By: Jen Shannon, Curator & Associate Professor of Cultural Anthropology at University Colorado Boulder

I am a museum curator and associate professor in anthropology and museum studies at the University of Colorado Boulder. Our program is associated with a public natural history museum on campus, where I teach classes in museum studies and collections research. I have found the SAR Guidelines for Collaboration website to be an excellent resource for teaching. It includes videos, case studies, a glossary, a resource bibliography, and downloadable PDFs of two different guidelines for collaboration—one for museums hosting Native communities, and one for Native communities planning to visit museums. Each set of guidelines offers some unique features that are worth highlighting: the community guidelines include Native and non-Native museum professionals introducing themselves and what they do on video. The museum guidelines include “Critical considerations: Working with communities” which I have found useful in guiding discussion with students and preparing them for work with communities members in our museum. Examples of “critical considerations” include:

Listen, Learn, and Don’t Take it Personally: As a museum staff member you may be approached by a community member who has grievances about museums they need to express, even if they have nothing to do with you or your museum. Remember that past museum practices and policies have impacted Native peoples negatively, and while times are changing, deeply felt emotions remain for some. Do not take expressed grievances personally—this is an opportunity for you to learn more about the context for such feelings of hurt or anger. Often the best approach is simply to listen and not feel pressured to reply or resolve the situation.

Collections: Museums and communities view items in collections differently. Community members may see collections as having a life or a spirit and not as inanimate objects. Listen to and make note of how community members refer to collections. They may use language that avoids words such as object, artifact, and specimen. Incorporating their terms in your work with them demonstrates you are listening and respecting their cultural perspective.

After many meetings and conference presentations to vet the guidelines among Native and non-Native museum professionals, what resulted is a succinct and useful set of guidelines. Their brevity, and their direct and clear language, is what makes the guidelines powerful and incredibly useful in undergraduate and graduate classes.

I teach a first-year graduate course, Introduction to Museum Studies, which is a requirement for students in our museum and field studies program. The course includes all tracks from the program—future collections managers, museum educators, administrators, and exhibit developers. They are from different cognate disciplines like botany, zoology, paleontology, art history, and anthropology. However, in a natural history museum, anyone may come into contact with Native visitors or members of a delegation participating in a consultation. From the visitor services staff at the reception desk to someone in a break room, the guidelines for museums are presented as a resource to help staff feel prepared to provide a more welcoming experience to Native community members in the museum.

In my Collections Research in Cultural Anthropology course for undergraduate and graduate students, the guidelines are required reading in our unit on “connecting collections to communities” and the focus of class discussion (figure 1). In class, we may learn about collaboration and why it’s important. But few resources help students understand how to put it into practice, and the guidelines do this in a way that students appreciate: in very few pages!

Figure 1: Students “close looking” in the collections research class, 2020.

Figure 1: Students “close looking” in the collections research class, 2020.

The guidelines have become most integrated into our teaching through our hands-on training of future collections managers in the Anthropology section of our museum. In our program, students are also paid collections manager assistants, working in the museum to practice what they are learning. They are note takers during repatriation consultations, and they prepare collections for and assist in hosting community visits to collections. Students in our program are also required to produce a thesis or a project to graduate, and several have incorporated the guidelines into their projects.

Emma Noffsinger based her masters project directly on the SAR Guidelines. She took one bullet point from the museum guidelines—“Collections work: Send relevant collections history and context information to the community prior to the visit”—and made the process to prepare collections for review the focus of her masters project. She produced collections review binders to prepare for community reviews of Hopi and Zuni items in our care. Masters projects require that students create something that benefits the profession beyond the project alone, so Emma also developed a set of procedures to share with others in her field, expanding that one bullet point from the SAR Guidelines into a supplemental ten page guide: Preparing Collections for Review – A Guide for Collections Managers. The process she describes was based in our particular museum. Depending on the museum, other staff like curators or conservators may be the ones to prepare these kinds of materials.

The steps in the supplement Emma created for the SAR guidelines are: Define Project; Survey Museum Documentation; Expanded Inventory; Object Research; Preparing Object Reports and Organizing Binder; and Contact Tribes and Share Information (figure 2). She includes a flow chart for developing a collections review binder in preparation for a community visit.

Figure 2: Emma Noffsinger’s workflow guiding collections managers om preparing collections for community collaboration.

Figure 2: Emma Noffsinger’s workflow guiding collections managers om preparing collections for community collaboration.

Emma explains in a 2018 article she published about her project in the Informal Learning Review that the SAR Guidelines for Collaboration are “meant to be short and approachable” but leave out the detailed work required of collection managers. She notes, “preparing collections for review is one of the most important steps in pursuing a collaborative relationship and requires a significant amount of the collections manager’s time and resources…A collection manager’s involvement in collaboration begins by gaining intellectual and physical control of a collection, and by making collections accessible… good for collaboration [and] for the museum as well.”
Jane Richardson’s masters project developed culturally appropriate collections management policies in collaboration with the steering committee of the Mandan Hidatsa Arikara Nation’s new interpretive center. Her contribution beyond the project was a “Museum Toolkit” that included community surveys to aid tribal museums in developing their policies, a collections development plan, and a series of resources. She looked to the SAR Guidelines in planning her project, noting in particular the guidelines regarding community representatives. 

Community Representatives: Every community has individuals they regard as experts or authorities (tribal officials, elders, cultural leaders, artists). Each individual will provide perspectives from their own experience and background, so do not assume they are speaking for their community in general unless there is an understanding they are officially representing the community’s political or cultural leadership. Respect the authority of their knowledge and expertise, just as you would any other scholar or researcher.

Jane worked with a group of elders and tribal officials and tourism specialists, a diverse group of people who came together to discuss the policies from different perspectives. She said this was “one of the most meaningful parts” of her work with the community.

Emma and Jane’s projects, and others like it, use the SAR Guidelines as a foundation from which to build upon on how they, and their profession, can promote and contribute to meaningful collaborations between Native communities and museums. I look forward to seeing students continue to be inspired by the Guidelines in my classes, and I invite university instructors to consider including them as required reading in museum studies and museum anthropology classes, and for students interested in museum careers more broadly.

This is a modified version of the original post at the School for Advanced Research’s blog.

This is a modified version of the original post at the School for Advanced Research’s blog.