“..For hundreds of years, anthropologists and other colonial actors documented (often unethically and without consent) Indigenous life and languages, and most of that material ended up in archives that are totally removed from the community – they’re hard to get to in distance and cost, and they’re not welcoming places to begin with…"
So explains Dr. Diana Marsh, Assistant Professor at the UMD College of Information Studies and previous Postdoctoral Fellow in Anthropological Archives at the Smithsonian National Anthropological Archives (NAA). Archives, heritage, museums, the study of anthropology and what it can do to promote cross-cultural exchange and understanding is her focus.
Here Picture This Post (PTP) talks to Diana Marsh (DM) about the changing nature of museums, her recent work on access for Native and Indigenous communities, and the power of storytelling as a force for change.
(PTP) As somebody close to cultural heritage museums, what current trends do you see in how these museums are changing?
(DM) I spend a lot of my time thinking about museums and Native and Indigenous communities, but the relationships between museums, communities, and the public are shifting dramatically in most realms. We are seeing more movements and participatory and community curation across the board in fine art museums, science museums, history museums, and so on…moving from “increase and diffusion” of knowledge -- essentially putting research and knowledge building first -- to “diffusion and increase,” really putting its role to the public, to communities, to education, to public discourse (and on the national stage) first.
Can you tell our readers about the museum decolonization movement and its impact?
We’re seeing a lot of activity in the past year and a half that has brought this movement to public awareness, but it long predates what’s happening now. Some of the decolonizing movement in museums has been going on since the 1990s and in pockets even before that. Museum decolonization can take a lot of different forms and it’s an ongoing practice, rather than any kind of end goal. And in fact, a lot of people, especially indigenous colleagues I work with, will tell you that you can’t decolonize a fundamentally colonial institution. And that’s true. But we can make some headway toward repairing the histories of abuse and mistrust in the ways museums acquired collections or information, or in turn shared that information with the public.
Decolonizing movements in museums today usually involve a whole suite of activities, starting by working with communities whose collections a museum holds. Communities, rather than institutions, are the center. That might include collaborating with community-based curators or consultants, more publicly acknowledging the colonial history of a museum collection, acknowledging the land taken from communities to build or fund the museum, or of course -- as the public is probably more familiar with -- physically repatriating or returning collections to home communities. In my experience this has been a mutually beneficial process in the sense that it has meant new relationships and new knowledge from different perspectives being built collaboratively. It has also brought new voices into exhibit spaces and to the public.
What are your hopes for the future of cultural heritage museums?
I was so glad to see so much powerful activity over the last year and a half -- seeing the Decolonize This Place movement and protests in museum spaces. Again, this has been percolating in museums and in academics for a long time, and yet we’ve seen very little substantive change at high levels, like the makeup of museum boards, or funding sources, or real shifts in staff diversity. The current movement is forcing more museum directors to take action, and I’m eager to see more of it. The future is in communities’ hands to some extent, but given what most museums look like internally, it’s also in the hands of white allies in the museum field to step up and force that change.
On a brighter note, I think we’re going to continue to see beautiful friendships and a lot of creativity as museums work with new community-based talent. Some places are still slow to start, but there are great resources out there like the Guidelines for Collaboration or the Guide to Indigenous and Territorial Land Acknowledgement for Institutions to get conversations and projects started.
Can you share a bit about your most recent work with Native American and Indigenous communities?
My current projects focus on the Native and Indigenous collections held by big, colonial archives, like those here in Washington D.C. For hundreds of years, anthropologists and other colonial actors documented (often unethically and without consent) Indigenous life and languages, and most of that material ended up in archives that are totally removed from the community – they’re hard to get to in distance and cost, and they’re not welcoming places to begin with. Most of these archives have catalogs that are extremely difficult to navigate, even for seasoned researchers.
To add insult to injury, most archival collections are so large (and staffs small by comparison) that the materials that are in those catalogues aren’t very well described, meaning the information is extremely limited, and for Indigenous collections often incorrect or racist.
I’m trying to work on helping communities find their material (e.g. what anthropologist took that photo, and where did that guy’s archival papers go?), which in turn allows them to get (usually, but not always digital) copies of it so the information can live at home and on the community’s own terms.
Is it correct to say that you are walking the tightrope of working against colonial institutions while still being part of them?
Yes – that has been my constant balance. I think it’s a strength, in the sense that knowing an institution intimately (and lots of folks who work there) is an important part of navigating it -- its collections or its politics. I hope that’s a real asset I can bring to my community work. And I will say that there are lots of allies in colonial institutions, but they may not be in positions of power--so I think a lot of us are trying to build critical mass.
As to challenges: it’s heavy, emotional work. Change is also very slow, which can be disheartening. Luckily, I’m incredibly energetic, and I work with awesome people.
How do you hope that a focus on the element of storytelling will allow cultural heritage institutions to better interact with communities and the public?
I think good storytelling is key to making change. I was at a talk recently about the “infodemic” in which we find ourselves. It turns out that facts aren’t that compelling—at least not on their own. Stories tell us how to understand facts, how to feel, how to care, how to act. Museums in their promotional materials and branding have known this for a long time. I hope that good stories about the importance of community-centered work and why it matters help drive leadership to support it.
For more information, visit Dr. Diana Marsh’s website.
Editor’s Note: Here are links to projects and resources that are named in the article:
- Decolonize this Place movement information
- Guidelines for Collaboration with movements to improve museums
- Guide to Indigenous and Territorial Land Acknowledgement for Institutions
Images courtesy of Diana Marsh
About the Author: Elizabeth Rozmanith
Anywhere Elizabeth travels, the first things she looks for are art exhibits and museums. She is happiest roaming through exhibits and reading about artists working to break boundaries and explore intersectional issues in today’s world. As a visual artist herself, when not perusing other people’s artworks Elizabeth can be found painting, printmaking or crafting jewelry. Other favorite hobbies include singing and finding places outside to read a good book. Elizabeth is incredibly excited to be using her love for the arts to create previews and artist interviews with Picture This Post.