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Reviewed by:
  • Contesting Knowledge: Museums and Indigenous Perspectives
  • Susan Lee
Susan Sleeper-Smith , ed. Contesting Knowledge: Museums and Indigenous Perspectives. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2009. 362p.

One of the most debated topics in museum, Native American, and Africanist Studies is who should have agency in displaying indigenous artifacts and culture in [End Page 227] museum exhibits. Susan Sleeper-Smith continues this debate in her compilation of essays gathered from the CIC/Newberry Library American Indian Studies Fall 2007 Symposium in Contesting Knowledge. Sleeper-Smith explains that typically, "Museums functioned as powerful rhetorical devices that created dominant and often pathological allegiances to a cultural ideal" (2). Her thorough compilation of essays thus works to obtain a consensus amongst scholars concerning shared and disparate cultural ideals and their subsequent visual presentation.

Sleeper-Smith argues that museum depictions of indigenous communities in South and North America have evolved over time: traditionally, curators depicted a binary system of civilized/primitive in early dioramas and "cabinets of curiousity" illustrating the early contact period between Euro-Americans and natives; followed by exhibits after the mid-twentieth century that incorporated native perspectives and curatorial work; and presently ending with indigenous tribal museums that focus on self-presentation and preservation through a multiplicity of voices. Although the essays denote a move away from the cultural imperialism of many museums' previous exhibits, cultural disparity between natives and non-natives remains an obstacle in the curatorial process. This problem appears most poignant in the intent behind tribal self-representation in museums. While some tribal museums attempt to inform the general public about indigenous cultures, at the same time, their primary focus is the preservation of ways of life devastated by centuries of Westernized, imperialistic practices. Because tribal museums find exhibits a meaningful place to preserve their histories, the general public does not always understand the multi-faceted intent of their curatorial work.

Susan Sleeper-Smith's Contesting Knowledge insightfully provides an approach to understanding the changes behind the curatorial process, while simultaneously illustrating how damaging stereotypical imagery of indigenous people has been and still is for those seeking to offer countering narratives. In "The Construction of Native Voice at the National Museum of the American Indian," Jennifer Shannon, for example, recognizes that a deviation from traditional museum work may excite the native and non-native curators; however, the public's critique of innovative representations usually involves the same rhetoric that made the traditional dioramas so popular. In other words, when natives define themselves according to their own terms, their artistic reproductions appear lacking in "enough scholarship" or, they are confusing because the emphasis centers upon the community (multivocality) versus the individual.

Finding a solution to the problem of audience reaction, especially considering the plethora of images that currently depict natives as an element of the past (for example, sports mascots and the appropriation of native religions by New Age [End Page 228] spiritualists), seems impossible to eradicate. While Jennifer Shannon states that an "authentic" representation of natives can be achieved only through native curators' exhibits, Brenda J. Child claims that tribal museums can simultaneously speak for natives and speak to natives and non-natives alike. As a result of the contradicting solutions in this compilation, the answer for how museums should represent indigenous people appears as complicated as the history of the curatorial practice itself.

Despite the fact that this edition does not offer a conclusive strategy in handling native representation in the museum world, Contesting Knowledge succinctly details the ongoing indigenous struggle for self-presentation in the postcolonial world. Susan Sleeper-Smith metanarratively illuminates the deep-rooted complexities of distinct museum perspectives on native representation through a compilation of complimentary yet differing contributing voices. Sleeper-Smith's edition thus presents a potent argument for those interested in understanding the history of curatorial depictions of indigenous people as well as what museum work culturally offers natives in the representation of tribal communities.

Susan Lee
St. Louis University


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pp. 227-229
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