How to decolonize a museum?

A detail of a pole donated to the Totem Heritage Center by its sculptor, Tsimshian artist David Boxley. (Photo by Leila Kheiry)

A graduate student from Colorado is spending the summer in Ketchikan researching totem poles at the community’s Totem Heritage Center. This is part of their work on a thesis on the decolonization of museums.

But what exactly does this mean for a museum and Indigenous communities?

Penske McCormack knows that as a newcomer to Ketchikan, they have a lot to learn about the town’s history.

McCormack is in a master’s program at the University of Denver, studying museum and heritage studies. For their thesis, they chose to focus on the decolonization of museum practices.

But what does it mean to decolonize a museum? McCormack explained.

And often times ancestors and possessions end up in museums, and they’ve been viewed in a way that’s colonial, that’s from a settler perspective, and that’s about subjecting people to opinions and treatment that they wouldn’t have for themselves. , and not really letting them represent themselves or have a say in how their property, ancestry or property is treated,” they said.

Their work in Ketchikan focuses on totem poles and their display in the museum.

So totem poles are, always have been, a great subject of fascination for non-Indigenous audiences,” they said.

Until the end of August, McCormack said they were looking to best represent the poles — and the people who built them.

What I do at the Totem Heritage Center, for the projects that I work on, is really try to go back through all the history and documentation that we have, for as many poles as possible, to find as much information about how they got to the Heritage Center, and who they belong to, who the clan belongs to, and what’s the best way to represent that or do that, and that’s kind of at the beginning now, “they have said.

Irene Dundas is the Federally Recognized Cultural Heritage Specialist for the Ketchikan Tribe. She also worked as a repatriation program manager for Cape Fox Corporation.

She said the local museum’s collection is wonderful and the center has done a good job with its collections of Aboriginal artifacts over the years, although there has been good and bad.

I guess maybe it would be great if there was more space for them, so they’re not, you know, confined in some of them,” Dundas said. “I think some of them are under the building. There are raised rooms inside, you know, rooms on the side. I think they need a bigger space.

Anita Maxwell, director of the Tongass Historical Museum, said a few poles are stored in the building as they are too fragile to display. Others are supported in the lower levels of the building due to lack of space.

Dundas also said it’s a little inconvenient that the town of Ketchikan runs the Totem Heritage Center — and runs cultural classes there — which, in turn, houses the clan’s property.

I understand that there’s probably an Indigenous board that governs this facility, and I also feel like I’d like it to be our own entity,” Dundas said. “That’s just me. That’s my opinion.

The center has an advisory board that includes prominent local Aboriginal artists and leaders.

Dundas noted that she has visited many of the larger museums in the Lower 48. She has noticed that sometimes nothing represents the current Indigenous lifestyles, traditions and values ​​included in the exhibits.

I think we’re really historic, it’s like ‘My God, are we even there? Are we still here? Dundas said.

Dundas also thinks museums don’t always do a good job of telling the full story when it comes to Indigenous history.

So some of it, I feel like museums, some museums don’t tell the good, the bad, and the ugly,” she said. “There isn’t there isn’t, you know, the story of how kids were beaten up in schools, you know, when they tried to educate them.”

She said the story has integrated a lot of trauma among Indigenous people – resulting from boarding schools, disease, Western upbringing and Christianity.

To begin to heal from this, Dundas said there had to be a way to reconnect with the pieces in museums. Not just in a small corner of the building, but in a bigger way.

The functioning of museums could play a key role in this process.

I think there’s a bigger, there’s a bigger healing process than just, you know, leaving it up to tribes and indigenous societies to try, you know, to provide services so that, you know, we can heal,” she said. “Like, we need complete connection to everything, to all healing processes and ceremonies and, and safe spaces in places to, to heal and to and to reconnect.”

Once McCormack completes their internship at the center, they leave for Santa Fe, New Mexico to continue working on their thesis.

Raegan Miller is a member of the Report for America body for KRBD. Your donation to match our RFA grant helps him keep writing stories like this. Please consider making a tax-deductible contribution at

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