NEW YORK (AP) — When Morgan Gaeling visited the American Museum of Natural History for the first time, he had a checklist. Not the things he wanted to check, though—a list of things he hated.
The first is to see some of his Musqueam Indian Band kingships – sacred objects not intended for public display – in the northwest coast hall of the museum.
It’s not just a visit. Guerin started a project there in 2017 at the museum’s invitation to renovate the hall to incorporate indigenous perspectives. For him and representatives of other First Nations communities in the Pacific Northwest and western Canada, the five-year, $19 million renovation of Northwest Shore Hall, which reopened to the public on Friday, is an opportunity to tell their own stories.
“Our people are very, very tired of being ‘studied’ because the misunderstanding of who we are has been a failure of the outside world,” he said. “We’ve been here, ready to tell people who we are.”
The hall, the museum’s first gallery, opened in 1899 under the auspices of Franz Boas, an anthropologist with a keen interest in the indigenous cultures of Canada’s northwest and west coasts. Boyas was also a proponent of the revolutionary idea of the time that different cultures should be viewed in their own right rather than some comparative scale.
However, it has remained largely unchanged since the early 1900s. When museum officials decided it was time for a renovation, they knew they couldn’t do it without the input of the people who exhibited the culture.
Lauri Halderman, vice president of exhibitions, said: “A lot of what we’ve done is trying to bring this historic collection into the 21st century by bringing a positive voice to all these communities and countries. Tell new stories.”
The museum brought together representatives of indigenous communities to discuss what the gallery should contain and what it should look like to showcase the 10 Pacific Northwest tribal nations.
It’s not an easy process, made more difficult by the impact of the pandemic, which has forced remote rather than face-to-face collaboration.
There are some iconic pieces in the lobby that anyone who has been to the museum will remember – including a huge 63-foot canoe that had been placed outside the lobby for decades, but has now been brought in and hung from the ceiling, and There are several giant canoes carved. But its new exhibition, Project, is accompanied by texts in English and Aboriginal languages, and includes a gallery section showing how young Aboriginal artists have used patterns and designs from previous generations.
Consider the role that theft and colonization played in building them, and the way indigenous communities were treated.
The museum “appears to be very expensive, and as far as the American Museum of Natural History is concerned, it’s probably the most expensive trophy case in the world,” said Haa’yuups, co-curator of the hall and director of the World Museum of Natural History. Huupa’chesat-ḥ Aboriginal Taḳiishtaḳamlthat-ḥ family.
He said, “They seem to have a meta-language or meta-message about them, ‘Aren’t we strong? Don’t we go out and rule the world?
He sees his involvement as a way to help inspire difference and make people think about whether the objects on display would be better served by being with the people they came from.
“Does it make sense to have a bunch of people who have nothing to do with objects and have them manage them their whole lives?” he said. “Or does it make sense to send these treasures back to the communities they came from?”
That’s an issue the museum has been grappling with and continues to grapple with, said Peter Whiteley, director of North American Ethnology. He said the agency had been repatriating items for years, and through the renovation process decided it was willing to do some additional limited repatriation and greater collaboration between museums and indigenous tribes.
Despite the deeper issues, both Aboriginal and museum staff involved in the process said it was a valuable process in demonstrating what was possible in terms of collaboration and listening to Aboriginal voices.
“The best thing is that these advisors from different indigenous tribes,” said David Boxley, who represents the Tsimshian tribe, “are our voices speaking.”
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