In the fifth of this year’s Professionalization Spotlights, Alexander Clayton, the History Department’s Public Engagement and Professionalization Coordinator, connected with graduate student Robert Diaz to talk about his work in public history and on Reconnect/Recollect, a two-year effort to decolonize the University of Michigan’s Philippine collections.

Alexander Clayton: Hi Robert! It’s wonderful to get the chance to speak with you. To get us started, perhaps you could say a bit about yourself and your work here at Michigan.

Robert Diaz: I’m just about to finish my second-year as a PhD student in the Department of History. I consider myself a historian of the U.S. in the World, with a special interest in U.S. entanglements in the Pacific World between the nineteenth century and early twentieth century. My work also intersects with STS and subaltern studies. Currently, I am researching the ways Filipino youths interpreted and played varied roles in the American colonial project in the Philippines between 1899 and 1920. 

AC: You have come to Michigan from a background in public history and collections work. How have these experiences helped shape your work and interests as a scholar?

RD: I double majored in political science and history as an undergrad at the University of Texas at El Paso (UTEP). In 2015, I began working as a research assistant and archivist at the El Paso County Historical Society (EPCHS), a nonprofit archive and educational center founded in 1954. Along with a great team of volunteers, we organized talks, worked on various projects with community stakeholders, partnered with UTEP for events like El Paso History Day, published a quarterly journal, and released an edited volume titled The Lost Restaurants of El Paso in March 2021. Between 2016 and 2020, I served on the EPCHS board of directors, and I was elected president for the 2018-2019 term. After receiving my M.A. in 2019, I worked at Chamizal National Memorial, as a member of a joint collaboration between the Student Conservation Association (SCA) and Americorps. As an SCA intern, I assisted in the design, writing, and fabrication of two permanent exhibits in the visitor’s center. My time at both institutions helped me realize how vital community partnerships are to the practice of history. In addition, I learned how to communicate my scholarship in ways that are accessible to diverse audiences. 

AC: You have continued to pursue public-facing scholarship here at Michigan. What are some of the goals of the Reconnect/Recollect (R/R) project, and what work have you been doing as part of this broader collaborative team?

RD: At the core of this project, the R/R team is attempting to identify and address harms in the Philippine Collections located at the University of Michigan. During the American colonial era in the Philippines, U-M played a critical role in the development of governmental bureaucracies, cultivation of scientific research, education, and administration. Across campus, items vary: There are photographs, documents, maps, objects from Indigenous communities, musical instruments, and natural history collections. 

What do we mean by “harms?” The ways these items made their way to U-M highlights the pervasiveness of the American colonial project, while often silencing Filipino source communities. Classification systems and curatorial practices stemming from colonial epistemes have led to offensive and inaccurate item descriptions and organizational schema. And there is also the matter of making sure these items are accessible to Filipino communities who retain ties to these collections. 

As part of this decolonial project, we have developed relationships with Filipino and Filipino-American communities in Southeast Michigan, and we are working to expand our connections. To these ends, in May we are launching an artist residency, during which three selected Filipino/Filipinx American artists–Maia Cruz Palileo, Francis Estrada, and Janna Añonuevo Langholz– will visit the university to work with the team and engage with the collections. We are also in the process of conceptualizing a Collections Lab that can aid in bringing these artifacts into the communities with whom we are collaborating and developing methods for reparative curation. 

AC: And finally, looking ahead to the end of this two-year project, how would you like to see this work continued? And how do you see it shaping your own work going forward?

RD: We want our work to be a model for other reparative archival projects across the country. We realized pretty early on that this project will easily go beyond two years. Even though our work is inspired by and builds upon other projects seeking to decolonize archival and museum collections in the United States and abroad, many of our efforts add new elements that we are constructing from scratch. We also have to tailor our approaches to the specificities of these collections and communities. We don’t want to reify past harms, nor do we want to assume that we know what is best for the communities we engage with. But we want to be good cultural and historical stewards of these collections. How this will ultimately look in practice is evolving through the work we do as a team and with our interlocutors. 

My role as a non-Filipino scholar from an institution central to the U.S. occupation of the Philippines is not lost on me, nor are the ethical implications of attempting to understand this transformative epoch through multiple perspectives. But I am incredibly grateful to be part of this project, and I relish the opportunity to work with Deirdre de la Cruz and Ricky Punzalan (School of Information). They model how interdisciplinary, collaborative, scholarly projects can yield meaningful and sustained connections with the communities we serve. 

Learn more about the project here.