- Contesting Knowledge: Museums and Indigenous Perspectives
In his influential 1997 essay "Museums as Contact Zones," anthropologist James Clifford raised troubling questions about the unequal power relationships that existed between majority (read, white-run) museums and Native Americans inspired by an encounter he witnessed between tribal elders and staff at the Portland Art Museum. Among other things, Clifford argued for museums to adopt new strategies of representation that would accord greater recognition and respect to the meaning of sacred objects, as conveyed through living indigenous memory and perspective.
Published more than a decade later, based on conference papers originally presented at the Newberry Library's D'Arcy McNickle Center for American Indian History, Contesting Knowledge features essays by scholars who study indigenous museums and material culture. The very readable volume, edited by Susan Sleeper-Smith of Michigan State University, speaks to the transformations as well as the complications that have occurred in the field since Clifford's piece originally appeared—precipitated, in part, by the continuing expansion of tribal museums, some with elaborate exhibition programs fueled by casino development. Although the book asserts a global perspective through its inclusion of essays by Hal Langfur on Brazil and Ciraj Rassool on the District Six Museum in Cape Town, South Africa, it focuses chiefly on North America.
As one might expect, multiple essays critique the Smithsonian Institution's controversial National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), which opened its Washington, DC, facility in 2004. Miranda J. Brady, in "A Dialogic Response to the Problematicized Past," interrogates NMAI's placement within the Smithsonian Empire, which Brady finds not only obscures its efforts to construct a national indigenous identity within the museum but is further complicated by what she perceives as a lack of transparency in its relationships with political and corporate America. Of additional interest with respect to NMAI are Jennifer Shannon's "The Construction of Native Voice at the National Museum of the American Indian," which addresses the difficult issues related to community authority and representation, and Ann McMullen's sweeping "Reinventing George Heye: Nationalizing the Museum of the American Indian and Its Collections," which reconsiders the museum's vast 800,000-plus object [End Page 213] collection through a new scrutiny of Heye, the individual who collected them earlier in the twentieth century.
Other essays analyze the role of tribal museums in revitalizing their communities, particularly through community-focused exhibition practices. Amy Lonetree's thoughtful "Museums as Sites of Decolonization: Truth Telling in National and Tribal Museums" concludes the volume. Lonetree has in the past criticized NMAI's lack of historical context, particularly with respect to colonization and genocide, while generally offering praise for the museum's efforts to effect close collaboration with Native communities. Here she evaluates the Saginaw Chippewa's Ziibiwing Center of Anishinabe Culture and Lifeways as an exemplar of what Lonetree terms the "decolonized" museum—standing in sharp contrast to NMAI. Her study calls our attention to the powerful, creative, and quite different new models for exhibition making now emerging from some indigenous museums. Regardless of one's ethnicity, affiliation or experience, museum professionals and public historians alike, especially those with little or no experience working with indigenous communities or other stakeholder audiences, will find this volume concerning an emerging aspect of museum practice valuable and worth exploring.