A hybrid international conference
co-presented by the Center for Experimental Ethnography
and the Penn Museum

OCTOBER 20-23 , 2021

“The mural depicted in this photograph is “Decolonize And Chill/We Are Still Here”, a mural artwork by artist and community activist Jaque Fragua from the Pueblo of Jemez, one of the federally recognized tribes in New Mexico, as well as Ishi Glinsky and Shepard Fairey. It is art created out of an on-going decolonizing space and project called Indian Alley, in Los Angeles, CA.” The Photograph “Decolonize and Chill – We are Still Here” is by wiredforlego and licensed under CC BY-NC 2.0

Over the past several decades scholars and practitioners have critically reconsidered the role of ethnographic museums in the development and representation of knowledge about people and processes throughout the world.  Persistent questions have emerged again and again:  What are the relationships between colonialism and collection?  What issues of accountability surround contemporary knowledge production and representation?  How do we think through the challenges of repatriation?  And what might repair look like?  These are not new questions, and they have been asked not only within museum settings, but also across the discipline of anthropology as a whole for the past thirty years.  Yet as museums attempt to reevaluate their practices of collecting, exhibiting, and repatriating, we must still confront – and determine a new relationship to – the legacies of Enlightenment-based scientific humanism and its imperial underpinnings.  

This conference builds on some of the issues being raised within European and South African contexts, while also thinking through the particularities of the view from the United States.  Drawing from the insights and experiences of scholars, museum practitioners, and educators, we seek to join the conversations related to settler colonialism to those related to slavery and imperialism.  We also seek to chart a terrain that emphasizes multi-vocality and multi-modality, and that imagines the kinds of collaboration that might be possible between European, North American, South African, and other stakeholders.  Finally, we want to elaborate new forms of relationship museums might have to their audiences.

The conference will open on Wednesday, 20 October and will run through Saturday.  On Wednesday, we will start with synchronous virtual welcomes from Christopher Woods (Director, Penn Museum) and Deborah Thomas (Director, Center for Experimental Ethnography).  These will be followed by our keynote speaker, Laura Van Broekhoven (Director, Pitt Rivers Museum).  Panelist presentations will be pre-recorded (15-20 minutes) and posted to our website, and each of the remaining days we will convene for a synchronous moderated discussion and Q&A (at noon, EST).  Each evening, we will also offer live events specific to the Penn and Philadelphia museum community, and these will also be streamed.

“Penn Museum 02.jpg” by 準建築人手札網站 Forgemind ArchiMedia is licensed under CC BY 2.0

Panel 1

What is the place of the U.S. in relation to global imperialism? In what ways have the dual histories of settler colonialism and slavery influenced collection and exhibition practices? What are the implications for the ways we think about and enact forms of decolonization and reparation?

Panel 2

How has NAGPRA legislation impacted the development of legal processes for repatriation and other forms of reparation? In what ways might we think about moving beyond NAGPRA? In what ways must North American museum practitioners also grapple with questions of empire and slavery in thinking about meaningful processes of repair?


In what ways have processes of decolonization, indigenization, and anti-racism been successfully implemented, and how might we build on these?


“Black Lives Matter Protest 6/6/20 – Washington, DC [Explored]” byGeoff Livingston is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The following resources may be used to provide both historical and present day information about the implications of slavery and settler colonialism and how these play a role in the complexities of decolonizing museums. For more resources, click here.

Photo Gallery

This Photo Gallery features images relevant to the themes that will be discussed during the conference. Click the link below to explore more photos and learn more about their meanings.

Decolonization Playlist

This playlist contains varied resources that can help us continue thinking through the complexities of museum decolonization. Included are videos that deal directly with museum decolonization, from popular media to scholarly talks, as well as a selection of music and dances from mainly African, Afro-descendent, and Indigenous groups.