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How a Burlington museum is decolonizing its collection, with help from new leadership

Two students sitting outside on colorful chairs outside of a red brick colonial style building that reads "Robert Hull Fleming Museum" at the University of Vermont.
Marlon Hyde
The Fleming Museum of Art at the University of Vermont has been showcasing art and historical artifacts for over 90 years.

In the summer of 2020, the Fleming Museum at the University of Vermont set an ambitious goal: to decolonize its collection and address the legacies of imperialism that stain museum culture. The effort is called Fleming Reimagined.

Since then, the almost hundred-year-old museum’s staff has faced lots of turnover, including of the museum’s leadership. A few months ago, Sonja Lunde joined the Fleming as its new executive director. Lunde previously spent almost 15 years with the Utah Museum of Fine Arts at the University of Utah.

Vermont Public’s Marlon Hyde recently spoke with Lunde about her new position and how she plans to continue the Fleming’s goals to decolonize its collection.

Marlon Hyde: I want to start with what brought you back to Vermont and to the Fleming Museum. Why return?

Sonja Lunde: That's a great question. And I think the simplest way to answer that is that it's really lovely balance between my personal and professional interests. I was born and raised in Vermont, down in southern Vermont, and have long thought about and dreamed of returning back to the northeast to be closer to friends and family. I also have a long family connection to the Fleming Museum. My grandfather actually exhibited a work of his photography here and an exhibition back in the 1940s, of amateur Vermont artists, he was a self-taught photographer, was actually drafted into the Navy during World War II as a photographer in the Pacific. So we've always kind of talked about that and our family and sort of proud of that, that, you know, my grandfather exhibited and work in this museum, like seven decades ago.

A woman in a blue dress smiling in front f a white background.
Chris Dissinger
Sonja Lunde is the new executive director at the Fleming Museum at the University of Vermont. Sonja, a born and raised Vermonter arrives after spending nearly 15 years with the Utah Museum of Fine Arts at the University of Utah.

You're joining an institution that made a pretty big and ambitious commitment, under Fleming Reimagined, to confront its role in perpetuating racism and oppression to become a platform for BIPOC [Black, Indigenous, and people of color] art and anti-racism work. How are you approaching these goals? Or how do you hope to approach these goals?

We are now as a group of staff, having some really amazing conversations just to reflect individually about what this work means to us personally, and then having that conversation together as a team, about what that means as a staff and how we want to take what is a very aspirational, an ambitious set of institutional values, and understand where the priorities really are, in terms of our actual resources, financial resources, resources on staff in order to forward the work.

More from Vermont Public: Fleming Reimagined: A University Museum's Journey to Decolonize Its Collection

You spent almost 15 years with the Utah Museum of Fine Arts at the University of Utah. What were the conversations like there around decolonization? Was it similar to some of the conversations you're having here? Or was it a completely different animal you are dealing with out there?

In many ways, I think institutions like university art museums can be out in front of institutions of higher ed in terms of leading the way. We were having a lot of conversations about dismantling sort of the ivory tower, academic way of working and being more open to shared leadership and shared authority. We were doing that in a number of ways, whether it was from changing the way we were writing and developing interpretive material by asking members of the student community faculty, communities and public communities to respond and write, you know, labels and gallery guides, to engaging in really deep, long-term strategic partnerships with other community nonprofits.

There's there's no perfectly correct way of doing this work. And there's no, you know, ladder to alright, now the Fleming Museum is 100% diverse, we've done our job, you can go to bed, might go to Montreal for the weekend. So how do you define success?

On a couple of levels? I think I could say that success would look like the staff and other colleagues at UVM feeling really united in doing this work and feeling supported. And that also means doing the work to make sure financial resources are devoted to doing this work as well. So I believe that budgets are moral documents. And successful DEI [diversity, equity, inclusion] work means making sure we're planning accordingly. To do this work, museums like the Fleming can be wonderful places, especially on a university campus to activate what can really be difficult and complex conversations. We can be at the center of those to hopefully bring more people together. And I'm excited to be part of that.

Have questions, comments or tips? Send us a message.

Marlon Hyde was Vermont Public’s first news fellow, from 2021 to 2023.
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