I joined the Met Museum as its first curator for Native American Art three years ago, yet I fell in love with museums on an elementary school field trip to the Art Institute of Chicago when I was seven years old. I still remember a soothing calm washing over me while looking at Abstract Expressionist paintings and other works. Another meaningful moment was viewing an installation of photographs of Purépecha women at Chicago’s Field Museum in the 1980s–’90s. It was a visual representation that provided validation and personal connection. Today, my relationship with museums is deeper and more complex.
The Met and I were both keenly aware that my appointment was a milestone moment for the museum and the field. This curatorial position came about because of the promised gift of a prominent Native American collection of works from Charles and Valerie Diker. It’s a collection that had already been well-researched and exhibited at numerous institutions nationwide including the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, the Seattle Art Museum, and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. The gift and landmark curatorial role propelled significant changes at The Met, specifically, foregrounding the voices of Native peoples and presenting their historical and contemporary creative expressions to an international audience in a world-class institution. More important, but less visible to the public, were the much-needed collaborations with Native American source communities regarding the items currently in The Met’s care.
As the museum began exhibiting Native American collections in its American Wing for the first time, we also began working more collaboratively with source communities as exhibition advisors, co-curators, authors, and installation contributors. We listened. We learned. We are still learning.
Native American and Indigenous museum collections necessitate a commitment to long-term relationships with source communities. These relationships have provided some of the most meaningful experiences of my career. When I joined The Met, I emphasized the importance of meeting the needs of Native American communities. I worked to prioritize Indigenous voices in our exhibitions, programs, and collections care. As a woman of Purépecha descent, I understand feeling marginalized. I also understand the simultaneous sense of connection and loss toward items that embody cultural ties to my maternal ancestral community on view in museums. Such experiences are magnified in a historically colonial institution like The Met.
The Met is a 153-year-old institution that, upon my arrival, did not have the infrastructure for caring for or presenting Native American and Indigenous art according to diverse Indigenous perspectives. This is not unique to The Met, or the field. During my first year, I worked with a small team to conduct a museum-wide inventory of all Native American items. We also drafted the first Native American Art Initiative (NAAI), which constitutes a historic shift for the museum. It includes centralizing all work relevant to Native American collections, creating two new Native American art positions, and, more long-term, building an Indigenous study center for community and consultation visits. The work ahead was embraced by The Met leadership, who are sincere about making positive change and understand that museums must evolve. The Met has the lofty ambition to share expressions of human creativity across diverse cultures over 5,000 years; accordingly, each generation of the museum’s leadership has embraced this mandate while bringing new perspectives to evolving curatorial and collecting practices.
Prior to my arrival, Native American collections at The Met were housed in five separate departments, representing hundreds of sovereign Nations and Indigenous communities, and spanning centuries. Together, with guidance from an external expert on the federal Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA) process, we strategized a regionally directed plan for updating collections summaries for submission (and in many cases resubmission) to all Native American tribes materially represented in our collections and to the national NAGPRA summaries database. We have reached out to hundreds of communities and held collection consultation visits. Our group adopted the motto “NAGPRA is forever,” demonstrating our understanding that our responsibilities to and care for source communities do not stop with providing inventories. Our team is committed to developing and sustaining relationships — we are in it for the long haul.
As connections with source communities grew, some colleagues shared their surprise at how repatriation attitudes regarding specific items can differ. Some tribes seek repatriation, while others favor a co-stewardship approach or prefer that works remain at the museum. Community needs are diverse, yet very specific. One commonality across communities and cultures is the desire for a say in how and if works are publicly presented, and how they are cared for. The founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC, Richard West Jr., said it best: Indians love and hate museums because “they have our stuff.” For many Indigenous peoples, museums can awaken inner tensions and traumatic histories. For Indigenous museum professionals, these painful pasts are always present.
In addition to Native American collections, the museum field is now in a transformative moment. For instance, although still behind compared to the broader professional field, Native American and BIPOC representation in museum leadership positions has grown significantly in recent years and is still growing. Foregrounding this shift makes it even more distressing that law enforcement, activists, journalists, and media platforms have chosen this specific moment to target and “make examples of” museums at an unprecedented rate, using extreme “repatriation” tactics. While some may cheer the dramatic seizures and awkwardly rushed returns, I do not agree with this approach. Rather, I believe we can learn from established Native American repatriation processes about the importance of building relationships and practicing collaboration with source communities, both at home and internationally. Also necessary is providing time and space for culturally specific deaccession and return ceremonies, and the inclusion of international communities, who, through museum access, also have connections with collection items representing their nations of origin and connections to homelands. How an item is returned to its community of origin is of great importance.
Collectively, museum staffs include people from diverse life experiences, perspectives, and opinions: people who hold distinct roles and are dedicated to the safety of visitors and the collections. Negative stereotyping of museums and museum staff does little to support the change people want to see. It can hinder the necessary work currently underway by emotionally and physically draining dedicated professionals who want to do what is right by source communities. It is not surprising that much of the recent and highly publicized criticism originates with people who have never worked at a museum or have not worked at a museum long enough to see through policy, process, or other necessary institutional changes. Museum teams know first-hand that effective change takes time, and that reactive change is not sustainable, particularly when caring for museum collections, the public, and each other.
Building relationships across nations and cultures, between community members and museum staff, takes great care, long-term commitment, and consistency. In addition to the requirements of federal and international law, repatriation is labor-intensive for both source communities and museums. It can sometimes take years. Its challenges can involve a lack of funds, extensive correspondence, outdated email addresses, unanswered telephone calls, staff turnover, and shortages, and rescheduled consultations. These are the everyday realities of repatriation work that few ever experience.
For me, there is much to still love about museums but I also embrace the need for critical change. Although one person, or even a few, cannot correct all of the mistakes and hurtful actions of the past, by working collaboratively and respectfully with source communities we can, together, do everything in our power to ensure we honor our responsibilities to all communities of origin, both at home and abroad.