“I learned more at the kitchen table in my house than any university could teach me,” Chris Newell told Hyperallergic, referencing his late father, Passamaquoddy scholar and cultural preservationist Wayne Newell. “And a lot of what I end up teaching is stuff I learned from him,” he continued, after affectionately adding that he attended the “College of Wayne.”
Newell, a Passamaquoddy citizen with a consultancy practice based on furthering knowledge of Native histories, imparted his cultural knowledge of the Wabanaki Confederacy in his role as the Indigenous Inclusion Advisor for the Portland Museum of Art’s expansion project. (The Wabanaki Confederacy is a Native American confederation of the Mi’kmaq, Passamaquoddy, Penobscot, and Maliseet peoples.) With Newell’s guidance, the West coast-based firm LEVER Architecture won the international design competition for the Maine museum’s massive undertaking.
But what does an Indigenous Inclusion Advisor do, exactly?
Raised on the Passamaquoddy Indian Township Reservation in rural Washington County, Maine, Newell was brought up with the belief that English was the foreign language of this land. “I had always been raised with the worldview that all of the roads, the buildings, everything is an overlay above what our ancestors lived on for 12,000 years sustainably,” he said. It was this element — this ability to “think through the Passamaquoddy language” — that enabled Newell to help the museum, which he calls an “artifact of colonialism,” commit to environmental stewardship by adopting Indigenous practices and ideologies.
The Portland Museum of Art debuted the design competition last June after it announced that the existing campus was experiencing constraints as visitor attendance climbed significantly in the last five years. Since it was founded in 1882, the museum has undergone multiple expansions and building acquisitions for its continuously growing audience and collections, all of which were of the red-brick or colonial-style variety that defines classic New England architecture. In 2017, the museum declared its commitment to Portland’s expanding community through “Art for All,” a contemporary vision to enhance diversity, equity, accessibility, and inclusion within and beyond the institution through staff support, nuanced curation, and more opportunities for local outreach.
Newell was particularly excited about LEVER’s sustainability efforts and use of mass timber, an abundant resource in Maine that has shown significant promise in emissions reduction. From the beginning of the project, Newell was brought in to educate the team about Wabanaki culture, worldview, and cosmology to inform the design approach for the expansion. The final model incorporates free access to the museum’s first floor and sculpture gardens on the basis of emphasizing the Wabanaki peoples’ message of welcoming and inclusivity.
“We wanted it to be free, inclusive space, because when you pay, then you start getting outside of Wabanaki values with the barrier of dollars and cents,” Newell explained. “Accessibility creates those spaces where conversation can happen. You can grab a coffee and sit there and watch people make art. You can sit in the sculpture garden amongst art. You can be inspired in and have a conversation in those places, and you don’t have to spend a dime to do it. It can’t get much more inclusive than that, you know?”
In his interview with Hyperallergic, Newell described how LEVER integrated the physical attributes of Maine’s landscape, particularly the sandbars that connect the Gosling Islands in Casco Bay during low-tide, into their expansion model by making the first floor the connection point across the museum’s campus. The design model also underscores the Wabanaki practice of honoring the morning sun through a curved roofline that aligns with the sun’s rising and setting positions during the summer solstice. Construction for the 60,000 square-foot expansion should be completed by 2026 if everything goes according to plan.
Newell’s professional path took a few different turns before leading him to the Portland Museum of Art project.
“Interestingly enough, when it came to architecture, I had no background,” he admitted right off the bat. Newell began his education career immediately after high school, working as a substitute teacher while studying at Dartmouth College. Prior to graduating, he pivoted his energy toward the music sphere, working, living, and traveling as a Mystic River singer for a couple of decades. After reorienting himself back to museum education, Newell co-founded the Akomawt Educational Initiative (AEI) with two former coworkers he connected with during his role as the Educational Supervisor at the Pequot Museum in Connecticut. “Akomawt” is the Passamaquoddy word for snowshoe path, alluding to the consultancy’s mission of expanding access to Native educational resources. AEI has worked with the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston, and University of Connecticut (Newell’s alma mater) before LEVER Architecture entered the picture.
Aside from his work on AEI’s diverse cultural programming from K-12 through higher education institutions, Newell served as the senior advisor for Dawnland (2018), an Upstander Project documentary investigating the decades-long government practice of forcibly removing of Native American children from their homes and culture that won the Emmy award for Outstanding Research in 2018. He also recently worked with famed cellist Yo-Yo Ma during Ma’s quest to reconnect with nature. In the 2022 short film Weckuwapok (The Approaching Dawn), Newell, Ma, and Passamaquoddy citizens Roger Paul and Lauren Stevens expressed gratitude toward the rising sun one morning at Moneskatik (Schoodic Point, Maine) through musical performances and storytelling outlining the Wabanaki cosmology.
Looking back on how the last few years have unfolded, Newell was delighted by how his work presented him with diverse circumstances to share the knowledge of the Wabanaki people in a culturally competent and inclusive manner.
“We initially intended just to work with education,” he said. “We found out that education happens in so many other places and that we really, really need to expand it beyond that.”
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