Order of Multitudes

“Imagining the future of a museum in view of its history”: A Conversation with Alexandra Alberda

Alexandra Alberda (Jemez Pueblo and Mixed) is the Curator of Indigenous Perspectives at the Manchester Museum in the U.K., where she leads the ‘Indigenising Manchester Museum’ program, funded by the John Ellerman Foundation. She joined the Museum from Bournemouth University, where she was a doctoral researcher and research illustrator, and completed her Ph.D., entitled “Graphic Medicine Exhibited: Public Engagement with Comics in Curatorial Practice and Visitor Experience since 2010.” In this interview, we discussed what it means to decolonize and indigenize museums, working with encyclopedic museum collections, and how comics can empower communities around issues of health and disability.

Sarah Pickman: How did you first become interested in museums as places that you wanted to engage with? Did you have any particularly striking encounters with or in museums that first sparked this interest?

Alexandra Alberda: I grew up going to museums and had some great experiences, but I didn’t have my ‘Aha!’ moment from any particular museum experience. I first became interested in museums professionally towards the end of my junior year of undergrad. My undergraduate degree was a BA with majors in English (Literature) and Art (Sculptural Painting) and my minors were in Honors, Art History and Writing from Briar Cliff University in Sioux City, Iowa, U.S.A. During my studies, I really fell in love with where I saw my minors intersecting: museums and galleries. I took great pride in my senior exhibition of my art, which we had to self-curate; a few people commented how professional it looked. It contained Abstract Expressionist style comics, stain paintings, and sculptural paintings (I am a big fan of Helen Frankenthaler – who was the subject of my later MA thesis). That’s when I first became interested in the writing aspect of curatorial practice and the rest developed from there.

I pursued museum work through my Masters in Art History with a minor in Studio Art at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where I was a graduate research assistant at The Great Plains Art Museum. This was a great opportunity, and it is where I started to work on indigeneity, ethics of representation of indigenous peoples, and curatorial practice. I experienced how other people encounter exhibitions and heard about all their different interpretations and thoughts. But, I knew I really enjoyed engaging with museums when I found random exciting things in the collections, some of which were not accessioned, and when I ran public engagement events. There was always something to learn about, whether through opening a tucked-away box, speaking to a visitor, or participating in a workshop run through the museum.

Sarah Pickman: As the Manchester Museum’s first ever Curator of Indigenous Perspectives, your role involves indigenizing the Museum, its collections and displays, and practices. How do you see your role in terms of day-to-day curatorial practice? Are there particular challenges or opportunities for indigenizing a museum like Manchester, that has an encyclopedic collection?

Alexandra Alberda: The pandemic has really changed what day-to-day curatorial practice encompasses—I primarily have been working remotely. We were still in a lockdown in the U.K. for the first five months of my role, so it was a while before I even stepped foot in the Museum. Much of my work has been desk-based research, networking, and conceptual work on the Belonging Gallery. From the beginning of this summer, I have been able to go in more regularly and have started to be able to do more place-based, archival, and object-based work (thank goodness!). The Manchester Museum is a large museum that encompasses different historical buildings connected by short walking bridges, and the different encyclopedic collections and their archives are likewise spread across it. Doing archival research here is about knowing all the different places a file or object could be, and I am very lucky to be working with such amazing and kind curatorial team members that point me in the right direction.

As for challenges, larger institutions like the Manchester Museum have vast encyclopedic collections with different specialist-staff (such as, but not limited to, curatorial teams) working in silos. Several colleagues from other British museums like ours state this is also a challenge for them. Being a university museum, whose collections are used for research and teaching, also can add to working in silos due to demands to meet these needs. My colleagues have expressed wanting to break from these patterns and work more interdisciplinarily across collections and teams; my post is just one of several roles as part of a development project called “hello future” that seeks to do that. Silos often mean that learning and decision-making is mostly kept within disciplines and collections as well as many missed opportunities when someone just wasn’t in the right room. This also means that any changes to practices need to account for different disciplines and their origins, the nature of how different collections came to be at the museum, who led the care for those collections since our inception, and so on. If you are interested in the origins of the museum and the different interests of the people who developed and cared for it over the years, I highly recommend Nature and Culture by Samuel Alberti, which is a history of the Manchester Museum as a colonial, encyclopedic, and British institution.

But that also means the Manchester Museum is changing. The Indigenising Manchester Museum (IMM) program, externally funded and supported by the John Ellerman Foundation (U.K.), is all about organizational change. A main focus of mine is looking at practices throughout museum departments and teams to empower my colleagues, learn from them, and affect long-term behavioral change. Luckily, we are in the midst of a £13.5 million capital development project: hello future. While we move into the next stage of the project, we will be temporarily closed for the next year and will reopen in late 2022. IMM was designed to be a part of this capital development project that focuses on indigenization and decolonization at the museum; the closure affords an in-depth and expansive re-imagining of displays and practices that might not happen to the same degree if the museum were open or if the entire staff collectively was not focusing on change. I believe, based on challenges and barriers I have discussed with colleagues from across different museums, that this focused time for envisioning how all of our collections, roles, displays, and programs need to be to create “the most caring, inclusive, and imaginative museum you have ever been to” is a well-placed, albeit very busy, time for IMM to happen.

Sarah Pickman: Conversations about decolonizing institutions, and what decolonization means for museums specifically, have taken place in different venues across the globe. How do you see the relationship between decolonizing and indigenizing a museum?

Alexandra Alberda: For me, the distinction between the two is a question about power and people, objectives and aims, and where these actions and thinking happen on an organization’s social change and social responsibility action plans. I fully acknowledge that these overlap and there are many definitions for this type of work. It means something different for people and their experiences and what they give value to.

I feel like decolonizing a museum is still largely centered on museums and museum staff actions or leadership. The center of power and decision-making, while positive change and actions are taking place for communities and peoples, might not originate from their own choices, needs, and interests (though they might be interested once museums approach them). I regard decolonizing museums to include trauma-informed practices – the type of work, acknowledgements, and understanding of their own collections and histories that needs to happen before peoples and communities are brought into these spaces. This may include working in collections development to update derogatory or misrepresentative terms for people, places, and objects; placing disclaimers in object files which are known to contain potentially harmful materials; and statements of positionality and acknowledgement on online platforms, during in-person events, and in galleries. Decolonization is about the history of the museum and what it wants to be in the future. Decolonization, in practice, is not inherently multicultural nor does it require evidential empowerment of specific communities. But, decolonization is about accountability, reconciliation, and starting the process of imagining the future of a museum in view of its history.

Indigenization may be what happens when the museum, either as a colonial repository, upholder, or specific institution, is shifted from the center of decision-making and power. It is and has to be multicultural or based in a non-Western culture involving specific projects centered on and led by a distinct community. But, indigenization is also about locating embodied and lived experiences and previously disavowed and erased expertise as the validating structures of the work. This means when decisions are made, they are not validated by or against existing Western approaches to museum practices. It is work that is community-based, humble, and empathic, because it provides empowerment, ownership, trust and agency. It might still look like a museum or feel like ‘museum work,’ but it also might not. It imagines what the museum may be in the future as its social function shifts and people who previously had little power in its definitions reconceptualize it.

But, both need to be considered as processes. Embedding these mindsets and practices in a museum is about helping people learn how to sit with complexity, as Christine J. Winter discussed with me in a podcast we did for the museum, as well as helping people learn how to be ‘comfortable’ with being ‘uncomfortable.’ And, both of these approaches are needed to foster a process of reconciliation and humility at a museum, as well as to support the future of museums.

For those interested in learning more, I recommend Museums as Agents for Social Change by Njabulo Chipangura and Jesmael Mataga and Decolonizing Methodologies by Linda Tuhiwai Smith.

Sarah Pickman: In a conversation about decolonizing and indigenizing museums (and given your current role), do you think there are any unique or prominent factors to be mindful of in the context of a British institution, specifically – or for the city of Manchester specifically, given its history as a hub of British industrialization?

Alexandra Alberda: I think there are several factors in the context of British institutions and Manchester that factor into decolonization and indigenization. One is proximity, perceived conceptually through socio-political erasure throughout (post)colonialism and geographically speaking, to the (International) Indigenous peoples and communities to whom my role relates and who are reflected in our collections. I think Indigenous diaspora communities and individuals who have moved to the U.K. are not always considered in museum practice. However, I do see a shift in museums here working closely with local and international communities, sometimes as mediators with originating communities and sometimes to create displays, projects and programming that can connect with and care for these objects/items/ancestors in a more culturally appropriate way.

The physical and conceptual distance to source communities can make it really challenging to facilitate (on the museum’s side) and request (on the communities’/individuals’ side) quiet, repeated, and personal connections between peoples and objects, items, and ancestors that build trust. It is also difficult to convey the complex, sometimes seemingly contradictory, lives that people are living as a result of the impact of the many iterations and forms of colonialism. I think these personal connections are really important for empowering change, and fostering empathy and understanding across cultures, and for updating policies and practices that can still be barriers to Indigenous communities engaging with their cultural heritage that is being kept and cared for in international collections.

Sarah Pickman: Your doctoral research focused on comics as a medium for public engagement, especially comics related to health and medicine. Can you briefly discuss your research? How do you see comics working as a medium for activism, or as a way for marginalized voices to be heard by a wider audience?

Alexandra Alberda: My research looked at visitor experiences and curatorial practice of graphic medicine exhibitions since 2010. I was exploring their sociocultural values and how curators facilitated these – and when they didn’t, what might have gotten in the way. I engaged theories of space and place, epistemic injustice, and humility in biomedical public engagement and health exhibitions. I put these in the context of current societal demands and functions of the ‘museum’ (I was mostly focused on the Eurocentric idea of what a museum or museal space is). In my doctoral research, I put forward the concept of curatorial humility as an approach to epistemic injustices that might be used as a mindset or approach to decision-making in the designing of exhibitions.

One aspect that came through strongly in a few of the curator interviews was the potential for community-based activism and empowerment through the medium of comics and zines. This really intrigued me: graphic medicine was introduced to new audiences to unburden people from needing to explain their illnesses by providing a reading to friends and families instead, or promoting the experiences of marginalized experiences and artists. However, these exhibitions focused on relatively close groups of people to visitors. Exhibitions were not only seen as manifestations of these communities, but also as entry spaces into them. Adam Bessie provided really thoughtful and critical discussion on this, which heavily influenced my work from that point forward; I in part used a grounded theory approach.

This approach also allowed more marginalized voices to come through, as these exhibits were not necessarily those that portrayed mainstream graphic medicine. They also had more potential to close the distance between visitors, artists, and communities, thus prolonging engagement with the topic and content of the exhibitions. Of course, there’s no guarantee that this will happen, but it is possible when factors like distance, travel funding, and time demands on artists to engage with vast publics is reduced. Extra programming creates the potential to provide multiple engagements to support these exhibitions through organized talks, artist workshops, and open events where you could literally bump shoulders with an artist.