This is my first year working on a Ph.D. in Cultural Heritage and Applied Anthropology, so I am still working out the details for my dissertation. However, the premise of my research will explore the ways in which museum curation can shape our ideas and understandings of how we view particular communities, specifically American Indian and First Nations communities.
Historically, American Indians have been “been dug up, stored, handled, analyzed, displayed, and discarded with little or no consideration for their sanctity to those whose ancestors created them, valued them, or, in the case of human remains, were them” (King 2013:265). Current events – such as the strong Native American resistance movement surrounding the Dakota Access Pipeline in North Dakota – demonstrate that indigenous perspectives and viewpoints can be used to make vital strides in bringing attention to First Nations concerns and struggles, and there are few outlets for these voices that are as powerful as the museum setting (Bench 2014; Haas 1996; Karp & Lavine 1991; Sleeper-Smith 2009). While the issues concerning First Nations representation in museums have been addressed many times by various scholars (Barker & Dumont 2006; Beck 2010; Bench 2014; Colwell-Chanthaphonh & Powell 2012; Daehnke & Lonetree 2011; Haas 1996; Karp & Lavine 1991; Luby & Nelson 2008; Martinez 2012; Martinez et. al. 2014; McNiven & Russell 2005; Sleeper-Smith 2009; Trofanenko & Segall 2012), museum interpretation of thorough and culturally-sensitive Native American perspectives continues to challenge curators, academics, and indigenous communities alike. Ultimately, museum representation of indigenous peoples is a “battle over the control of Native American objects,” and it forces us to ask “the question of ‘who gets to control ancient American history – government agencies, the academic community, or modern Indian peoples’” (Colwell-Chanthaphonh & Powell 2012:211).
My research will seek to explain the ways in which we can re-imagine museum exhibition space and the interpretation of indigenous perspectives, and I will use a framework based on one that was created by archaeologist Sonya Atalay called “community-based participatory research [CBPR]” (Atalay 2012:ix). Basically, this method puts the power of representation into the hands of the community that is being studied, and seeks to empower community members to create and share knowledge that is relevant and of use to them (Atalay 2012:7). Although Atalay’s framework specifically addresses the use of CBPR methods for archaeological projects, her approach is also applicable to museum curation because of the emphasis it places on community participation and control over the public interpretation of a Native community’s own objects. I have always felt strongly that science in general – and museum anthropology in particular - should engage in the concept of beneficence, defined as when “scientists should not merely seek to ‘do no harm’ but should actively seek to do some good” (Nash et. al., 2011:138). Museums and their exhibitions, as repositories for items that are held in the public trust, should seek to be actively engaged in promoting responsible civic engagement with culture and cultural artifacts.
My project will also strive to help re-define what it means to be a cultural tourist in the twenty-first century, with the ultimate goal of providing insight into how we think about the role of museums in society and the presentation of material culture to the public. Cultural tourism is defined as the commoditization and consumption of culture, and often is centered around the idea that Western society is “the center of the discourse of civilization, colonialism, and ultimately modernity” whereas the consumable Other culture is made up of “those peoples who are forgotten and locked in the past, repressed and undeveloped” (McNiven & Russell 2005:4; Martinez 2012). By making it their business to put Other cultures on display, museums encourage and promote this form of cultural tourism, where “everywhere, everything, and everyone become part of the marketplace” (Martinez 2012:551). Native American culture in particular has been commoditized for a Western audience; for decades, indigenous peoples have “been on display, for sale and feverishly consumed” both in the museum setting and beyond, with the material culture of Native cultures having been transformed into “brands of the cultural marketplace” (Martinez 2012:551; emphasis in original). In today’s world, museums commoditize Native American culture by labeling them as an Other and by putting indigenous material culture on display, and therefore museums also promote certain images and concepts about indigenous peoples that become enmeshed into the public memory. One of the roles of this project, in presenting a new format for museum display and interpretation of Native American perspectives, will be to hopefully encourage a form of cultural tourism that acts a tool for revitalization and preservation of American Indian voices.