The Changing Presentation of the American Indian: Museums and Native Cultures

By Buchholtz, Debra | Plains Anthropologist, February 2004 | Go to article overview

The Changing Presentation of the American Indian: Museums and Native Cultures


Buchholtz, Debra, Plains Anthropologist


The Changing Presentation of the American Indian: Museums and Native Cultures. National Museum of the American Indian, Smithsonian Institution. University of Washington Press, Seattle. 2000. 118 pp., figures, appendices, bibliography. $25.00 (Cloth, ISBN 0-2959-7781-7).

This book is an outcome of a 1995 symposium held at the George Gustav Heyei Center in New York. Sponsored by the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI), it brought together Native and non-Native experts from across the United States and Canada to consider how North American museums represented American Indians and their cultures in the past and to assess museum practices in the present. The volume's six core chapters derive from papers read at the symposium. They offer a judicious blend of historical, analytical, and descriptive approaches to this important and still timely topic. They also help chart the way forward by highlighting challenges and rewards that await museums as they strive to become more inclusive and to develop more meaningful and relevant exhibitions. An introduction by W. Richard West and previously published essays by him and Richard W. Hill position the essays within an ongoing cross-disciplinary dialogue about changing museum sensibilities and their social, political, and economic ramifications.

This book supports the goals and reflects the philosophy of the NMAI as described by West, its founding director. "To put it in the most basic way," he writes, "we insist that the authentic Native voice and perspective guide all our policies, including, of course, our exhibition philosophy" (p. 7). Hill and the book's other six contributors join West in embracing the Native voice as fundamental to the meaning of the artifacts exhibited and the stories told. Writing from this common ground, the authors develop a lucid critique of past- and, in many cases, still current - exhibition practices. They argue that the Native voice is the most authentic, effective, and meaningful vehicle for conveying the cultural experience of American Indian peoples. Citing abundant examples drawn from tribal, local history, and art museums as well as blockbuster exhibitions, the authors either call for museums to incorporate the Native voice or detail instances in which they have recovered or repressed it. Together they insist that museums depict Native peoples and their cultures in a way that focuses as sharply on the present and the future as on the past. This, they argue, facilitates the representation of American Indian cultures as enduring, dynamic, and continually changing rather than extinct, static, or frozen in the past. It thereby promotes a more realistic understanding of American Indian peoples and their cultures.

While the authors share key views and assumptions, each contributes something fresh to the dialogue and most offer critical glimpses of opposing practices and perspectives. Evan Maurer, director of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts, describes how European museums presented American Indians from the early 150Os onward. he also traces continental influences on North American museums. Only recently, he notes, have museums recognized the negative consequences of those influences and begun to work toward their amelioration. This has led many to involve American Indians in the presentation of their cultures to a far greater degree than they once did. James D. Nason, director of the American Indian Studies Center at the University of Washington, directs his attention to the multiple meanings embedded in objects and to the problem of conveying those meanings to culturally diverse audiences. In doing so, he looks at the mutually constitutive relationship that occurs between museums and the communities in which they exist, focusing particular critical attention on the local history museum. The local history museum, he argues, plays a major role in shaping non-Indian perceptions of Indian peoples. David W. …

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