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San Diego Museum Of Man Changes Name To San Diego Museum Of Us

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An anthropological museum in Balboa Park that was known as the Museum of Man for more than 40 years has a new name — the Museum of Us.

Speaker 1: 00:00 The coronavirus pandemic and racial justice movement are changing the way we live and the way we think about the future in Bellville apart, both of those profound events are changing the way we think about the past. The 100, five year old museum of man is now the museum of us and curators say it's more than just a name change. Although closed during the pandemic, the museum has been carrying out its mission of decolonizing its collection and exhibits. Johnny me is Micah Parson. He's CEO of the museum of us and Michael, welcome to the

Speaker 2: 00:36 Thanks so much Marina. I'm really happy to be here.

Speaker 1: 00:38 The name of man has been such a fixture in Balbo park for generations, but I've learned that museum officials have actually been thinking about changing the name for years. Tell us about that.

Speaker 2: 00:50 Yeah, that's very much the case. It really started in the late eighties and early nineties, Maureen, when a group of citizens went to the museum and said, Hey, it's time to change the name that it doesn't feel inclusive. And it excludes so much of the population. And there were a series of debates in the community letters flying back and forth in the union Tribune. As you can imagine, both for and against the museum surveyed its membership and also brainstormed, probably a couple hundred names that were possibilities for consideration and did all sorts of research. And in the end, decided not to change the name. And I think that's sort of the last, uh, effort in earnest was in 1991. And along those lines,

Speaker 1: 01:37 Since that time, the selection has been made for museum of us. And I'm wondering why now, why is now the time you've chosen to change the name?

Speaker 2: 01:48 The world has changed a lot in the last 29 years, right. You know, massive upheavals in the way we communicate and relate to one another. And, um, the museum had considered changing its name in the, over the past couple of decades. But my board in earnest about three years ago decided that it was time. And we started down a path of our own. And it started with a large number of stakeholder groups where we brought different folks together and ask them about, uh, what they thought of the name, change idea and possible contenders. And again, we brainstormed about 200 or maybe even 300 names. And out of those stakeholder groups, there were about five or six that kept rising to the top. And we ended up doing extensive testing in the community on those names. We did a survey that we, uh, submitted to about 15,000 people and got many, many responses.

Speaker 2: 02:46 And then we did a, uh, installation in our retender where we asked visitors to chime in on the different names. And, uh, while we still thought the name change was about three, four, or maybe even five years out when we were first forced to close our doors, uh, in mid March, uh, we really focused on how do we use this time to become a better version of ourselves when we get out the other side. And I made the case to the board that now was the time that the world was in such a, a process of change and people were open to new ideas, uh, and there was just so much going on that it would be the perfect opportunity to approve a new name. And so at our June board meeting the board, did,

Speaker 1: 03:27 How does the name change, reflect a new mission for the museum?

Speaker 2: 03:31 Well, our mission at the museum has been inspiring human connections by exploring the human experience for the last 10 years or so. And it has led us down a path of a very different kind of museum than decades past. We have brought to the community, all sorts of cutting edge exhibits that are really about what it means to be a human today and how we make meaning out of the world. One of the major areas of focus that the museum has taken on is its anti-racism work through an exhibit called race. Are we so different? And that has been a permanent installation for the museum for many years now. And it led us to do an enormous amount of soul searching and looking at our own past. And I'm trying to carve out a better future and a component that emerged out of that was our work with native American groups in particular and indigenous peoples to really reflect on the history of how the museum and other museums like ours have treated indigenous peoples it's led to our de-colonizing work, uh, which really tries to carve out a new relationship with indigenous communities. One based on respect and dignity, and really focusing on humanity and bringing folks together. And, um, the name really reflects a journey we've been on. And, um, the name change is an important step in that journey. Uh, we've come a long way, but we also know we have a long way to go

Speaker 1: 04:59 Describe how the effort to decolonize is translated into what people will see at the museum of us. How has it changed some exhibits that maybe San Diegans are familiar with?

Speaker 2: 05:11 One of the things that it has really changed is the items and belongings that are on display for many years, the museum, uh, unwittingly perhaps, uh, put on display items that were sacred and ceremony on nature, that from the perspective then indigenous community were never intended to be seen by anybody other than the individuals in that community that were meant to interact with those, those objects and belongings. Um, so that's a very significant step we've taken is really overhauled everything that we've had on display and remove them from public viewing. If it's not appropriate. Visitors also see a huge shift in our language that is in the exhibits and installations. In the past, we have often used language that is quite honestly demeaning to indigenous peoples and doesn't recognize that they are alive and well and thriving and challenged. And in many ways, just like any group, often the ways that we had displayed or represented indigenous peoples in the past that they were a static peoples frozen in time. And we have really shifted from that. So we are engaging in all sorts of new language in our exhibits. That includes truth telling about the past and some of the atrocities that occurred owning those, uh, those acts and, you know, trying to move on in a much better way in partnership with those communities.

Speaker 1: 06:46 You gotten any negative reaction, let's say from donors or longtime supporters about the museum's name change and the museum's neutral.

Speaker 2: 06:56 We have had some negative reaction. There are some donors and supporters who have struggled with our new direction and new name, but I will say that those numbers have really been dwarfed by the number of people who are absolutely thrilled that such an iconic institution in San Diego is really taking a step forward in a way that is consistent with its values. And I think in a way that is consistent with the values of the community. In many ways, we are really a place where our goal is to bring people together and to help them see their shared humanity and the ways that we're more alike than different in the hope that when there are difficult conversations to be had, whether it's about race or the relationship with native and indigenous peoples or other challenging topics that we can find common ground and agree to disagree, but do so in a respectful way and hopefully learn something from each other in that process

Speaker 1: 07:57 Hopes for the museum of us. How do you see it continue to evolve as a cultural force in San Diego?

Speaker 2: 08:04 You know, I hope that the museum of us is a place where people can come and connect with the best version of ourselves, that it it's a place that brings out the best of who we are, but it also helps us see the best in other people. And it helps us see the world through, you know, walk a mile in another shoes, essentially that it's a place where people can sit in generosity and not in judgment, bring a curiosity to understanding different people and their worldviews and why they have come to see the world that way. And ultimately come together at this divided time when we need places like the museum of us, more than ever.

Speaker 1: 08:50 I've been speaking with Micah Parson, CEO of the museum of us in Balboa park. And Micah, thank you so much.

Speaker 2: 08:57 My pleasure Moraine. Thank you.

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Maureen Cavanaugh and Jade Hindmon host KPBS Midday Edition, a daily radio news magazine keeping San Diego in the know on everything from politics to the arts.