Museum world meets Native American world

The Smithsonian is changing its ways out of respect for the traditional and the sacred.

May 14, 2000|By Holly Selby | Holly Selby,Sun Staff

SUITLAND -- Bruce Bernstein carefully opens a white metal cabinet. The objects inside it are covered with a square of muslin. Odd-shaped lumps, some angular, some gently rounded, form hills and valleys in the unbleached fabric. You cannot look directly at these objects, Bernstein says. You cannot know what they are. You cannot touch them. "Only the initiated may see them."

Strange words for a museum professional. But this is the Cultural Resources Center, part of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian. And Bernstein, assistant director for cultural resources, is implementing a new way of thinking about museum objects -- and how they are exhibited. The philosophy represents a reinterpretation of Native American history and a significant rethinking of a museum's obligations to the cultures its collections represent.

"Museum ideas of preservation and Native American ideas of preservation are very different," he says. "We are taking these two very divergent ideas and trying to bring them together."

The National Museum of the American Indian, scheduled to open to the public in 2003, is located next to the Air and Space Museum on the National Mall. When it is fully operational, the museum will encompass four venues: the main exhibition space in Washington; the George Gustav Heye Center, which opened in 1994 in Manhattan; a fledgling "virtual" museum and other outreach programs; and the Cultural Resources Center, a 145,000-square-foot facility with a library, research and conservation centers, and space permanently to house the collections.

"We have decided that over time, our contribution to museumology will be our approach. That is: Our commitment to enlist on a consistent basis the ideas and interpretations of Native Americans for our collections," says founding museum director W. Richard West, who is Southern Cheyenne.

"There are discipline-based approaches [such as] anthropological approaches, art historical approaches. All have validity. We have chosen to add to the rich mix, the voices of native peoples themselves."

Focus on sanctity

Sometimes called "traditional care," the museum's philosophy puts as much emphasis on the sanctity of the objects as on their display and it gives as much weight -- or perhaps more -- to the opinions of Native American cultural or spiritual leaders as to the ideas of curators and scholars.

This week, at the annual convention of the American Association of Museums, which is being held in Baltimore, the idea of traditional care and its relevance to the greater museum world will be a subject of discussion.

One panel, titled "Handle with Care: Sacred Objects and Museum Methods," will focus on incorporating Native American beliefs into the museum setting. Panel members will include a representative from the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, who will speak about the beliefs of non-Native American cultures and their impact on cultural institutions.

"Museums have their own way of caring for objects because their mission is to preserve and protect," says Susan Secakuku, a member of the community services department at the resource center, who will lead the discussion.

"But museums use objects in certain ways for certain reasons, and tribes already had their ideas of what these objects were for. This is important in the Native American community, but it's not just a Native American issue; it's a larger issue."

The notion of traditional care represents a sea change in institutional attitudes toward the peoples who made the objects owned by the museum. It is a recognition that the peoples themselves have as much right to their creations as modern-day Greeks have to the Parthenon, that they are the inheritors of the culture. It is also an example of how the idea of cultural domination has been replaced with respect and even reverence.

The cornerstone of the museum's holdings is a vast collection amassed by Heye, a wealthy New Yorker who died in 1957. Its 800,000 objects, which span 10,000 years, include totem poles from the northwest coast of the United States and Canada, hides decorated with vividly colored beads from the central plains, pottery and basketry from the Southwest, feather creations from the peoples of Amazonia and paintings from contemporary Native American artists.

The collection also includes human remains. Over the next four years, the museum aims to identify and return all of them, says Thomas W. Sweeney, director of public relations, who is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi of Oklahoma.

Since last year, the Smithsonian has been transporting the objects, box by box, from an overcrowded storage facility in New York to the resource center in Maryland, where they will be permanently housed. Already about 60,000 objects have been transported, but the entire process will take five years. (No human remains will be transported to the Maryland center.)

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