Talking about the Tough Stuff at Native Museums, A. Harris

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This powerpoint was given by Alexandra Harris in the panel session, "The Buffalo in the Room: Talking about the Tough Stuff at Native Museums," at the Western Museums Association 2009 meeting in San Diego, CA.

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  • Wanted a place that is welcoming to all audiences and low on making folks feel guilty. Empowering history, not Indians as victim.
  • Ed: “The Fall and Rise of Indian Nations”
  • Talking about the Tough Stuff at Native Museums, A. Harris

    1. 1. Alexandra Harris Editor
    2. 2. <ul><li>History project/ 75 th Anniversary of the Barona Indian Reservation </li></ul><ul><li>Tribal member oversight </li></ul><ul><li>Positive focus, low guilt factor </li></ul><ul><li>Empowering history, not “Indians as victims” </li></ul>
    3. 5. <ul><li>“ Everything we do is potentially controversial” </li></ul><ul><li>Challenges: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>We replace the American mythology with a version of history that people are uncomfortable with because it is unfamiliar </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>We need to communicate to the general public, who may come to us with little prior knowledge or a great deal </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Linear vs. intuitive styles of presenting exhibitions (our visitors expect linear, don’t always get metaphor) </li></ul></ul>
    4. 6. <ul><li>NMAI visitors: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Don’t trust that what they’ve learned prior is true </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Our research has shown that some visitors don’t trust what the government (i.e. NMAI as a representative) tells them to be true about American Indians (“broken promises”) </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Want the objective truth </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Want the details </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>Have a moral compass, with expectations of justice, fairness, and truth-telling </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Range of prior knowledge: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Easy to assume that visitors know basic concepts, but we’re finding that foundation is missing </li></ul></ul>
    5. 7. <ul><li>“ We have visitors?” </li></ul><ul><li>vs. </li></ul><ul><li>“ They’ll learn what we want them to learn.” </li></ul><ul><li>vs. </li></ul><ul><li>“ What do they want to learn?” </li></ul>
    6. 9. Andrew Pekarik and Barbara Mogel September 29, 2009
    7. 10. <ul><li>museum aims </li></ul><ul><li>with </li></ul><ul><li>visitor aims </li></ul>
    8. 11. <ul><li>Visitors tend to find the experiences they came looking for </li></ul>
    9. 12. * Indicates statistically significant difference 2008 and 2009 data combined
    10. 15. An experience they were not expecting An expected experience that was delivered
    11. 16. PEOPLE Attract OBJECT Attract IDEA Attract “ Look in the drawer to learn more”
    12. 19. Foxx family, Mashpee Wampanoag, 2008. From left: Anne, Monét, Majai, Aisha, and Maurice. Courtesy Foxx family, photo by Kevin Cartwright
    13. 20. Our Lives: Identity
    14. 21. <ul><li>Sensitive to the complexities of tribal histories while aiming to be accurate and comprehensive </li></ul><ul><li>Involving National Museum of African American History and Culture as partner </li></ul><ul><li>Involving many writers to cover a variety of perspectives </li></ul><ul><li>Overcoming fear, vulnerability, risk </li></ul><ul><li>Doesn’t shy away from the truth, but communicates in a way that is “calm,” fact-based, asking for consideration, engaging the public in a dialogue </li></ul>Comanche family, early 1900s. Courtesy of Sam DeVenney
    15. 22. <ul><li>New Exhibition, will replace Our Peoples installation in 2012/13 </li></ul><ul><li>Challenges: </li></ul><ul><li>Making “paper” interesting </li></ul><ul><li>Cognitive Dissonance: </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Visitors’ belief that treaties were universally bad for Indian people </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>If we don’t “flip” them early to the idea that they represent tribal sovereignty, visitors won’t understand the rest of the exhibit </li></ul></ul>
    16. 23. <ul><li>Indians as sophisticated prior to European arrival </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Pre-contact tribal agreements and political traditions </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Iconic people and American myths </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln, etc. are American heroes </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>How to address the humanness of these people? </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>We must tell the story in their words and actions </li></ul></ul><ul><li>Understanding sovereignty & its basis in treaties </li></ul><ul><ul><li>Treaties: not gifts but rights retained </li></ul></ul><ul><ul><li>The exhibition will address the relevance and use of treaties today </li></ul></ul>
    17. 24. <ul><li>Visitors assume that part of the exhibit would promote getting rid of treaties </li></ul><ul><li>Visitors may not trust the view of a federal institution with regard to treaties </li></ul><ul><li>Future testing: using objects currently on display to convey a treaty concept </li></ul>
    18. 25. Example of Potential: Kiowa Pipe For some tribes, a pipe symbolized the telling of truth and the sealing of an agreement. Pipes played roles in treaty negotiations, symbolizing for Native people what a signature on paper symbolized for Euro-Americans.
    19. 26. <ul><li>“ In many indigenous conceptions, creation emerges from the ground… through the log tunnel from blindness into sight, from being unseen to being visible. Such was the case with this project…. I knew that this was the moment for an advancement of truth and reconciliation.” </li></ul><ul><li>— Gabrielle Tayac (Piscataway, exhibition curator), from the introduction to IndiVisible </li></ul>

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