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  • Indigenous Curatorial Practices and Methodologies
  • Michelle McGeough (bio)

What does indigenous curatorial methodologies mean in terms of curation, and how does an indigenous model of curation differ from that of a Western model? Forward thinkers such as the art historian Nancy Marie Mithlo and the curator Ryan Rice describe indigenous curatorial exhibition projects as utilizing a process of consultation and mentorship, as opposed to a Western notion in which individuality and authorship are highly valued.1 Although this individualism is most apparent in early ethnographical displays of Native Americans, it is still evident in contemporary Western practice in which the curator maintains a position of authority and is seen as the interpreter for the masses.

The purpose of my discussion is not to critique the Western model of curation, but rather to present two examples of how indigenous methodologies and practices that Mithlo and Ryan cite are presently taught and utilized in the curatorial field. The first example emphasizes the notion of mentorship and demonstrates how this practice is integrated into the curriculum presently being taught in the museum studies program at the Institute of American Indian Art (IAIA), in Santa Fe, New Mexico. The second example is an examination of my experience as the curator of the exhibition Through Their Eyes: Indian Painting in Santa Fe, 1918-1945 at the Wheelwright Museum of the American Indian (May 17, 2009-April 18, 2010). My focus in this instance is on how the process of consultation was used throughout various stages [End Page 13] of this project, and more important, how it was used to bring together what may have been competing interests.

The museum studies program at the Institute of American Indian Arts is one of the oldest in the United States.2 The IAIA was created by an act of Congress in 1962; a federally funded institution, it offers an associate of fine arts and bachelor of arts degrees in all its disciplines, in addition to a masters of arts in creative writing. In 1972, IAIA created a museum studies program to meet the needs of tribal communities. Originally, the department offered a certificate and an AFA degree. The focus of the program was to teach Native Americans museum practices so that students could return to their communities to assist or become administrators of tribal cultural centers or museums.3 At that time, the museum and the Institute were located on the grounds of the Santa Fe Indian Boarding School. In 1977, the institute moved to the College of Santa Fe campus, but the museum remained on the boarding school's grounds until 1992, when the Institute of American Indian Arts acquired a federal building in downtown Santa Fe that would become what is now the Museum of Contemporary Native Arts (MoCNA). Museum studies classes were taught at this downtown location as well as on campus. In the 1990s, the museum was primarily a teaching institution, as demonstrated by the fact that under the direction of Chuck Dailey, chair of the museum studies department, the students enrolled in the museum problems class designed and installed many of the new museum exhibitions at MoCNA.

By the fall of 1999, the courses being offering by the department had increased to seventeen. Since the late 1990s, the department has incorporated indigenous worldviews into its curriculum, a move that has become an even greater priority for museum studies in the last five years. In 2005, a new facility for museum studies was added to the hundred-acre campus of the IAIA in southern Santa Fe. The building consists of studios, classrooms, and a teaching art gallery called the Primitive Edge. This gallery space is an integral part of the museum studies curriculum, especially for Exhibitions I and II classes. Exhibition I is primarily a hands-on course in exhibition preparation. Students learn mount making, framing, matting, and generally serve as a volunteer work crew for the four student exhibitions presented each semester in the gallery space.

The Exhibitions II curriculum was built on the foundations of Exhibitions I but was dropped in 2005 and replaced by Museum Studies 240: Telling Our Stories: Museum Curatorial Practices and Methodologies. The intent of this course is...


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