The Museum of Us (The Museum) resides on the ancestral homelands of the Kumeyaay Nation in Balboa Park. The Museum recognizes that the Kumeyaay people have lived here since time immemorial, and continue to reside and thrive in the San Diego area and beyond.
The mission of the Museum of Us is to inspire human connections by exploring the human experience. Today, we recognize that our mission can only authentically be fulfilled through a decolonial process that centers around truthfulness, accountability, and reconciliation. We call this process our decolonizing initiatives. The heart of our decolonizing initiatives work is to acknowledge and redress the ways that our museum participated in the colonial enterprise, both intentionally and unintentionally.
Decolonizing Initiatives at the Museum of Us
The Museum’s decolonizing initiatives are inspired by Ho-Chunk Scholar Dr. Amy Lonetree’s work in her seminal book Decolonizing Museums. The Museum’s decolonizing initiatives’ four guiding principles are:
- Truth telling and accountability
- Rethinking ownership
- Organizational culture shift supported by systems and policy
- Indigenous Representation
Truth Telling and Accountability
Acknowledging that our Museum, like many other museums, emerged from the colonial endeavor, white supremacy, and the self-righteous belief that to the victor goes the spoils. We recognize that the vast majority of the objects that reside in, and are stewarded by, the Museum came to us through an inequitable and colonial pathway. To learn more, please see the history section on this page and review our Colonial Pathways Policy.
We are working to ensure that the cultural objects and ancestral human remains that we hold and steward in our Cultural Resources department are only in our holdings under consent from their associated communities. Recognizing Indigenous Peoples’ sovereignty is essential in this work; particularly, in relationship to how Indigenous intellectual property rights (tangible and intangible) span across time and space. The foundation of this work is to ensure that we work collectively with Indigenous Peoples to repatriate and/or steward associated items based upon their wishes and needs.
Organizational Culture Shift Supported by Systems and Policy
The Museum is committed to ensuring that this work is an ethically sustainable shift in our practices, culture, and organizational model. We have implemented several policies to reflect this effort. Two examples of these types of policies are the Curation of Human Remains Policy and the Colonial Pathways Policy.
Our decolonizing initiatives’ policies recognize Indigenous sovereignty and the legitimacy of Indigenous knowledge and shared narratives, whether documented or passed through oral traditions. We acknowledge and believe that Indigenous knowledge is the most reliable evidence when defining the importance of cultural resources to an Indigenous community. Prioritizing Indigenous knowledge and decisions allows us to begin to correct the harm non-Indigenous authorities created by disregarding the expertise and wishes of Indigenous communities.
Representation matters, and is an integral part of decolonial work. Our goal is to have Black, Indigenous, and People of Color (BIPOC) representation and voice integrated within all levels of decision-making. We are a cultural anthropology museum that stewards and cares for cultural resources from a global population–representing more than 150 Indigenous communities within the United States, and over 200 Indigenous communities internationally. We believe it is imperative that our organizational model is accountable and works towards reflecting similar representation.
When we began the critical examination of our institution, which emerged from the 1915 Panama-California Exposition, we immediately found that over the course of its history the Museum had acquired the bodies and belongings of Indigenous people, in the United States and globally, in ways that were legal but not just or equitable.
A surface-level examination of the Museum’s acquisition ledgers shows hundreds of legal donations and purchases over a century that filled our storage rooms with tens of thousands of heritage items. However, a close examination of these transactions reveals a more complex story. Here are two examples among thousands that have their equivalents in museums around the world:
A collection of Apache items donated by local San Diegans in the 1950s were originally collected by US military personnel stationed on the San Carlos Apache Reservation in Arizona during the Apache Wars, a period of violent conflict between the US government and the Apache people that resulted in the forced relocation of the Apache people.
Another group of items were procured by members of the Stanley Porteus expeditions in Australia. Porteus studied Aboriginal Australian communities in order to bolster his white supremacist racial theories.
For a vast majority of our acquisitions, the transactions that caused belongings to leave Indigenous communities are often obscured by a lack of transparent or available documentation in our records. By simply labeling displayed items with a donor or purchase acknowledgment, the Museum effectively erased the genocide, warfare, displacement, and oppression perpetrated against Indigenous communities. Furthermore, by rarely including Indigenous voices in decisions made about the presentation or stewardship practices of their ancestors and belongings, our institution perpetuated the ongoing colonization and appropriation of Indigenous cultures.
What decolonizing initiatives are we currently working on?
Implementing the Decolonizing Initiatives Strategic Plan and associated policies will be our work for the next several decades. This work will be infused within the fabric of our organizational model. For example, our decolonial work will be present within fundraising, finance, governance, visitor experience, marketing and communications, and even human resources.
We recognize that a core tenant of this work means we will need to consult with descendant communities on about 80 percent of the Museum’s approximately 75,000 ethnographic items and archival and audio-visual material, as well as all the archaeology from more than 1,000 sites. We are committed to ensuring that the first phase of the work is centered around our homeland community, the Kumeyaay Nation. Given our limited capacity, this work will take time. However, our Board of Trustees and staff are deeply committed to its implementation and to ensure the sustainability of the Museum’s decolonizing initiatives.
The Museum’s Decolonizing Initiatives in the News
JANUARY 8, 2020 | American Alliance of Museums
Knowing Better, Doing Better
JULY 1, 2019 | American Alliance of Museums
Ceding Authority and Seeding Trust
OCTOBER 11, 2018 | The Washington Post
The ‘Decolonization’ of the American Museum
AUGUST 1, 2018 | San Diego CityBeat
Museums in Balboa Park Attempt to “Decolonize”
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