Tackling the topic of decolonization

Deborah Thomas, who runs Penn’s Center for Experimental Ethnography, and Christopher Woods, director of the Penn Museum, discuss a conference on decolonization that starts today, why now is the time for such a conversation, and where they hope it leads.

A mural on a brick wall. On the left-hand side, on a red background, are the word "Decolonize and Chill" in white. Beneath that are the silhouette of two men riding horses. On the right-hand side is a person with a horse, beneath the words "We are still here."
The mural depicted in this photograph is “Decolonize And Chill/We Are Still Here.” It is by artist and community activist Jaque Fragua from the Pueblo of Jemez, one of the federally recognized tribes in New Mexico, as well as Ishi Glinsky and Shepard Fairey. It is art created out of an ongoing decolonizing space and project called Indian Alley, in Los Angeles. (Image: By wiredforlego, licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0)

“Museums are going through a period of reawakening right now,” says Christopher Woods, Williams Director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. “Decolonization is a major topic.” 

The concept is also the overarching theme of a conference that runs Wednesday, Oct. 20, through Saturday, Oct. 23, put on jointly by the Penn Museum and the Center for Experimental Ethnography, led by Deborah Thomas, a professor in Penn’s Department of Anthropology

Two headshots, one of a person with long hair pulled back in a ponytail, wearing a black tee-shirt. The other of a person with short hair, glasses and wearing a suit.
Deborah Thomas (left) is the R. Jean Brownlee Professor of Anthropology and director of the Center for Experimental Ethnography. Christopher Woods is the Williams Director of the Penn Museum and Avalon Professor in the Humanities.

“In North America, conversations around repatriation and decolonizing and repair tend to focus on Native American groups and settler colonialism and Indigenous populations. In Europe, the emphasis has tended to be more on imperialism and, to some degree, the trans-Atlantic slave trade and the long-term effects of empire,” Thomas says. “I thought it would be important to bring those two conversations together.” 

Via that process, the conference aims to join together academics and museum practitioners who have been discussing these topics for years, albeit often in silos. In a Q&A with Penn Today, Thomas and Woods talk about why the time is now for such a dialogue and where they hope it leads.

How do you define ‘decolonization’?

Thomas: Ah, that is the big question, isn’t it? If we understand that the modern West was built on the processes of colonial extraction, Indigenous dispossession, and African slavery, then we know our institutions are grounded in these histories, the legacies of which shape the various inequalities and hierarchies with which we contend today. These legacies also shape what we know and how we know it. A process of decolonizing, then, acknowledges—rather than disavows—these histories and seeks to understand how they live in the present.

For museums, this means accounting for practices of collection and research and thinking carefully and collaboratively about stewardship and display. It would also, in my opinion, necessitate ever increasing transparency about ongoing efforts toward repatriation and repair.

Yet decolonizing is not an event or an accomplishment. There isn’t a moment when we will stand up and say, ‘Yes, we’ve done it.’ Instead, we must think of decolonizing as a committed practice, a set of processes that enact ongoing forms of accountability and responsibility.

What’s the genesis of the conference that starts today?

Thomas: Years ago, when Julian Siggers was director of the Museum, we had started talking about this. I had been involved with various friends in Europe and in South Africa who were having discussions about decolonizing the institutions in which we sit. I thought it would be important for us here at Penn to try to bring some of those conversations together.

Why is now the moment to broach these subjects?

Thomas: There are always people who have pushed for these conversations, usually people of color or Indigenous people, but that push is not always followed. These are also issues that confront my field generally and that anthropologists have been talking about for I’d say decades but centuries really.

Think about Morton, for example, and the ways his research was used to support slavery and to support the theory of polygenism, which says that we don’t all come from the same human ancestor. Frederick Douglass directly responded to Morton. So, these conversations about attempting to decolonize the guiding principles of our institutions have been ongoing. I think this is another moment in that long history.

Woods: These are very difficult issues. They’re complex, and there’s an active, robust, rigorous dialogue going on around them. Solving these problems really begins with dialogues like these. As you know, here at the Penn Museum, we’ve been tackling our own colonial past and other issues related to that. The conference is very timely for museums generally and the Penn Museum specifically.

It can be challenging to look inward, to reflect honestly. How have you approached that at the Penn Museum?

Woods: We want to do the right thing. That’s been our North Star. If there are items in the Museum that shouldn’t be here, let’s deal with that. If there are claims for repatriation, let’s consider those very carefully. Repatriation work is going to be an incredibly big part of what the Museum does going forward.

I don’t think we should shy away from these issues. We all want to do the right thing. We want to be transparent. We want help and advice on these things. A conference like this seems like the perfect place to address some of these questions. They’re painful; we’ve gone through some difficult lessons, but there’s a lot we can learn from our colleagues.

To that end, what do you hope people take away from the next few days?

Woods: I think they’ll take away that people here at Penn and other institutions are actively engaged in tackling these very difficult issues. People should know that they’re receiving the type of attention and inquiry that they deserve.

Thomas: One hope I have is that moving forward there is better integration of the conversations around settler colonialism and Native Americans, imperialism and slavery. NAGPRA, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the federal legislation that was passed in 1990, only covers people and cultural materials from recognized tribal groups within the United States and Canada. That means that the many African Americans and others who are part of human remains collections are not covered.

A subset of archaeologists and biological anthropologists have been trying to find ways to extend the NAGPRA legislation to other groups, particularly African Americans. They are also trying to think through the protocols of NAGPRA, thinking differently about what ‘descendent community’ means, about what ancestry means in circumstances where people didn’t own land. That’s why I think it’s really important to sync those histories.

The conference, “Settler colonialism, slavery, and the problem of decolonizing museums,” is sponsored by the Center for Experimental Ethnography and the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology. It runs Wednesday, Oct. 20, through Saturday, Oct. 23, and is free and open to the public with a combination of in-person and virtual events.

Deborah Thomas is the R. Jean Brownlee Professor of Anthropology in the Department of Anthropology in the School of Arts & Sciences and director of the Center for Experimental Ethnography at the University of Pennsylvania.

Christopher Woods is the Williams Director of the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and Avalon Professor in the Humanities in the School of Arts & Sciences.