Looking back at Conserving “Us:” Caring for Living Heritage, Oral Tradition and Indigenous Knowledge —  A Conversation with Brandie Macdonald

What does it take to care for living heritage and indigenous knowledge? What does it mean to conserve oral tradition or spiritual performance? How can museums become a space for engaging with living objects, and how to approach these through a decolonial lens? Our research team invited Brandie Macdonald, Chickasaw Nation/Choctaw Nation, senior Director of Decolonializing Initiatives at the San Diego Museum of Us to present her work and discuss these questions within the Thursday Lecture series organized at the Bern Academy of the Arts. In what follows, Emilie Magnin shares some reflections about the event.

You can watch the recording of our conversation with Brandie Macdonald.

“Storytelling is a huge part of my work. It is how theory goes into practice,” Brandie Macdonald told me in an earlier interview I held with her in February 2022. It was certainly her passionate storytelling that attracted, and captivated, numerous attendees in our recent event that took place on May 12, 2022, as part of the Thursday Lecture series organized at the Institute of Materiality in Art and Culture, Bern Academy of the Arts. In her presentation, Brandie Macdonald, a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation with ancestral ties to the Choctaw Nation, and senior Director of Decolonializing Initiatives at the San Diego Museum of Us, shared inspiring stories about the decolonizing work that she and her team are conducting. For Macdonald, storytelling and oral transmission are powerful tools to undo colonial harm, as they not only acknowledge the inherent power of the words we use but also promote truth-telling. Therefore, at the San Diego Museum of Us, the decolonizing effort started with a significant change of name: from “Museum of Man” to “Museum of Us.” In recognition that language can perpetuate harm, the museum also reconsidered the way it named its resources internally, and decided to use the notion of “cultural resources” instead of “collections,” “items” instead of “artifacts,” and “ancestors” instead of “human specimen.”

Acknowledging the power of words as part of the museum’s decolonization efforts. Copyright © San Diego Museum of Us.

But what more does it take to change museums’ inherited colonial heritage on the long term, and not only through symbolic gestures and temporary exhibitions? Firstly, as Macdonald explained, it is important to build trust between the museum and the communities that originated the items, and to establish new museum policies. To be efficiently implemented, new policies cannot be imposed but must be understood and decided collectively with all involved parties. That includes representatives of the Indigenous Nations whose ritual objects and ancestors are still legally owned by the museum, but also the entire museum staff and the board of trustees – who might be difficult to rally.

At the Museum of Us, items are discussed not only in terms of their cultural origins, but also their subsequent histories under colonialism.

Thanks to this groundbreaking work, the Museum of Us is now implementing policies that are going far beyond most museums’ current practices of decolonization, including a broad restitution policy, recognition of colonial pathways, and the involvement of communities in creating their own narratives. For example, the museum is rebuilding its Mayan exhibit in cooperation with Maya experts and artists to acknowledge Maya as a living culture and promote the continuation of ancestral knowledge, thus undoing colonial understandings of knowledge and ownership. The voices and expertise of source communities are also weighing on conservation decisions, even if they contradict established Western practices of conservation and stewardship. Some items might for example require being fed regularly, oriented in a certain direction, or handled by women or men only; some items have to be able to breathe and be stored in an open space instead of being wrapped in plastic and packed up in boxes. The conservators are working collectively with communities to find acceptable conservation solutions – which might involve, but are not constrained to, the issues of pest control in collections.

The Museum of Us is engaging with Maya consultants and artists to create the content of their exhibit Maya: Heart of the Sky, Heart of the Earth. Here, artist Alicia Maria Siu is painting two murals on the museum walls.
Maya consultants shared their knowledge and perspectives with the Museum of Us for its Mayan exhibition. In the background, Alicia Maria Siu’s finished murals are visible.

Despite her and her colleagues’ remarkable achievements at the Museum of Us, Macdonald emphasized that building trust and implementing radical decolonizing policies can be a long, painful and sometimes daunting process. On the other hand, however, once commenced, this process seems unstoppable, just like the work of water. The collective effect of countless water drops hitting the surface over and over again results in carving a new passage, which Macdonald uses as a metaphor for the work needed to be done in our collecting institutions: These continuous efforts will ultimately change the ecology of the museum field.

The audience’s positive response and engagement with Macdonald’s ideas during the event demonstrated the desire, and need, for such discussions to take place in the context of museum conservation. If the recognition of museums’ colonial heritage and of the entanglement of conservation and colonial practices is taking place primarily in ethnographic and historic museums, the field of contemporary art and performance conservation can also benefit from these debates. Both fields are engaging with tangible and intangible cultural resources that include documents, objects, media, places, performances, and rituals, and that are raising many questions about authenticity, durability, authorship and ownership. Involving the source communities as rightful stakeholders in preservation decisions also resembles a practice already common in contemporary art conservation of consulting with the artist to express preferences regarding how the work should be displayed and preserved. In both cases, it can challenge conservation to expand its perspectives beyond the established standards and practices, be it when representatives of an Indigenous culture demand that their ritual objects return to the earth, or when German artist Tino Sehgal bans all forms of written or visual documentation of his performance work. As the spectrum of conservation practices broadens, so does its social endeavor—which becomes increasingly collective and collaborative.

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