2020 Vol.1
<Special Theme>
An Approach of the Info-Forum Museum

Decolonizing Museum Catalogs: Defining and Exploring the Problem

  • Kelley Hays-Gilpin
    Museum of Northern Arizona and Northern Arizona University
  • Atsunori Ito
    National Museum of Ethnology, Japan
  • Robert Breunig
    President Emeritus of Museum of Northern Arizona
DOI: http://doi.org/10.15021/00009509
(Published March 31, 2020)

The questions discussed in this article are fundamental to the value of museum collections, to our institutions, and to humanity. Most anthropology museums and museum anthropology departments were founded under colonial agendas. These museums collect the objects of “other” cultures – especially colonized communities – and present them to an audience comprised primarily of members of dominant colonizer cultures. Colonial powers often collected under the paradigm of “salvage ethnography.” Anthropologists, missionaries, and other representatives of colonial powers believed that indigenous communities were dying out or assimilating. They collected artifacts (objects of material culture), stories, songs, and other “data” in order to preserve evidence of lifeways they thought were becoming extinct. Now we find ourselves a century or two later with plenty of artifacts but very few connections to original use contexts or to the communities who made them – the source communities (Peers and Brown 2003: 2) In many cases, the descendants of those who made and used these artifacts are still very much alive, still in their homelands, in new settlements, or in diaspora. We refer to those with historical, kin, and cultural connections to artifacts as descendant communities. The problem to be addressed is how museums as historically colonial institutions can be “de-colonized” in various ways. That is, how can museums and communities work together facilitate access to collections and information, develop collaborative relationships that foreground what descendant communities want to do and say, prioritize community-driven programs, and promote repatriation, return, and cultural use of collections, as appropriate and necessary (Infographics 1).

Infographics 1. Some museums holding ethnographic objects around the world


When descendant communities want to access museum objects and information about them, they are often disappointed in the quantity and quality of information in our museum catalog records. Often, all we know is the place and date of acquisition, size, material composition, and our own classificatory identifications that have no culturally appropriate meanings to the descendants of those who made and used the objects. Sometimes the listed object identifications are simply wrong.


Curators also complain about lack of in-depth catalog records. We intend to display not only artifacts, but ideas. To do so, we require contextual information. An object can be beautiful and interesting in its own right. Anyone can enjoy looking at it, identify its materials and techniques, and generate a personal response. But anthropology curators need to tell a story about the object and the world it came from. This depends on more than the object itself. Archaeologists rarely have direct access to cultural contexts, and have to build interpretations from material evidence such as depositional context, associations of objects in assemblages, and performance characteristics. Archaeologists often rely on ethnographic analogies that may or may not be appropriate. In contrast, ethnographers still have the opportunity to build a deeper understanding of artifacts, cultures, and communities by talking with people, either at the time an artifact is collected, or later on by talking with descendants.


What happens to the information that ethnographers collect and record? Even when museum staff undertake research with cultural contexts of artifacts, we rarely integrate results into museum catalog records. In the rush to create exhibitions and publications, we can fail to connect the results of interviews and other research into our object catalogs. Expert identifications, interview data, and other details are often buried in reports and files that are never linked to the individual object record. Anthropologists and curators who do primary work with living people are rarely the ones entering data into the catalog system. Staff responsible for cataloging (called registration in the UK) usually have training in museum science and rarely work with members of source communities. The meanings of artifacts within their source cultures are lost due to lack of communication between museum staff and members of source communities and lack of communication among staff members (Figure 1-3, Film 1).

Figure 1. A Silver Pendant (“H0281581” of Minpaku). (November 29, 2018, photo by Atsunori Ito)


Film 1. A silver pendant (“H0281581” of Minpaku) and story told by the artist, Jerolyn Honwytewa. (Ito 2020a)
*Click here for Transcription

Figure 2

Figure 3. There is no space for the full story told by the artist in the average museum catalog record, such as this spreadsheet view of a Minpaku object record for cataloging (Figure 2) and current Minpaku online collection database (Figure 3).


Museums must change. We should not be collecting without deep involvement of representatives of source communities who can provide full contexts for each artifact. What should we be doing to preserve and organize contextual information and make it accessible to the wider public and to members of source communities?


These are problems many museums are trying to solve. One approach to de-colonizing museums is the “collaborative catalogs” movement. Collaborative catalogs comprise a variety of museum-based projects that share images and other records of artifacts in ethnology collections with source communities and provide forums for information sharing. Sometimes, they facilitate hands-on access as well. Such projects face technological, social, and cultural challenges, and raise new questions about intellectual property, repatriation, and balance of power between institutions of colonial authority and indigenous communities. Some examples already developed include the Alaska Native Collections: Sharing Knowledge by Arctic Studies Center of the National Museum of Natural History (https://alaska.si.edu), the Reciprocal Research Network: First Nations items from the Northwest Coast (RNN) by the Museum of Anthropology of the University of British Colombia (https://www.rrncommunity.org/), and the website operated by the Cree Cultural Institute: Aanischaaukamikw (http://creeculturalinstitute.ca/).


Here we introduce the collaborative catalogs currently being developed by an indigenous community’s own museum, the Pueblo of Zuni’s A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center (AAMHC) in New Mexico (Figure 4, Map 1), and two “colonizer” museums that have developed strong and productive relationships with the communities from which their collections come, the Museum of Northern Arizona (MNA), and Japan’s National Museum of Ethnology (Minpaku).


In recent decades, many indigenous communities have developed their own community museums, archives, and cultural centers, which sometimes have been categorized as “tribal museums” (Clifford 1997). Sometimes these are focused inward, to provide cultural preservation and revitalization programs for community members. Sometimes they function as visitor centers, to educate outsiders about the community, and provide cultural tourism opportunities intended to boost revenue through guide services, arts and crafts sales, food service, and so on. Some do both.

Figure 4. A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center. (December 9, 2009, photo by Atsunori Ito)

Map 1. Reservations of the Native American tribes in Arizona and New Mexico, USA.