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Decolonizing Natural History Museums Through Volunteer Engagement

Research Thesis by Sarah Brenner

In recent years, natural history museums have begun to place a greater importance on confronting their colonial pasts, and decolonization has become a popular topic of discussion among museum professionals. When a natural history museum is attempting to decolonize, they must do so at all levels of the organization. This includes the museum’s volunteer program. Volunteer programs are often vital to the success and even existence of a museum. Yet, in general, volunteerism in the Western world, has strong connections to inequity and white privilege. The purpose of this study was to discover the ways in which natural history museums who have indicated a focus on decolonization, are also incorporating their vision of decolonization into their volunteer program and the impact that those strategies have on volunteers. Using a qualitative case study design, data were collected from three natural history museums through semi-structured interviews, an online questionnaire, and document analysis. Findings suggest that volunteers who have attended trainings that incorporate topics related to decolonization and Native perspectives are more likely to be in support of museum decolonization, be more likely to feel that they can contribute to the decolonization of their organizations, and feel an increased empathy for Native American peoples. Furthermore, organizations that have focused on decolonization for a longer period of time have greater access to local communities and are better able to bring Native perspectives to their volunteers. Findings suggest a relationship between the incorporation of Native perspectives into volunteer training and increased empathy by volunteers for Native peoples. This study contributes to the greater conversation about museum decolonization and is intended to inform museum professionals on effective ways in which they can incorporate their museum’s decolonization practices into their volunteer programs.


Brenner, S. E. (2020). Decolonizing natural history museums through volunteer engagement (Order No. 28000615). Available from Dissertations & Theses @ University of Washington WCLP; ProQuest Dissertations & Theses Global. (2437794819). Retrieved from


Decolonization, Indigenous, Museum, Native American, Organizational change, Volunteer