83. Chris Newell Forges the Snowshoe Path as the First Wabanaki Leader of the Abbe Museum

Welcome to Museum Archipelago in Your Inbox, which does exactly what it says on the tin. Museum Archipelago, your audio guide to the rocky landscape of museums, is hosted by me, Ian Elsner.

Chris Newell remembers the almost giddy level of excitement he felt when he visited the Abbe Museum in Bar Harbor, Maine as a kid. Every summer, the family drove for more than two hours for his father to perform songs about their Passamaquoddy language at the Native Market and the Native American Festival hosted by the museum.

But even as a young person, Newell could clearly see the difference between the the Native Market and the Festival, which were run by members of the Wabanaki Nations, and the museum itself, which was not.

Today, Chris Newell, a Passamaquoddy citizen, is the first member of the Wabanaki Nations to lead the Abbe Museum. When he took on the role, the museum changed his title to Executive Director and Senior Partner to Wabanaki Nations, one of many steps toward decolonizing the museum and shifting power. In this episode, Newell describes how to spot a colonial museum, how museums’ default colonial mindset—including when it comes to maps and language—harms everyone, and his plan for his tenure.

“There's a lot of people in this world that still think that Native people are all dead and gone, and that's oftentimes reinforced by their childhood experiences going into a colonial museum and seeing artifacts that are only from the past.” - Chris Newell

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Gallery Continues ⏭️

Chris Newell also cofounded the Akomawt Educational Initiative with endawnis Spears (Diné/Ojibwe/Chickasaw/Choctaw) and Dr. Jason Mancini in 2018. Last year, we interviewed endawnis Spears about how Native narratives are violently presented through a white lens in museums, and the potential for museums to disrupt that for many visitors. This week’s episode can be considered a continuation of this episode, so if you like to start stories at the beginning, take a listen.

"When we go into museums, we see items that have a lived relationship with us, and we see them on display as ethnographic objects. That is a reminder that our understanding of our own material culture is not the one that is important." - endawnis Spears

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Currently Reading: Kyle Bowen’s SuperHelpful Letters

SuperHelpful Letters is a well-written newsletter on design research and audience development for museum leaders. I’ve been subscribed for the past month or so, and it has been enjoyable and enlightening to get insight into museum topics that aren’t usually covered on the show: visitor studies, service design, and professional organizations. You can subscribe via Substack here.

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