“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.
“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.
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.