Bar Harbor’s Abbe Museum At The Forefront Of Movement To Redesign Exhibits Around Tribal Culture

Oct 29, 2018

An iconic scene from “Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade” features a treasure hunter trying to get his hands on a sacred cross.

“This is the second time I’ve had to reclaim my property from you,” he says.

Indiana Jones memorably responds, “It belongs in a museum!”

While the treasure hunter is cast as the villain, and Indy the archaeologist and hero, some in the museum world say it’s time to tear up that whole scene.

Enter the emerging practice of “museum decolonization,” and one Maine museum that’s hoping to help other institutions rewrite cultural narratives, and also change how they view historic artifacts.

Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko is president and CEO of the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, one of the pioneers in museum decolonization. As an institution focused on the Wabanaki, decolonizing has meant rethinking its 90 years as an archaeological museum.

The galleries have been redesigned. The map on the wall shows the Wabanaki homeland with no modern boundaries. And there’s a different voice telling the story.

“Indigenous people are talking directly to you, they’re welcoming you through their own words,” Catlin-Legutko says.

Asked how it was when the museum first started down this path, she says, “It was like shouting into the dark. Like, 20 years there’s been papers published on what museums should do and very little evidence of practice.”

But that’s about to change. The Abbe has received a $170,000 federal grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services to establish the Museum Decolonization Institute, or MuseDI, to assist other museums in implementing what Catlin-Legutko describes as an “anti-racist methodology.”

For its core exhibit, called People of the First Light, the Abbe worked with 30 native advisers and four native artisans.

While many museums do consult with cultural representatives in creating exhibits, Catlin-Legutko says decolonization doesn’t stop there. It wasn’t enough to bring more native people on board, she says, they also need to be on the board. As of August, the Abbe’s board of directors is majority indigenous.

“Which is a huge shift for board structure and a lot of board rooms, especially in the bigger ones, don’t even have people of color, or it’s a very limited representation,” she says.

Another principle of decolonization involves removing certain sacred cultural objects such as human remains or even certain stories and rituals from public view, out of respect.

“I’m not sure how I would feel,” says an Abbe Museum patron who identified herself as Kathy from Warren. “It’s difficult, because I guess I tend to be more of a more of a scientist than a religious person.”

Kathy she says while she supports tribal sovereignty, she’s torn because knowledge is important to her.

Catlin-Legutko says ultimately, a decolonized museum will enhance a museumgoer’s understanding, not detract from it. But to get there, she says it’s imporant to discard the notion that museums are unopinionated observers, from historic houses where slaves once worked to how art is presented.

“Museums have never been neutral, despite the fact that some people think they are. They have never been neutral. They’ve always shown a biased world view of success, or colonial mastery or what is beautiful or what is important. It has always been deemed by a formally educated body of privileged individuals making decisions,” she says.

“I wish more people understood that, and I think that’s where the museums have an ethical responsibility, because at some point they kind of fix things in, they say, ‘This is the Penobscot material culture,’” says Darren Ranco, a member of the Penobscot Nation and an anthropologist with the University of Maine.

Ranco says museums have always been in the driver’s seat when it comes to determining what’s museumworthy, and what goes in can sometimes seem a bit arbitrary. For example, he says 19th century correspondence between museum collectors and Penobscot tribal leaders demonstrates that there was disagreement even back then about what was culturally significant — and it wasn’t just about sensitive burial items.

“‘Could you please, you know, locate and possibly for me to buy a canoe paddle in the old style, you know, because we want it to be “real” and “old,”’ and then the letter written back is like ‘Yeah, I think I can do that, but you know, the new paddles are so much better, they’re so much lighter, they don’t break as much,’ and like, there’s just complete management around what is the ‘appropriate’ cultural object that you want,” he says.

But not everyone in the industry is rushing to embrace a decolonization plan — or the term.

“I think it could easily lead to persons misunderstanding the nature of these collections,” says Bernard Fishman, director of the Maine State Museum, who started his career digging antiquities in Egypt.

It’s essential, Fishman says, for museums to consult cultural groups and avoid giving offense, but a decolonizing process could get very complex, given the vast spectrum of museums, collections, donations, cultures and religions. All considerations must also be balanced with a museum’s mission to educate, and good museums, he says, are already grappling with these questions.

“I think a lot of the respect that museums have earned and largely kept has been because the best museums do continually weigh and measure these factors and try to involve the people who are most affected by them and make ethical decisions. They may not always be right but I think there’s been an honest attempt,” he says.

The Maine State Museum still possesses a handful of precolonial burial items that were not repatriated to the tribes under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, or NAGPRA, of 1990. But Fishman says just this month, the museum has begun “reassessing” those items at the request of one member of the museum’s commission — none of which are Wabanaki representatives.

The Phoebe A. Hearst Museum, an anthropology museum in San Francisco that possesses thousands of human remains, declined to be interviewed. But a museum spokesman said that a letter on this very subject was being drafted to send to tribal representatives in California in the coming weeks.

To critics, these two examples suggest that NAGPRA has been serving as a kind of fig leaf for almost 30 years. Catlin-Legutko says while she gets the complexities involved, to her it just re-emphasizes that museums don’t just need to change — they need to change faster.