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Knowing Better, Doing Better: The San Diego Museum of Man takes a holistic approach to decolonization.

Category: Curatorial Practice
A sculpture on the museum’s façade depicts one of many Franciscan missionaries involved in the colonization of Kumeyaay peoples.
A sculpture on the museum’s façade depicts one of many Franciscan missionaries involved in the colonization of Kumeyaay peoples.

This article originally appeared in the January/February 2020 issue of Museum magazinea benefit of AAM membership.

As museum professionals, we typically think of the word “curate” as a verb meaning “to collect, organize, and present” a group of items, often within the context of an exhibition. Another common meaning is “to be in charge of, or manage, a collection, gallery, or museum.” These definitions inform our industry’s approach, thinking, and identity surrounding curatorial practice. We see ourselves—and others see us—as expert in these activities.

The origins of the word, however, may suggest an alternative way of framing what we do. Derived from the Latin, “curate” is also a noun meaning “a spiritual guide” or “one responsible for the care of souls.” Within the context of its root verb “to cure”—meaning “to restore to health, or heal”—the curatorial endeavor takes on a far more holistic hue. When viewed through this lens, we have an opportunity to rethink the very nature of our expertise and the role we play in our communities.

Shifting the Paradigm

Such a rethinking has largely informed our work at the San Diego Museum of Man in Balboa Park, which sits on the ancestral homelands of the Kumeyaay Nation. For the past nine years, I have had the humbling honor of serving as CEO at this museum, founded in 1915 as part of the Panama-California Exposition. Our mission is “inspiring human connections by exploring the human experience.” We do that by sharing alternative narratives that challenge people’s assumptions and get them thinking, feeling, and even acting in new ways.

As an institution, we see pain and suffering in the world all around us. Whether that pain and suffering comes in the form of structural racism, colonial legacy, or other forms of oppression, we believe there is a path to healing, and we may have a part to play. Inspired by anthropological values—sitting in generosity, not in judgment; walking a mile in others’ shoes, and compassion for all humanity—we also see hope.

We believe that if we hold ourselves accountable and act in trust-based partnership with others, there may be an opportunity for us to become a part of the solution. Taking that path requires acknowledging the pain and suffering, unpacking it, and doing the work—both on our own and in partnership—to find a way through. It is difficult work. It is necessary work. But most of all, it is transformational work.

We recognize that many museums, including ours, emerged from the colonial endeavor and the self-righteous belief that to the victor go the spoils. The colonizers, in turn, felt entitled to extract the cultural, environmental, and human resources of the colonized. Many cultural resources ended up in museums like ours, which wasted no time in asserting their authoritative expertise not only over the “artifacts,” but also over native and Indigenous peoples themselves. This paradigm of museum as expert over the “other” has largely justified our existence for the past 100 years.

The practice of decolonizing is one of shifting that paradigm. It is a process of recognizing, holding ourselves accountable for, and actively working to redress the traumatic legacy of colonialism on Black, Indigenous, and other people of color. Central to this effort is undoing systems of oppression that continue to perpetuate those traumas today. Our work to decolonize our cultural resources was chronicled by my colleagues in an article titled “Ceding Authority and Seeding Trust,” which appeared in the July/August 2019 issue of this magazine.

Expanding Our Practices

Over time, and with the support of an Institute of Museum and Library Services grant, our decolonizing work has grown, and we have grown into our decolonizing work, often in unexpected ways. We learned, for example, that our initial focus on our cultural resources was a good place to start, but it was truly just that. We now see how the silos of our industry perpetuate the very paradigm we seek to shift and that decolonizing our ways of thinking must inform every aspect of our work. They must pervade our institutional DNA itself.

Our decolonizing initiatives now go well beyond our cultural resources to include not only our exhibits and public programs, but also our marketing, our governance, and even our human resources practices. For us, the driving question is: Does this particular practice contribute—either directly or indirectly—to the colonial enterprise and systematic oppression, and if so, how can we best collaboratively change that?

Some examples may be instructive.

People First

One simple but important way we are expanding our work is through a widespread practice of institutional land acknowledgment. This consists of a formal, place-specific statement recognizing and expressing gratitude to the Indigenous peoples who have been dispossessed and displaced by colonialism. We are now integrating a recognition of the Kumeyaay peoples into our staff email signature blocks; the beginning of our educational tours, workshops, board meetings, and fundraising events; and within our public media partnerships, among other spaces. We are committed to doing this in ways that are authentic and not merely performative.

Language Matters

The words we use have important implications, of course, and we have engaged in a deep reexamination of ours. The people we historically referred to as “mummies,” “shrunken heads,” and “specimens,” for example, we now call “ancestors,” “ancestral human remains,” or “mummified ancestors.” This humanizes and, in turn, honors the individuals whose after-lives we respectfully steward. The items we previously referred to as “artifacts” in our “collections,” we now call “belongings” or “items” in our “cultural resources.” Rather than centering our language on the “collectors” who often acquired the items under untoward circumstances, the term “cultural resources” is centered on the Indigenous peoples who made, used, and imbued those items with meaning. Similarly, the rooms we previously referred to as “labs”—a term that reinforces the scientific and taxonomic classification of an “other”—we now simply refer to as “storage areas,” or in the case of ancestor housing, a “sanctuary space” or “the Willows.” We are creating a glossary for our staff, board, and volunteers so that, collectively, our language is humanizing at every turn.

Decolonized Marketing

We are shifting the language we use with the public, too. Our goal is to remove barriers of visitation and participation for Indigenous communities, and we recognize the impact of marketing language and graphic design in creating an inclusive and welcoming space. In addition to bringing land acknowledgments and institutional truth-telling into our marketing materials, we no longer use designs that evoke colonial imagery, which both embodies and reproduces trauma for many Indigenous visitors.

Our “Cannibals: Myth & Reality” exhibition marketing, for example, originally included a colonial-era Spanish galleon and a tropical-looking shoreline. Taken together, these images reinforced the very stereotypes of the “primitive savage” the exhibition seeks to upend. In consultation with Brandie Macdonald (Chickasaw Nation/Choctaw Nation), our director of decolonizing initiatives who serves on our strategic alignment team, we replaced the galleon with a sailboat, removed the tropical palm trees, and inserted seabirds along a nondescript coastal shore. The result is a far more inclusive invitation to visit the exhibition. We now review all of our marketing materials through this lens.

Holidays for All

Although we have generous paid-time-off policies at the museum, we are realizing that some of our human resources practices are problematic. We have long offered 14 paid holidays per year, for example, but several of those holidays are rooted in a colonial paradigm: New Year’s Day, Presidents Day, Independence Day, Thanksgiving, the day after Thanksgiving, Christmas Eve, Christmas, etc. For some of our staff, this conventionally Euro-American menu of holidays is, in fact, consistent with the days that they wish to mark, take off, and celebrate.

For other staff, however, this menu may be unintentionally harmful and isolating. Mandating that every employee take institutionally determined days off during the year may prevent those employees from marking the holidays that are important to them, and from taking off days when and how they wish. We are now revising our policy to allow employees to choose, and group together, holidays in ways that are meaningful to them. We are excited about changing this seemingly innocuous practice so that it better supports all of our team members in a decolonized way.

Cultivating a Learning Board

One of the most common questions other museum professionals ask when we share our decolonizing work is, “How did you get your board of trustees to let you do all that?” My answer is always the same: “You cannot join our board if you are the smartest person in the room.” This litmus test has allowed us to build a highly diverse and unconventional community of trustees who are not only extraordinarily open-minded but also deeply open-hearted.

When we first made the case for decolonizing the museum at our February 2016 board retreat, however, the decision to move forward was by no means unanimous. Some trustees’ eyes lit up with immediate understanding, but others were noticeably uncomfortable. A wonderfully rich, sometimes tense, and beautifully complicated discussion emerged, and we knew then that we were on to something important for our museum. We created a working group of staff and trustees so that we could continue the conversation after the retreat.

Ben Garcia, our passionate and talented deputy director at the time, and George Ramirez, our committed (now former) board chair with extensive DEAI expertise, among others, helped move the working group forward. Its goal was to identify and grapple with the concerns, both fiduciary and strategic, raised at and after the board retreat. We gave ourselves three months, which became six months and ultimately a year of monthly working group meetings. The trustees who participated shared their struggle with the work, unpacked where that struggle was coming from and helped us all better understand what we were up against. Collectively, we asked the difficult questions, processed deeply ingrained emotions and unconscious colonial biases, and ultimately found a path.

Maya Angelou once said, “When you know better, you do better.” We have learned so much as an institution over the past 100 years. We know better now, so we are doing better. Every day is a learning opportunity, however, and—as is often the case—our mistakes are our greatest teachers. We must not be afraid to make them and learn from them, together. As we continue to know better, we will do better still.

What Does Curation Look Like Here?

Several years ago, we eliminated the position of “curator” at our museum, and we began hiring “exhibit developers” instead. We did so because we wanted the look, feel, and content of our exhibitions to emerge out of a multiplicity of voices from throughout the institution and our community. We felt that the traditional role of a curator—a subject matter expert with tremendous passion and academic knowledge—could inhibit this process.

Our exhibit developers wear a variety of hats. They are researchers, project managers, dialogue facilitators, community liaisons, writers, storytellers, and evaluators—all wrapped into one. They are the shepherds that bring an idea to life as an experience for our visitors. Every exhibition we have developed since 2015 has followed this model.A woman reaching into an archival box to uncover indigenous artifacts. And A member of the museum’s team sews muslin drapes that help honor the sanctitude of Indigenous belongings the museum stewards.

Micah D. Parzen, Ph.D., J.D., is the chief executive officer of the San Diego Museum of Man.

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