By Paige Foley

When the National Museum of the American Indian opened to the public in 2004, it was immediately subject to a passionate and controversial discussion on museums, representation and ownership of aboriginal culture. As part of the Smithsonian institution, the primary intention of the museum was to ‘redefine the relationship between the museum world and native nations.’ Over a decade since its establishment, the museum has become a testament to the trials and errors of representing a minority culture in one of the biggest museum establishments in the world. Even the name itself- “American Indian” immediately triggers the implication of ownership over indigenous cultures in the Americas; such details prompt the question of how such a museum possibly be an empowering institution for the cultures it seeks to represent?

Do museums have the responsibility to tell the Other’s story?

In this line of thought, I’d like to reflect on a lecture given to our class several months ago from Annemarie de Wildt, curator of the Amsterdam Museum. The focus of the lecture was the mediation between academia and practice.

de Wildt’s lecture began with an anecdote that had me reconsidering the ‘coolness factor’ of museum work several days thereafter. She explained to the class that she was currently working on an exhibition centered on hip hop culture in Amsterdam. As a result, she decided to conduct some fieldwork at Amsterdam’s famed music venue, Melkweg. On this particular night, Melkweg was throwing Notorious BIG tribute in honour of the 20th anniversary of his passing. de Wildt, no doubt accompanied by renditions of Hypnotize and Big Poppa, used the occasion as a platform to speak to Amsterdam’s youth on the influence of hip hop in city life.

The main focus of de Wildt’s lecture on this day was not (alas) an alphabetical breakdown of her record collection (perhaps another day), but rather showcased her process of curating two previous exhibitions at the Amsterdam Museum. Both exhibitions focused on Amsterdam’s notable history of prostitution. The first exhibition, entitled ‘Love for Sale’ was unveiled in 2002; the second, ‘The Hoerengracht,’ in 2010. For both exhibitions, de Wildt described her methodology of telling the story of prostitution from the point of view of Amsterdam’s sex workers; using their artifacts and their stories to enlighten museum-goers on the reality behind the taboo subject of sex work.

Having spent some time behind the scenes in museums myself, I was particularly fascinated in de Wildt’s inclusive approach to museum curation, which prioritized going beyond academia, and beyond the museum (in a very literal sense) in order to tell Amsterdam’s story from the perspective of Amsterdammers themselves.

That being said- for me, de Wildt’s lecture also identified one of the common failures of the museum as an institution of knowledge; the same way that Amsterdam’s sex workers have often been reverted to objects without the agency to tell their story, so too are racial minorities rarely empowered by museums to tell their stories as part of the historical canon.

Objectification and Representation

Museums have long been subject to protest by minority groups for the unethical acquirement and display of their cultural heritage. Coming from Western Canada, I’ve personally yet to experience a museum exhibition about First Nations peoples that seemed comprehensive, inclusive or even slightly indicative of the historically-rooted, contemporary struggles experienced by First Nations communities in Canadian society.

But then again, this isn’t surprising when one considers how we represent aboriginal culture outside of the museum setting.

I’m often quite appalled at just how often I see the appropriation of First Nations imagery, clothing and objects in everyday life. We live in a society where it’s trendy to wear moccasins in our daily routines, headdresses to music events, or even adorn our walls (or our bodies coughs Miley Cyrus), with dreamcatchers. Despite this, it seems that very few of us are actually educated in the struggles faced by First Nations people in contemporary society.

In Canada and the United States, First Nations are facing variety of social issues that are part and parcel of a historical continuum. Despite the fact that Canada’s healthcare system is often the object of envy to our American counterparts (Despite one Donny Drumpf’s contrary opinion) a combination of legislation and cultural barriers makes it near impossible for First Nations to seek physical and mental health services; as a result, tuberculosis is increasingly prevalent and suicide rates are over five times higher in aboriginal youth than non-aboriginal youth. Access to education for First Nations groups has been an issue for nearly half a century, and 81 First Nations communities within the country are experiencing a lack of access to clean drinking water. And of course, let’s not forget that the infamous “Highway of Tears” has claimed up to forty First Nations lives over the last half century.

In many ways, our continual cherry-picking of aboriginal culture is proof that we’re still living within a colonial framework, period. Forget post-colonial or even neo-colonial for that matter; We’ve mistreated and denied agency to aboriginals since the moment of first contact.

But, to return to the point of this blog- what does any of this have to do with museums?

Who Should Tell the Story of a People?

In 2009, the University of Michigan was the focus of a controversy for displaying a series of dioramas depicting eight indigenous cultures within North America. The problem? The dioramas, depicting cultures still very much in existence, were scattered alongside dinosaur bones and fossils.

Tiya Miles, director of the Native American Studies Program at the University summed up the problematics of the museum in one simple sentence: “through the placement of the dioramas in the natural history museum setting, a de facto relationship seemed to be posed between animals, inanimate objects, and indigenous people.”

Sadly, in this day and age, it is common for museums to separate aboriginal culture from time itself; an attempt to dispel any lingering cultural guilt for the effects of colonialism? Perhaps. But we need to do better.

Congruent with this train of thought, this week I’ve decided to reflect on an article entitled “Developing a Native Digital Voice: Technology and Inclusivity in Museums” by Calvin Pohawpatchoko, Chip Colwell, Jami Powell and Jerry Lassos. The article focuses on the traditional abuse of aboriginal cultural heritage in the museum setting, and the ways in which this has perpetuated the ‘novelty’ of First Nations culture.* But moreover, the article serves to empower museum institutions to do better by the groups of people they attempt to represent.

Through the article, the authors describe at length their personal attempts to counteract the exclusion of First Nations from their own musealized heritage through the platform of digital technology; working with the Denver Museum of Nature & Science, a two-week workshop for aboriginal students was enacted which combined technology, education, culture and art with the intent to create a ‘public cultural artifact.’

Perhaps the most admirable aspect of the workshop was that it found a way to create a more representative and inclusive museum environment for aboriginals, while also fostering computer science education for aboriginal youth, who have long been subject to what the authors refer to as the ‘digital divide,’ or rather the disparity between aboriginal and non-aboriginal youth and technology.

Museum initiatives such as this go to show that ‘musealizing’ the heritage of a minority doesn’t have to perpetuate the objectification of First Nations culture, but can (1) be used as a platform on which to educate societies on the realities of the First Nations experience and (2) be used to foster social change for aboriginal communities.

So, to address two questions posed by the authors of the article (and very much within the context of de Wildt’s lecture): “Who should tell the story of a people? How can Indigenous peoples participate in providing a voice in the public interpretation of their culture?”

These questions shouldn’t be hypothetical, difficult, or even controversial for that matter, to answer. If a museum is going to develop an exhibition on ‘the Other’, it should be a story from the perspective of ‘the Other’. It is the ethical responsibility of the museum institution, as a public place of knowledge, to include peoples in the public presentation of their culture.

* For a good look at how Hollywood has profited off of these sorts of portrayals, check out the documentary Reel Injun which explores the portrayal of aboriginals in Hollywood.

Works Cited:

Capriccioso, Rob. “Museum to remove controversial Native American dioramas.” Indian Country Today, September 11, 2009.

McGlone, Peggy. “National Museum of the American Indian uses a new exhibit to spread its message.”  Washington Post, October 3, 2014.

Pohawpatchoko, Calvin and Chip Colwell, Jami Powell, Jerry Lassos. “Developing a Native Digital Voice: Technology and Inclusivity in Museums.” Museum Anthropology 40:1( 2017): 52-64. cALVIN