A pair of slave shackles are on display in the Smithsonian's National Museum of African American History and Culture. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

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For years, the San Diego Museum of Man has displayed Native American belongings and human remains behind glass.

The museum’s approach to the exhibits changed in 2012, when the anthropological museum began to “decolonize,” a process that institutions undergo to expand the perspectives they portray beyond those of the dominant cultural group, particularly white colonizers. For the San Diego museum, it meant partnering with the Kumeyaay Nation so they can have a role in curating their own history.


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“It means including perspectives at the museum that should have always been included, but historically were not,” said Ben Garcia, the museum’s deputy director.

As a result, many of the human remains at the San Diego museum were moved to burial grounds.

Decolonization is perhaps most drastic way museums are changing how they view themselves, from neutral custodians of knowledge to living entities curated by real people with their own biases. This often means diversifying and listening to concerns from visitors from underrepresented communities.

“We need to move from seeing ourselves in a position of authority to positioning ourselves as a platform for conversations to come and be present,” Garcia said.

Jaclyn Roessel, who is Navajo, was brought on to the Museum of Man last year as the director of decolonization, where she worked with museum officials and leaders from the Kumeyaay Nation to change programming. In 2017, the museum passed a policy that descendants must give consent to display remains of each of the estimated 5,000 to 8,000 people in its collection. It also adjusted its displays of Native belongings to portray them not just as decorations, but with the context that reflects their cultural significance.

“I wanted to show we don’t need to be dependent on non-Native voices to authorize the telling of our story,” Roessel said.


The My Uuyow Kumeyaay Cosmology exhibit at the San Diego Museum of Man.

Michael Connolly Miskwish, a historian and tribal member of the Kumeyaay Nation acknowledged that the museum was taking a step to improve representation, but said some remain critical of how Native Americans and their culture are portrayed.

“Of course, museums love to display things from Indian people and they have a tendency to display things from Indian people as something that once existed and is long dead,” he said. “There are still people in the community who are distrustful of the ultimate motive.”

Modern museums are inexorably tangled with the history of colonization partly because of how they started, often launched by wealthy collectors who traveled the world and displayed their findings in their homes.

“These items were collected and displayed by people engaged in the larger colonial exercise,” Garcia said. “From the beginning, museums were places to show a European audience what was being created with assets from other parts of the world.”

Echoes of the these colonial origins are reflected in modern museum staffing, too. Non-Hispanic whites dominate many roles in art museums, including curators, conservators, educators and leadership positions, according to a 2015 survey conducted by the Mellon Foundation. Just 4 percent of staffers in those positions were black, 3 percent of them were Hispanic and 6 percent were Asian.

Joanne Jones-Rizzi, vice president of STEM Equity and Education at the Science Museum of Minnesota, has worked for decades to create more diverse museums for visitors and staffers. She said it’s not unusual to be the only person of color working in a museum.

“I’ve been interested in trying create a culture where I’m not the only one and where people who are like me can see themselves represented in a large cultural institution,” said Jones-Rizzi, who is African American.

Museums say they face a pipeline problem. Steven Nelson, a professor of African and African American Art at UCLA and a fellow at the National Gallery of Art, recalls only a handful of students of color in his classes during his three decades of teaching.

“Museums are perceived as being for people of privilege,” Nelson said. “It starts early.”

The issue of diversity in museums reached the mainstream recently, when a Tweet critiquing a staffing choice at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture went viral:


(Screenshot from Twitter/edited to remove explicit language)

The optics of a white woman curating a portion of nation’s preeminent museum of African American culture created a flurry of criticism, even though its staff is very diverse. Of the museum’s 17 curators, the majority are black, according to its website. The employee at the center of the controversy is Timothy Anne Burnside, a museum specialist (not a curator) who works under much larger team to collect and preserve the museum’s 37,000 artifacts.

“What one sees here is people wanting to have something they can call their own,” Nelson said. “And seeing this kind of thing happen makes them feel like something is being taken away from them.”

The situation echoes a similar controversy earlier this year at the Brooklyn Museum, after a white woman was hired to curate the African Art exhibit and activists protested and demanded the museum decolonize.

As museums move to engage audiences armed with a social media bullhorn, answering questions and occasional anger from visitors about diversity has become another role of the museum. Roessel said that these conversations are part of a larger movement to address inequities in museums.

“These flashpoints allow for us to point and say ‘that’s not fair,’” Roessel said. “It’s slowly helping museums see that they are not in a vacuum.”

In June, Roessel moved on from her role as director of decolonization at The Museum of Man to start an independent consulting company, Grownup Navajo, to work with museums to improve cultural competency. The museum is hiring a new director.

Earlier this year, The Museum of Man held a community day, where the Kumeyaay people were invited into the museum.

“It was only open to Kumeyaay people,” Roessel said. “It was an incredibly moving experience to be at an event that was not meant for anybody but the culture that is being celebrated.”

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