- Mediating Knowledges: Origins of a Zuni Tribal Museum
The A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center is a public history institution owned and operated by the Zuni people in western New Mexico. Opened in the 1990's, its founders created it as an "ecomuseum," meaning a community based museum and cultural center. In her book Mediating Knowledges, Gwyneira Isaac provides a detailed account and analysis of this institution. [End Page 273]
Isaac employs an ethnographic methodology, combined with historiographic research, to provide a window into the complex issues encountered in the development of the A:shiwi A:wan museum. At the center of her research is a participant observation ethnography drawn from two years of work at the museum. Isaac also employs in-depth interviews and oral histories; and an overview of anthropological research into, and conflicts with, the Zuni. Her work leads her to explore a core tension that exists in the creation of a museum by and for the Zuni, a culture that is commonly thought of as closed to, and even openly hostile toward, anthropologists.
The very act of operating a Zuni museum, according to Isaac, evokes a relationship between Anglo-American and Zuni systems of knowledge. Isaac notes that the ideological foundations of European and Anglo-American museums drew from Enlightenment philosophies that understood knowledge to be a "coherent whole" (59). A Zuni perspective toward knowledge, by contrast, emphasizes the importance of protecting esoteric knowledge from being circulated in contexts that they deem inappropriate or even dangerous. In part, this is the outgrowth of Zuni contact with colonial conquest, dating to their first hostile encounters with Spanish explorers in 1540. Yet it is also as much connected to Zuni systems of social organization and power in which priests and elders carefully control access to esoteric knowledge.
Isaac points out that most recent anthropologists have understood Zuni control over esoteric knowledge as a product of past colonial relationships. In fact, as Isaac notes, two of the earliest Anglo-American anthropologists to come to Zuni, Frank Hamilton Cushing and Matilda Coxe Stevenson, were stunningly insensitive. Yet she also points out that issues over secrecy at the A:shiwi A:wan Museum reflect a generational divide within the Zuni as well as a desire to protect Zuni culture from acquisitive scholars or tourists. While older generations see the need to protect esoteric knowledge, younger Zuni want to gain access to a culture that is increasingly difficult to access.
Isaac notes that there has been no final product for this museum. As she discovered on a return trip to Zuni ten years after her research there in the 1990's, even the museum building itself was no longer in the same location. Instead, the A:shiwi A:wan Museum has become more of an active cultural resource for the Zuni than a traditional museum that displays objects in a relatively static manner. It is part of a constantly evolving and living culture rather than a commemoration to one that has past. Isaac's account of this unique institution raises important questions about knowledge and power that are at the center of colonialism, Native American history, and public history.