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In Mainstream Museums, Confronting Colonialism While Curating Native American Art

Recent criticism of The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky, which closed recently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, sheds light on the many issues that arise when mainstream art museums present Native American art.

The Native American Galleries at the Seattle Art Museum (photo by Benjamin Benschneider)
The Native American Galleries at the Seattle Art Museum (photo by Benjamin Benschneider)

Recent criticism of The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky, which closed recently at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, sheds light on the many issues that arise when mainstream museums present Native American art. Weighted down by centuries of misrepresentation, cultural appropriation, and false narratives, encyclopedic institutions still struggle to present Native art in a respectful, honest way.

The Plains Indians show was organized by the Nelson-Atkins Museum, and while it drew praise from the likes of reviewers from the New York Times and other mainstream publications, it was soundly blasted by Native American scholar Joe Horse Capture.

In an article published on Indian Country, Horse Capture writes critically of the show, saying he was asked to contribute to the catalogue, but declined when he found out there were no Native partners in putting together the exhibition.

Installation view, 'The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky' at the Nelson-Atkins Museum (photo by Mark McDonald) (click to enlarge)
Installation view, ‘The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky’ at the Nelson-Atkins Museum (photo by Mark McDonald) (click to enlarge)

That a show of that size and scope wouldn’t include Native American curatorial partners is indicative of a museum system that has for centuries seen Indigenous people as subjects. In the United States, where most of the large encyclopedic art museums were formed in the second half of the 19th and early 20th centuries, legacies of putting Native cultures on display are deep-rooted and not so easily given up.

Gaylord Torrence came to the Nelson-Atkins in 2002. While the museum had collected American Indian art since it was founded, there had never been a curator devoted to it; instead, the institution had relied on one curator who also oversaw the Department of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas. According to Torrence, the director at the time, Mark Wilson, wanted to bring American Indian art to “real visibility within the institution.”

As the Nelson-Atkins was heading into the construction and opening of the new American Indian galleries, staff members sent communications to the local American Indian Center, to nearby reservations, and to a Native American community college not far away. “We had a number of consultations with individuals, and of course we did the normal press release stuff,” Torrence says. But Native communities were “hard to locate and hard to pin down.” He was told by the directors of the American Indian Center, “there is a community, but it’s not a cohesive, vocal voice,” he says.

Torrence argues the Plains Indians exhibition did employ consultants and include Native participation in the programming and catalogue, but according to Horse Capture, that didn’t go far enough. “This formula, where Native people are consultants to the project and the non-Native organizers reserve the option to reject their input, is problematic,” Horse Capture writes. “Native people have a story to tell — their own. And there are plenty of Native people in the field that would qualify as true partners.”

Not Just Baskets

Deanna Dartt (photo courtesy Deanna Dartt) (click to enlarge)
Deanna Dartt (photo courtesy Deanna Dartt)

As soon as she arrived at the Portland Art Museum in 2011, Deana Dartt, one of the very few Native American curators working in encyclopedic art museums in the US (she’s of Chumash ancestry), saw a need for contemporary Native work at a time when the collection was characterized by historical pieces.

Too often, museum visitors are led to believe that “Indians are a thing of the past. If they don’t still practice the culture, they’re not still Indians,” Dartt says. She hoped that with more contemporary artwork, visitors would take away a greater understanding that American Indian people are not only still living but are “sophisticated and dynamic and changing.”

Part of Dartt’s job was to train docents to “educate in a more meaningful way,” she explains. “We installed work to allow conversations that included boarding schools, objects for sale, and reservation changes,” as well as religious movements in the Northwest plateau (which includes the interior of British Columbia, Canada, and the non-coastal regions of the United States Pacific Northwest). “Things are not static in Indian country,” she says. For example, through a variety of beaded flat bags Dartt demonstrated “all these different religious practices that were sharing identity and belief systems” just in the plateau. And it was important for her to do that through objects, rather than interpretation.

“More interpretive panels keep us in the margins,” Dartt explains. Ideally, Native American galleries are not so different from other galleries in the museum. “We have to find creative ways to provide contexts without inundating visitors with natural history.”

The Native American Galleries at the Seattle Art Museum (photo by Benjamin Benschneider)
The Native American Galleries at the Seattle Art Museum (photo by Benjamin Benschneider)

Breaking out of those simplistic notions sometimes means disrupting the architecture of the institutions themselves. Design and layout choices can aid museums in portraying Indigenous communities as something other than relics of the past. For example, when the Seattle Art Museum expanded in 2007, Barbara Brotherton, curator of Native American art, decided to get rid of the green walls that had previously characterized the Native American space, painting them white instead. “I wanted to display it more like an art gallery,” she says.

These structures go back to the formation of many of these institutions in the style of the original Wunderkammen — cabinets of curiosity that sprung up in mid 16th-century Europe. Today, many of the US encyclopedic art museums operate on a cabinet of curiosities model, even as they struggle to break away from a colonialist point of view. Departments still often combine Africa, the Americas, and Oceania — or, the “other” — though they are beginning to hire separate curators for these areas. Those curators, however, are mostly still white and often have backgrounds in anthropology rather than art history.

Candice Hopkins, an independent curator and member of the Carcross/Tagish First Nation, says departments that group Africa, Oceania, and the Americas together persist because those works are still seen under the rubric of primitivism, even if the terminology around it has changed. “It’s still stemming from anthropological discourse,” she explains. “It’s stemming from older museums like the Natural History Museum, with geographic and cultural divisions that carry forward in encyclopedic museums.”

Spurring Change

According to Heather Ahtone, curator of Native American and non-Western art at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art (FJJMA) at the University of Oklahoma, one of the most important ways forward is the creation of opportunities for Native people to enter the field and become leaders. When she was growing up in the Chickasaw and Choctaw Nations of Oklahoma no one ever talked to her about art history.

Installation view, 'Enter the Matrix: Indigenous Printmakers' at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art (photo courtesy Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art)
Installation view, ‘Enter the Matrix: Indigenous Printmakers’ at the Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art (photo courtesy Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art) (click to enlarge)

Ahtone’s path into museums began when she had to decide between caring for her family or continuing her studies as a pre-med student. She chose the former, but when her family situation became more stable, she ventured in a new direction as a creative writing student at the Institute of American Indian Arts (IAIA). Her work there caught the attention of Paul Rainbird (San Ildefonso Pueblo), then director of the IAIA museum (now called the Museum of Contemporary Native Art). In 1993, he hired Ahtone to bring a Native perspective to the promotional writing that the museum prepared on exhibiting artists. “It was a great opportunity, and it opened the door for me to see what needs exist with Native American art,” she says. “I had never imagined myself in a museum and found I loved the environment and wanted to do my best to see what could happen.”

Heather Ahtone (photo courtesy Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art)
Heather Ahtone (photo courtesy Fred Jones Jr. Museum of Art)

Through her studies, Ahtone found that most of the resources were ethnological, or only approached contemporary Native art in the context of Euro-American work. “This seemed like such a falsified reality, because Native cultures have been sustained through centuries of cultural oppression in part because of their creative traditions and cultural identity as expressed through art.” She realized there was a void of information. “Western culture has not understood how our cultures function and live, nor understood the role that expressive arts play within the culture.”

Ahtone, who recently curated Enter the Matrix: Indigenous Printmakers at the FJJMA, says that doors have been opened for her because non-Native leaders recognized the value of her work. “Even in the job I have now, I recognize that by many standards I could have been overlooked by others for the position, but then FJJMA Director Ghislain d’Humieres gave me this opportunity,” she says. “It takes vision by non-Native people to open those doors for Native people, because the power still largely rests in the hands of non-Native people.” Ahtone sees many people in the field who remain uncomfortable with a Native-centric perspective or believe they can make do without Native participation.

“I reject that our role isn’t important,” she says, “and that has created challenges that I have either overcome or simply walked around.”

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