- Missed OpportunitiesReflections on the NMAI
The Columbian Legacy, now 510 years and counting, is by many accounts genocidal. The atrocities committed by Columbus, those under his command, and those who followed him are legion. In the name of God or science, in the pursuit of gold or glory, and in the services of imperialism or manifest destiny, the bodies and beliefs of the Indian peoples of the Western Hemisphere, along with their possessions and their lands, were plundered and debased. And a substantial portion of the American Indian collections hoarded in museums is made up of that tainted bounty.Craig Howe, "The Morality of Exhibiting Indians"
Museums are indeed very painful sites for Native peoples as they are intimately tied to the colonization process. The study of the relationship between Indigenous peoples and museums—both the tragic stories of the past as well as examples of successful Native activism and leadership within the museum profession that are happening today—have preoccupied my professional life both inside and outside the academy. The museum world has changed significantly from the days when they were considered "ivory towers of exclusivity" to today when Indigenous people are actively involved in making museums more open and community-relevant sites.1
We can certainly see this new development reflected in exhibitions—the "most prominent and public of all museum offerings."2 Native Americans have witnessed a shift from curator-controlled presentations [End Page 632] of the American Indian past to a more inclusive or collaborative process with Indian people actively involved in determining exhibition content. As art historian David Penney writes,
Today, when museums consider organizing an exhibition with an American Indian topic, there are nearly always three major agents at work: the institution of the museum and the representatives of living American Indian communities . . . both of whom address the third agent, the "object" of the exhibition.3
This new "shared authority" relationship between Native people and museum curators has changed the manner in which Indian history and culture is represented.
During the course of my research I have found that one of the primary objectives of those working with museums is to have the exhibition not only serve as important sites of "knowledge making and remembering" for their own communities but also to challenge the commonly held stereotypes about American Indian history and culture that are predominant in our society.4 These stereotypes were often reinforced by museum displays of the past that tended to obscure the great historical, cultural, and linguistic diversity of tribal nations by dividing Native people into cultural groups—giving a sense that all tribes are the same, or at least the same within one particular region. Exhibitions tended to reinforce the view of static, unchanging culture. Certainly the diorama, a popular display technique used in natural history museums, tended to do this by keeping Indians frozen in a particular time period and by displaying them near the dinosaurs and other extinct animals.5 Exhibitions also defined Indian societies by functional technology (we are only what we made) and displayed sacred and sensitive objects and information. Most tragically, even our ancestors' remains often served to emphasize the notion of Indians as a vanishing race, an idea prevalent at the time when the collecting of Native American material culture began. The movement by tribal communities to be involved in the development of exhibitions today is recognition that controlling the representation of their cultures is linked to the larger self-determination movement and cultural survival.
While collaborative efforts on the surface appear to be a positive direction—and there are certainly success stories to note—these successes are uneven at best.6 The story is not that simple. The historical legacy of the relationship between American Indians and museums is [End Page 633] difficult to overcome. We suffered great injustices in the colonization process and in the name of Western science—both of which are intimately linked with the museum world. And, the Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian, the self-proclaimed "Museum Different," reflects this still complicated and evolving relationship.
Museum Collaborations: The NMAI in Context
One of the most important works to emerge in recent...