’re talking 12,000 plus years of people in the homeland where we are. There’s not a removal story. This of course counts for all Native people, but especially in Maine, they’ve always been there. You have to understand that as a full history and that genocide happened. Atrocities happened, and that colonization’s still having an impact, and the legacies are present today.
If you can’t tell that full story, you can never understand why the mascot issue is such a big deal in Maine as it is in other places. You can’t even begin to understand hunting and fishing issues we have in Maine. You can’t begin to understand the water issues, and the list goes on unless you see the full truth of history.
So those three things are important, and that delicate balance I would say really happens between that indigenous perspective and truth-telling. That’s where collaboration can solve it because you could easily do an exhibit let’s say anywhere. You could easily do an exhibit about forced removal of children whether it’s the boarding school story or it’s the current result with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission we had in Maine that looked at the removal, the inordinate number of removals of Native children from families through the foster care program. It’s all connected.
You could tell that story and really be a trigger for someone learning it the first time from a Native community. How can you tell that in a way that doesn’t create pain? The answer is always going to be with first person perspective and decision making and authority from the Native group that’s responsible or involved. Fortunately in that example, Truth and Reconciliation Commission created a body of wonderful people in the Wabanaki communities telling their own stories, right?
Cinnamon: So it’s stepping aside, letting that come forward, and you create space that’s safer. You really do. But you also have to think about what you wrap around it. There’s more to the story, and making sure there’s ways to walk into it or leave it. One of the great important learnings when we did a couple years ago our new core exhibit, People of the First Light, which was a … We would assess as a fully decolonized exhibit. The great piece of advice and request that came from the communities was when you tell those difficult stories, make sure that you opt in, because we don’t want Wabanaki children coming in and feeling oppressed and hurt. Of course, we could support that.
So there’s always a difference. I think some communities will say I don’t want it in there at all, and that’s okay. That’s their choice to decide and go in opposition is a colonizing act, and that’s not something we’re interested in.
Suse: Yeah. I think this is very interesting. There’s some writing that Courtney Johnston in New Zealand has actually been doing lately, and she talks about, I’m just going to find a reference to it. She talks about how museums are somehow a neutralizing, we’ve acted that museums are somehow a neutralizing force.
Suse: And that to some extent, we’ve taught our audiences to expect that, and therefore she says, you know, “It’s true because we’ve made it so,” and then she continues, “but museums are still capable of doing violence often unknowingly or thoughtlessly.” I think that’s what you’re talking about. You’re actually talking about institutions dealing with trauma, and as institutions we’re often not really well-equipped for dealing with that. So I’d love to just hear a little bit more about even the sorts of preparations then you do with staff for … Staff are obviously also having to provide a space for the telling of traumatic stories but you don’t want to exploit someone’s trauma for your work or for your gain. So how do you deal with those sorts of circumstances?
Cinnamon: That’s a really good question, and I’ve learned a lot, and I continue to learn because I think that while every organization has missteps as they make change, I feel that there’s more at stake because if we don’t prepare our skills, our training, give space for healing, then we cause more harm, right?
Cinnamon: So if that’s the bottom line, I have to be hyper sensitive. Having said that, as a smaller institution in a fast-paced location, things get away from you, and so that constantly plagues me. As we got started, we did a few things to test the waters. Back in, gosh, I think it was actually 2013, so a year after all this is born, we put together a series of introductory labels in our Orientation Gallery. We have a nice space that you can come in before you ever go into what I call the paywall after admission. We want people to understand whether they pay or not, that there are Wabanaki people in Maine, they haven’t left, and oh, by the way, this is a different kind of museum experience. So we put some labeling together for that and to hear what people said.
That went well. People were very curious, but we neglected to train the frontline staff in how to respond to these complicated questions. I don’t know what we were thinking. We just wanted the visitors to respond and hear what they had to say. At the time, there were certainly Native people working on the frontline as well, so it was this even heightened terror that I suddenly realized a year later after the season’s over and you’re reflecting back that oops, we should have prepared them in some way. And we’ve taken time since then to do that.
About the same time we had started racial bias training to make sure we recognized it in ourselves, in each other, and how to interact. That sill wasn’t enough. In the same time period, we became members of the International Coalition for the Sites of Conscience. Huge fan girl for that group.
Suse: I will pop a link in the show notes.
Cinnamon: Please. They prescribe, if you will, a methodology around facilitated dialog. We have now done that as a full team twice. Players have changed on the staff and we continue a cycle of training, but more or less, twice now we’ve done it. The first time we did this training over the course of a couple days, I foolishly thought we were then going to produce programming and everything’s going to be different. Instead, we were learning how to talk to each other.
Cinnamon: It’s really tough to even talk to each other sometimes. If you can’t do that, how are you going to talk to your audience about complicated conversations?
Cinnamon: So that became a team building focused thinking result, and then a couple years later, we brought our trainer back. Sarah Pharaon, and we then could imagine what programming looks like and make changes, ask the questions we need to ask, and it’s all about making sure everyone in the conversation has a place to stay in in that conversation, that they feel welcomed in, but in a way held accountable. So you develop these non-negotiables that you know when the line is crossed that you’re not going to encourage that, ennoble. So often it’s around racial issues or things like that. You just know that it’s not a line you’re even allowed across, but you’ve been trained to redirect, dig deeper when needed, and help everyone feel in the conversation.
I hesitate to use the word relevancy, but it is part of it. The conversation begins in a way or the program or the prompt in an exhibit begins in a way that you can relate right out of the gates. Something about family or home or experience. How do you describe X? You can find an answer in yourself, and then draw in, and that has been a really pivotal move, I think, for us to do that work. Now we’re developing programming that’s got facilitated dialog embedded, whether it’s just a prompt question, but we’re also doing full-on facilitated experiences where you sit down and work through a process, a problem, and you opt in to be doing it.
We tried a few years ago to do daily conversations, which a lot of sites do, and that did not work for us because of the tourism audience. They just, they’re so random. On a rainy day we’re flooded with people, so it’s really tough to hold a group. So we’ve backed off a little bit and instead just embedded it in slighter ways in everything that we do, and lo and behold, our wonderful education team has become quite skilled at it. They’re feeling very natural in it, and it makes a difference.
Suse: Yeah. I think that’s a huge thing. I mean, I know that even just personally, starting to move from talking about, say, technology and what that meant for museums into much more social justice issues and thinking about how to talk to them, it’s not been natural for me. Figuring out how to listen appropriately, how to find a voice, how to make space for other voices, it’s an ongoing thing I’m having to learn. It’s one of the nice things about podcasting, is the whole point is actually to be listening to other people.
But these things are not fast processes even when you are working with others who have been through it and who can teach you. There’s so much internal work that you have to be doing, much less also trying to be doing outward facing work and outward work, and doing the two of them at the same time. It’s a very complex thing to be doing, and to be doing it as an individual is hard enough, not to mention doing it as an institution.
You mentioned, so 2012 was when you had the big board conversation. Where is the board now, and how have you started to change governance, and what have been the results?
Cinnamon: It’s a very exciting time. Let me think. Last year was the first time, for a variety of reasons, we hadn’t really traveled our Native Advisory Council meeting, and last year we traveled to Sipayik, which is one of the Passamaquoddy communities, and it was phenomenal because not only did we have our council there, but the tribal leaders showed up and came and stayed for most of the day, and it was just a really heartfelt, curious, challenging day. A lot of questions I didn’t anticipate, which you’ve got to get out there and be in the space to hear them…came forward. The huge upshot of that day was that they wanted to talk to us more. They want more, more, more, and they realized that we had to come up with some other ways because we’ve been so patterned in meeting in person that they were willing to do weekly calls or not weekly, rather monthly calls, and really stay in the day-to-day conversation as much as they could.
We were very excited. We of course welcomed that, but the other thing that came out of that meeting is that they really wanted to meet jointly with our board of trustees. Not every time, but for sure let’s do it for once, a start. So that fall, which this was last year, October. We had our board retreat. We do it every year like every good board. Our board retreat was when they decided we could do this joint meeting. We had a couple of presentations on some great topics that were very decolonizing around traditional knowledge as well as the new ambassador for the Penobscot Nation came and talked to us about what’s happening currently.
In between all that was a facilitated conversation about how we work together. The result was they always want to meet together if they can, and that we probably need a different governance model, and that governance in the U.S. at least does not match a decolonizing organization. It is so oppositional, especially when you look at Robert’s Rules of Order. It’s very hierarchical. It’s militaristic. It’s masculine. Robert’s Rules was something we knew we wanted to get rid of.
Suse: I only encountered Robert’s Rules in the last 12 months. I had not encountered this before, and it is fascinating and yes, incredibly … I think it can be empowering for certain voices and quite disempowering for a lot of other voices.
Cinnamon: Absolutely. Absolutely, and it just sets a tone. It’s unnecessary. This is not how decisions need to be made. We knew consensus was a possibility, and we’re still learning about what works there with consensus, but that for example was the one thing that is just so opposite of a decolonizing framework. The Native Advisory Council wants to be more engaged. We want more Native people on the board, and that’s growing and growing and growing. Where do the decisions need to happen? Are we being redundant? Are we just creating conflict unnecessarily? Do they merge? Does “advisory” change to some different name? I think where we’re at now is that Advisory Council will probably continue, but they’re not advisors. They’re going to be Wabanaki Council. I feel like there’s some authority building there that everybody’s really excited about. I just don’t know what it looks like.
Cinnamon: I think governance, the board of trustees model will probably continue to evolve with growing participation from Wabanaki people, but this conversation started even a year prior. We had started rolling out protocols. We knew that was a way to create some lasting structure. When the players move, we want to make sure there’s policy and protocols in place that persist as a decolonizing institution. So we’d started laying down those tracks about a year ago, and our first one was governance. On the table during this board meeting, this board retreat rather, was this protocol that says now, and it’s not been finalized. It’s all in draft because it’s a big debate. But it prescribes that we would return to the original idea, which is hilarious to me, of five appointed people on the board.
So they went right back to it. Different board members, but they went right to it. But it takes a step further. The second part is that we would achieve parity between Wabanaki and non-Wabanaki people by 2021, and then the third part is that we would deepen our approach, engagement, relationships with the Canadian communities to really start thinking of the homeland in its full context, which is a whole other challenge for a variety of reasons, and some people in the Wabanaki communities might not want that. So it’s a bigger conversation that we have to figure out as a Maine organization.
So those three things are in this protocol that are not finalized, and in the middle of that, there’s a growing engagement between the two bodies moving forward. So coming out of the retreat last fall was the creation of another task force, a governance restructuring task force, representatives from each group to start talking about where we need to go, and our quick finding was that it’s not going to be quick, and that it’s probably at least three years to prepare everybody for answers to come along in a complex way as part of this process. But that we really can’t move forward unless we understand what our organizational principles are. A lot of organizations of course have values, principles. We had not done that in our strategic planning process because we focus so much on the framework, which is value driven. It just doesn’t say, “These are our values, and here’s our list.”
But it became quite apparent in this process that if we have these principles, these touchstones as Jamie Bissonnette Lewey calls them, we can’t make decisions about who makes decisions, what do we value the most. And we just had that board meeting on Friday night, a facilitated conversation about our principles. We are in that process, and it’s so exciting. I’m like got the chills again because I think we’re going to come out of it with a beautiful set of ideals that will decide how governance looks, and it’s not going to be the traditional format we see in the U.S.
Suse: There’s two questions that come out of that for me. The first one is going to be about funding because governance is so often so tightly linked to funding models. I’m really curious as to whether then your funding models have shifted in response to the work that you’re doing, and if not, how that has a power impact on what you’re doing.
The second question, and we’ll get back to this a little bit, I’m really interested, you’re been very transparent about this process as well, and I’m interested as to what impact you think that has on the work that you’re doing.
Cinnamon: Sure. Well, the money question, that’s always in the room, it’s always in my head in good and bad ways. As we started this process, I think it’s fair to say that there are board members that were concerned, but they couldn’t really say why. They couldn’t really do a back-of-envelope calculation and figure out any of it. It was just back to that fear of the unknown. As we got started, we started to build our messaging, and our messaging is very, you cannot visit the Abbe now and not know that we are decolonizing. As that deepened, we could deepen our fundraising messages, we could deepen our marketing messages and transform the conversation. We did that pretty quick.
The funding came along. There’s been some change. There’s been really one donor I know of who’s dropped out, and it’s for all of the complicated reasons he carries with him, and I’m fine with that. He was so kind to write it all out for us too, so I can show it and say, “Listen, this isn’t how we’re working. This isn’t where we want to go.” But on the flip of that, it’s brought in so many more new donors, and foundations respond, and we now have requests to apply for foundation grants from foundations we didn’t even know they existed or these quiet little silent helpers that are waiting for change like this to happen.
Cinnamon: I think it’d be, if you take the long view, we’re going to look back and say that we’ve multiplied our giving and our support as a result. But you have to be transparent about it. You have to tell people. I think some organizations leap into good change like this, but don’t put the messaging in bed with it. You’ve got to. We were talking about it immediately. Even though we didn’t have marketing funds, we were finding ways to do it through social media. Social media’s been huge for us. The blog, we try to keep up with as much as we can, and FYI, any delays on that decolonizing blog is totally mine. That’s all me. I’m going to get back on it real soon.
But telling people about it was the commitment from number one. And also there was for selfish reasons. We wanted to learn. We didn’t have the answers. I talked about that research earlier. We didn’t know what people are doing, so please talk to us. What’s going on? Here’s what we’re thinking about. So from the very beginning, we started presenting it at the AAM conference, the AASLH conference, and creating a space for the conversation. Those conversations have changed in five years, which is really exciting, and I think that’s the big upshot of the transparency.
Suse: That’s fantastic. I think there’s something that I have been thinking about a lot. There was a really interesting blog post a few weeks ago from Sumaya Kassim I’m going to link to in the show notes, and she talks, she argues that museums will not be decolonized, and she uses an Audre Lorde quote who says, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house. They may allow us to temporarily beat him at his own game, but they will never enable us to bring about genuine change.”
It sounds like you are changing the tools of your work, but do you think full decolonization of museums or within museums is possible, or is it just a shifting of the power structures? Is it a changing by a matter of degrees as opposed to really upending what we’re doing?
Cinnamon: No. They cannot be decolonized. That would be the short answer. I, early on, because I am all about change. I love it, no matter what it is. So early on, I was using my typical tools of, okay, here’s the path forward. Here’s how we go. Here’s what we do this. Who do I go to talk to? And that quickly needed to be set aside, and I just had to be a passenger in this process, which is a learning for me. One of my early learnings was when we were presenting, I think it was at AAM several years ago, and a woman stands up during the conversation and says, “I hear what you’re saying, and I’m excited for you, but the word museum is a colonized word, so how can you even begin to decolonize if that is the word you’re using?”
Cinnamon: It hadn’t occurred to any of us. Of course it is. Yeah. So that’s when we started digging deeper in the history even more and thinking about that. I firmly agree that museums are the receptacles in so many ways of colonizing forces and by that they become colonizing forces themselves. It’s where the spoils of war go.
Cinnamon: Museums however, and I will always believe this, museums can be everything we need them to be. They are amazing. They are wonderful. When they identify the structural racism within museums, they can help educate a public because, oh, by the way, it’s not just museums that are problematic.
Suse: Ah, yeah. Right?
Cinnamon: There’s a long list.
Suse: And in fact one of the challenges I think is that most of our institutions are interlinked. So if you think about, I’ll look at the art market because it’s what I’m most familiar with. If you think about where money is and how that relates to power structures and how that relates to museum acquisitions, all of these institutions are interlinked. So museums are not alone in this, but they’re also then … There are so many forces beyond us that even when we’re talking about something like decolonizing an individual institution, we’re not doing it in a vacuum.
Cinnamon: Right, and even I just thought of the argument years ago that was made by people like Sarah Sutton about greening museums was that everybody needs to think about ways to save energy and reduce our carbon footprint, but museums especially need to do it because it’s where people learn, and they really take in information in really well-documented ways that we know, but it is this place of learning. So if we can demonstrate the structural racism embedded, we can influence a bigger change than we could ever imagine. It’s why museums are not neutral spaces, to return to that idea. They never have been and they never will be because neutral is a political decision, and that’s just not something that we have the duty to do as museums.
Suse: Speaking of politics, one of the things that I had been thinking about is the role of museums as political actors. So rather than just being a place for civic discourse and as a civic space, but what our role is in actually taking political action as institutions. In your work with the Wabanaki nations, do you have a sense of the Abbe as a political force as well, or is it mostly making space for other people to have discussions and discourse and being that civic space?
Cinnamon: That’s a great question because we struggled with that early on. As my board changed and as we were moving into the strategic planning process, we were recruiting board members who were global thinkers, who had nonprofit experience, who could look at those tensions, as well as all the other usual suspects for a board, as well as Wabanaki people. So the voices were changing in that strategic planning process, and that’s where the idea of transparency came forward very clearly, but with that was advocacy. If we’re going to do this work, shouldn’t we tell everybody and tell them to do it too, was the big question. Because it feels almost colonizing if we keep it to ourselves, right?
Cinnamon: So we grappled with that, and it was interesting because we had three big retreat meetings with the strategic planning process, and it changed through that. In addition, we had a big meeting with the Native Advisory Council, and I watched that conversation change, and at the very end the way it circled back was yes, but Wabanaki people speak for themselves, and they always have, and they always will, and if we ever stood in the way of that, that’s a colonizing act, right?
Cinnamon: So us making a commentary when a reporter calls before they’ve talked to a Wabanaki person would be a problem, especially with all the political issues in Maine today around sovereign rights. That’s not our place. Our place certainly is to create resources for when for example that journalist calls, we can point them to say these are things we’ve published. This is the source. This is who you need to talk to. We can be a kind of, because no matter what we do, for some reason, non-Native people have a tough time reaching out to the Native communities, and they think, oh, well the Abbe would know all the answers. I mean there’s a good thing to that. That means we are a place of learning and resources. Hurray. But there is some kind of, I don’t know if it’s laziness, disconnect. I don’t know what it is, but they just don’t think to call the tribe, which you could do.
So sometimes we get a lot of calls like that, so we knew that it was a reality that we had to resolve what’s our advocacy role, and of course hearing from Wabanaki people, they have affirmed that. Yeah, it’s not our role. But well there’s still something, and so that’s why we decided that our role is, and this here again we’re turning to Darren Ranco, who I mentioned earlier. I remember him saying this vividly, that we have the opportunity to reduce pain in museum spaces all over, so why wouldn’t we want to do that?
So the other reason for the transparency, but now what we’re working on, we have a big grant application pending, so all fingers crossed that we can create a Museum Decolonization Institute, MuseDI. It’s cute. Also stands for MDI, Mount Desert Island where we are, MuseDI, and that we could use the Abbe as a lab. In the winter when there’s not a lot of people around, come in, be critical, look at these spaces, hear from scholars in this work. Amy Lonetree’s interested in being on board. Darren Ranco who I’ve mentioned. Bringing in indigenous scholars to talk this through and help people get started.
That’s the only thing we can help people do. We can’t tell people how it’s going to look, where it’s going to go because it’s unique to your history as well as the relationships you have or don’t have with tribal communities. We can help you get started through I think a methodology of internal work, external work and how those relate, but also understanding that the board has got to be on the same page and how to get them there and what leadership’s role is in all those parts and pieces coming together to get started, and help them have that container of conversation that’s protected and supported. We think we can provide that every year.
And then we expand from that with a lot of consultations we’ve already been doing, traveling to other museums to help them start conversations. We believe that’s our political choice and advocacy role.
Suse: That’s really lovely. Two final questions. Has this changed your sense of what a museum looks like?
Cinnamon: That’s a great question. Yes. For sure. It’s changed how I look at every decision, process, and structure. Can I have a result or an answer or an opportunity with each look? No, but it’s really started this new conversation in my head through the staff. I also recognize that we can’t change everything all at once, and so that urgency really weighs on me, and it’s definitely affected which museums I choose to visit, because I was a very inclusive museum goer. I love museums, right?
Cinnamon: Now, my visits are different and the questions I’m asking. Finally got to go the Lower East Side Tenement Museum this year, and that has been a long time coming experience. It’s changed my life yet again. Just choosing my time differently as well, what I’m studying, what I’m privileging as a resource for decision making. Yeah. That’s definitely changed, but I do think and I will always believe museums have a place in American society and a global society. I do believe that their starving cycle of resources is our greatest threat, but I think that goes hand-in-hand with negligence around structural racism in all its forms, in all community interactions. Those two things together will make museums extinct if we don’t do something about it. So yes.
Suse: I think that makes a lot of sense that the inputs you choose in your life, the things that you pay attention to start to shift, so it makes sense that the way you’re looking at the world is obviously shifting in response to the work that you’re doing.
If this is something people want to be doing in their own institutions, you’re the director and you’re coming at this from a place of power within your own institution. You’re able to connect the board to your staff, to your Advisory Council, whatever name and shape they become. For people who are not in that position, is there work that they can be doing in their own institutions that can actually bring some of these ideas from lower in the institution, from different spaces within the museum? What can people be doing from their own roles, whatever they are?
Cinnamon: That’s a tough place to be in. I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, that I would say that the people we talk to the most as we’re learning are not leaders. That’s a real flaw. Leaders need to get together, and I’m still trying to figure that one out about how to make this kind of change happen. But if you find yourself middle management, entry level and incredibly frustrated about these structures, you’re going to leave the field. We’re hearing a lot about that at least in writing in personal experience right now. I don’t know if it has a lasting effect yet, but we’re hearing about it.
So how do you push up? How do you manage up? I think it starts within your department of course. I think it starts with personal work. Why are you pushing? Are you coming with other coded sets of understanding that are riddled with privilege or not?
Suse: Probably yes.
Cinnamon: [crosstalk 00:46:06] What can you start doing to do the personal work, and by result, if you talk about it, you influence others, so you can begin almost like that drop in the water to create a ripple effect and that maybe if you grow into leadership for a department, your department works in a certain way, and you communicate in a certain way on the leadership team and it grows and it grows and it grows. As you constantly stay in the cycle of personal learning, it’s the only result in my opinion, and we’ve just started doing that to even add on to this personal learning. It’s growing for us at the Abbe. We are doing cultural competency assessments now, and we’re creating personal plans for our growth. Even little ole me was surprised by my result. I have a lot of work to do, and I’m in it to win it. I’m going to do this.
The board’s doing it. The staff’s doing it, and we’re going to look at disconnects between our results. We’re looking at it in aggregate, and then we’re creating a baseline of data to then move us into a training process we’re going to go through here this year and next around anti-racism training and servant leadership training. Those are the two areas we’re looking at, and then on the end of that, we’ll do these assessments again and look at change, so we’re trying to show how that personal work has to be there to make decolonization work. I don’t think they can exist separately, and it’s something I was seeing as a huge road bump if not a derailment if we didn’t look at that.
So that kind of personal work anybody can do wherever you sit. And if you find you can’t push or make an impact, then you need to go somewhere else you can. It’s going to be a tragedy for that museum left behind, but until leaders start doing it, until boards start to have that conversation, it’s going to be a tough road.
Suse: Cinnamon, this has been so useful and enlightening and a little bit amazing. It’s actually so nice being in the same room with someone and having the conversation where they think. Not only do I get to hear the words, but I get to follow you on your journey as well as you think through these things, and that’s been a really lovely thing. If people want to get in contact with you, if they want to find out more about what the Abbe is doing, and if they want to work with you or work with the Abbe, how can they best get in contact with you?
Cinnamon: We love to hear from people, and they can always email me. Cinnamon, just like it’s supposed to be spelled in your cabinet, @abbemuseum.org. But if you go to our website, abbemuseum.org, you see links to the blog. The strategic plan is out there. All of our email addresses are for you to access. We want to hear from you. We’re okay with the spam that happens as a result. It’s worth it because we want to hear from people getting started. We want to hear from successes and failures. We’re willing to listen to your complications and point you in a different direction if we can. But also I like to just recognize that when you go onto that space, you can really see the Wabanaki people we work with. I’m always conscious of the fact that I’m sitting here as a white woman without Native people in the room. I always like to acknowledge that in our space together, that it’s not me with a solution. It’s all of us with a solution. You can see that when you go to our website.
Suse: That’s really lovely. Cinnamon, thank you for being a guest on Museopunks.
Cinnamon: Thank you for having me.
Suse: Thank you, Cinnamon, for sharing this important work and helping to grow what my understanding of what decolonization in museums looks like in practice. For those who want to know more, Cinnamon will be speaking at the American Alliance of Museums’ annual conference on Monday, May 7. Her presentation will build on three years of discussions in which practitioners have considered what decolonizing museum practice is and how it might inform museum work. If you can’t make it to the conference but would like to learn more about this work, Cinnamon has shared a full reading list of useful resources, which will be in the show notes for this episode. I suggest you also check out the Abbe Museum’s website and blog about their work.
Of course, I am also going to be at AAM this year. I am really excited to have a couple of opportunities to present. I’m going to be co-moderating a keynote session with the fabulous Kayleigh Bryant-Greenwell. We’re going to be talking with Donovan Livingston and Frank Waln about educational reform and equity in and out of museums.
I’m also really excited about a session I’m going to be on that’s moderated by Gretchen Jennings. It explores the possibilities and the obstacles in the practice of empathy at an institutional level. I often struggle with these notions of institutional empathy. I tend to feel that they’re against how institutions behave, and I’m really excited to dig into this topic and find out more about how we can actually codify empathy at an institutional level.
Museopunks is presented every month by the American Alliance of Museums. You can connect with me on Twitter @Museopunks, or check out the extended show notes at museopunks.org. Of course, you can subscribe anytime at iTunes or Stitcher. I hope you have a fabulous month, and I look forward to catching up with you again soon. Ciao. (silence)