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Amy Lonetree and Amanda J. Cobb, eds. The National Museum of the American Indian: Critical Conversations. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 2008.

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work reviewed

  1. 1. Access Provided by Arizona State University at 12/14/11 5:07PM GMT
  2. 2. Book Reviews 103A Pima Remembers by George Webb, A Pima Past by Anna MooreShaw, A Papago Traveler by James McCarthy, and Papago Woman byMaria Chona (recorded by Ruth Underhill).Amy Lonetree and Amanda J. Cobb, eds. The National Museum ofthe American Indian: Critical Conversations. Lincoln: University ofNebraska Press, 2008. ISBN: 978-0-8032-1111-7. 474 pp. Rebecca Bales, California State University Monterey BayIn The National Museum of the American Indian: Critical Conver-sations, Amy Lonetree and Amanda J. Cobb have collected essaysfocusing on the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI)and the ongoing dialogue between Native peoples, museum experts,the media, and scholars. This volume consists of four “critical con-versations” that include seventeen essays, and span the historicaldevelopment of Smithsonian Institution, the creation and devel-opment of the NMAI, and responses to these. Common themes inthe essays include how to treat Native communities with sensitivity,the historical distrust Natives have of the academy and museums,and questions of scholarly museum work and who is qualified todo this work. In Conversation 1, Ira Jacknis, Patricia Pierce Erikson, and JudithOsrowitz outline the NMAI in the context of the Smithsonian’s his-tory. According to this conversation, the misperception of Ameri-can Indians and how the museum depicts them must change, andNative voices must be central to the dialogue between all stakehold-ers in museum development. To change these misconceptions, a dif-ferent approach to the museum and its organization must challengethe norm. Erikson addresses the complexity of defying the normin museum development, stating, “the inclusion of Native Ameri-cans in the planning, curation, interpretation, and representationprocess disrupts conventional notions of what a scholar is and whogets to constitute the consciousness of the visitor” (80). The connec-tion between this conversation and the other three becomes obvi-ous through the issue of reinterpretation. Conversation 3 further
  3. 3. 104 sail · summer 2011 · vol. 23, no. 2explores this through museums’ typical treatment of Native peoplesas timeless and ahistoric. In Conversation 2, Paul Chaat Smith, Cynthia Chavez Lamar,and Beverly R. Singer focus on the collaborative efforts betweenNative communities, individuals, and the museum, while providinga context for these factions’ interpretation of different aspects of themuseum. Smith addresses Indian involvement in and the media’sresponse to the museum, the struggles with labeling exhibits, andmainstream viewers’ reactions to them. Lamar stresses the impor-tance of Native community involvement. For the Our Lives exhibit,eight communities worked collaboratively with museum staff,and Lamar concludes that “most of the content of the communityexhibits resulted in forward-looking concepts. It was a team effortbased on consensus, and most groups worked toward achieving bal-ance between history, cultural traditions, and pride” (149). The lastessay in this section focuses on the making of the film Who We Areand outlines the process of effectively and appropriately portray-ing the communities filmed. This conversation readjusts commonlyheld ideas of the process of creating a museum and challenges thehistory behind the norms mentioned in Conversation 1. Conversation 3 includes essays by Elizabeth Archuleta, AldonaJonaitis and Janet Catherine Berlo, Gwyneira Isaac, Sonya Atalay,Myla Vincente Carpio, and Amy Lonetree and is rich in analysis ofthe historic relationship between Indians and museums, the NMAIin particular. Archuleta explains that museums, like literature, por-tray certain images to teach mainstream America. She responds tomedia criticisms (the Washington Post’s Marc Fisher and Paul Rich-ard) of wanting Indians to be the same archetypes represented inthe American conscience and psyche (185). According to Archuleta,visitors must “listen” to the stories told throughout the museumand understand the interaction between visitors and those stories.Jonaitis and Berlo continue this criticism by addressing the nega-tive reviews in the New York Times and Washington Post that did notreflect the authors’ actual experiences in the museum. These twoauthors claim, “No longer can a museum succeed simply by placingbeautiful things on its walls; visitors must have some way of person-
  4. 4. Book Reviews 105ally having a meaningful encounter with all those things” (216). Theycriticize criticism, claiming that the museum in its entirety—fromthe café to the stores to the exhibits themselves—is the experience. Isaac frames her essay in the concept of “genres of expectancy.”She wanted to “explore how the stories museums tell us are not justpresented in the exhibits; their social meanings are created by theintersection of curators, audiences, media, and scholars who publi-cize, frame, and ultimately layer varied interpretations of the exhib-its” (242). While Isaac seeks to understand the complexity of genre,audience, and scholarship through interaction, Lonetree and Car-pio focus more on the historical issues emerging throughout. Car-pio questions the portrayal of Indian history and the lingering effectof colonization clearly exhibited. Lonetree criticizes the exhibits byinforming the reader that they do not necessarily convey AmericanIndians’ actual experiences because the audience may not under-stand the different approaches in this particular museum. Conversation 3 creates a dialogue, not only between museumgo-ers and the museum itself, but between readers of this volume andthe “idea” of the museum. Both challenge the reader to reconcile theefforts of museums and Native American communities to collabo-rate without excluding the history of colonization and tragedy theseinteractions address. The combination of these first three conversa-tions rightly brings into question how Native communities main-tain agency in their own history and in putting together representa-tions of their people and communities in museums. Conversation 4 brings all the conversations together throughassessing the impact of the museum on Native communities.Amanda J. Cobb, Pauline Wakeham, Robin Maria Delugan, Ruth B.Philips, and Mario A. Caro interlink the museum’s goals and hold-ings to “questions of Nation and Identity.” All authors in this con-versation address the meaning of museums in reinforcing AmericanIndian identity, sovereignty, and cultures. Critical Conversations illuminates the continuing conflict be-tween Indigenous communities, scholars, and the museum world.Bridging the gap between these factions is never easy. This bookallows us to see the complicated process of trying to be as collab-
  5. 5. 106 sail · summer 2011 · vol. 23, no. 2orative as possible and allowing for critical examination of processand final product. Every aspiring scholar who wishes to enter intomuseum studies or to be a curator of collections should read thiscompilation. It provides insights into how to include voices oncesilenced in the past, and the process of establishing collections andspaces that reflect these voices accurately. The struggle to includeNatives in the processes to create an authentic representation oftheir histories and their societies reflects the struggle to have Nativevoices heard in mainstream thought, academia, and history. Museum experts and museumgoers should read this volume.In the complexity of views contained within, it dispels any precon-ceived expectations one might bring into a visit to the museum; howcould it not with such a variety of perspectives? The vast amountof information in this volume can be overwhelming at times andmay cause the reader to wonder about the museum’s efficacy if it isso highly contested. However, the wealth of information containedwithin it will encourage those interested in and curious about theplacement and holdings of this public museum to visit, becauseNatives now claim a place in this discussion and in one of the mostimportant public spaces of this country—the National Mall.

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