in Museum 

Cultural Appropriation in Community Museums

Teresa Morales


What makes it possible for communities to appropriate a museum, to develop a sense of ownership of it, to value and care for it, and make it serve the community's aspirations for self-determination? In 1995, I was awarded a Smithsonian Institution Fellowship in Museum Practice to study how communities can appropriate the museum as an institution that serves community aspirations for self-determination. My objective was to obtain a deeper understanding of the conditions which allow or impede communities' abilities to appropriate the museum model and to advance the development of two hypotheses: a) that communities will appropriate museums to the degree that they are able to effectively exercise power over them, through forms of local self-government, and b) that communities can appropriate museums when they achieve a creative dialogue with museum professionals. This inquiry will be developed in a comparative study of the Ak-Chin Him Dak, an ecomuseum in Arizona, and "Shan-Dany", the community museum of Santa Ana del Valle, Oaxaca, Mexico, the initial reflections of which will be presented here.

I work for the Instituto Nacional de Antropologia e Historia (INAH) as coordinator of the Program of Community Museums of Oaxaca, Mexico. With a staff of six, the program assists small communities in Oaxaca to develop museums. Funding comes INAH and the Direccion General de Culturas Populares, both agencies of the federal government, among other sources. In the past ten years, the Program has supported the establishment of ten museums and is in the process of opening five more. In addition, we promoted the creation of the Union of Community Museums of Oaxaca, a statewide network which is intended to promote continuous exchanges between villages and the development of collaborative projects. The Union has received significant support from the Interamerican Foundation. In 1995 we opened a collective exhibition in the offices of the Department of Tourism on the main square in Oaxaca. Intended to encourage tourists to visit the communities, it contains exhibits designed by our exhibits technician showing the communities and their crafts and is staffed by members of two communities in Oaxaca.

I began my inquiry by looking specifically at the Ak-Chin Indian Community in Arizona relative to the "Shan-Dany," the community museum of Santa Ana del Valle in Oaxaca. Ak-Chin is an Akmiel and Tohono O'Odham community located outside of Phoenix, AZ that has established the first ecomuseum in the United States. A staff composed of highly trained community members directs and runs the museum. The community is a federally recognized tribe with approximately 600 members and an annual budget of more than one million dollars. It is governed by an elected five person community council. Santa Ana del Valle is an indigenous Zapotec community of the state of Oaxaca in the south of Mexico. It established the first community museum in the state, run by community members elected by the village assembly.

For two months in the Center for Museum Studies, I studied bibliographic literature about the ecomuseum approach worldwide, and project notes, documents, reports, and newspaper articles about the Ak-Chin Him-Dak, the only Native American ecomuseum in operation in the U.S. In addition, I interviewed consultants to the project, technical experts who supported it, an ex-member of the tribal council, and the current director of the ecomuseum. It is important to mention that while I've worked with Santa Ana during ten years and know it well, I am only beginning to learn about Ak-Chin. I have not been to the community to observe it directly, so many of the thoughts I have now will have to be confronted after a period of field work. My initial reflections of this study will thus focus primarily on how decisions were made and community consensus was constructed at the beginning of the museums' development process.

Guiding my work is the concept of cultural appropriation proposed by the Mexican anthropologist, Guillermo Bonfil. He addresses the reality of indigenous peoples of Mexico, who remain as socially differentiated groups despite nearly five centuries of colonial domination. Criticizing models that conceptualize identity as static, Bonfil stresses the dynamic, transformative quality of cultural identity, which is always being re-elaborated and re-articulated. He points to the parallel processes of cultural resistance, innovation and appropriation as ways in which cultural identity is continually recreated. One way of maintaining identity is refusing to change, or, better said, conserving social practices and beliefs which are particular to the group and distinguish it from others. This is the strategy that has been most observed and recognized, since, from the position of the dominant culture, other cultural groups continually resist changing their "primitive" ways in a manner which satisfies the dominant criteria of development. But other strategies are present as well: innovation and appropriation. Innovation occurs more widely in cultural groups than external observers realize, because they tend not to recognize the creative capacity of traditional communities, or to register change that does not conform to their expectations. On the other hand, appropriation is a strategy frequently adopted in the struggle to maintain a group's identity.

Appropriation occurs when the group takes on an element of another culture, usually the dominant culture, as it's own. Certain practices and technologies of the dominant society become part of its cultural repertoire. They are new elements incorporated into its living fabric. The group develops a sense of ownership of this element and defends it as rightfully its own. Bonfil points to two levels of appropriation. One is so complete that the group is capable of reproducing a cultural element with its own resources. For example, the Egyptian plow has been so thoroughly appropriated by campesinos in Mexico that they make it with their own resources. On the other hand, these same campesinos are not able to make a tractor.

When asked whether a tractor, for example, could be an element of appropriated culture, Bonfil would answer: "it depends." Does the group control the tractor? Does it decide how the tractor will be used in a way the group considers to its benefit? If the group exercises power over it and applies it to its own objectives then it has been appropriated. On the other hand, if the group decides that a tractor is not adequate to its needs, or the tractor is in the hands of an agent who imposes it on the group by whatever means, evidently it has not been appropriated. On the contrary, it is a cultural element that is in opposition to the group, it is an instrument of oppression, a segment of dominant culture that silences and obliterates the group's particular culture.

The question I wish to raise is, can the museum, like a tractor, be appropriated? As a sophisticated institution, which dominant groups have used to express and perpetuate their hegemony, can it be appropriated by different communities for different ends? Can the museum be incorporated into a community's culture, as an instrument for its own development?

I believe that a community museum has potential for realizing this possibility. In a community museum, the four basic functions of a museum (collection, conservation, research and exhibition) can be carried out in different ways from mainstream museums. Although the collections may include the same kinds of objects (archaeological artifacts, historical objects, ceremonial objects, folk art, etc.) the impulse behind their collection is different. Each object has a personal history which is woven into the community's history. The collections are like family albums. They speak to the community's collective memory. The conservation of the collections can also be carried out differently. Although some can be concentrated in a building and cared for with modern techniques, others remain in the possession of community members who learn how to care for them and share them on special occasions. In some cases the research is not carried out by experts exclusively, but with the participation of community members who often are able to learn different techniques to document their own culture. Community members can also participate in the development and production of exhibitions, bringing their own particular talents and perspectives.

For me, a community museum is a form of community organization, a process by which a community studies, understands, conserves, exhibits, revitalizes and strengthens its own culture.

Two of its defining characteristics are related to decision-making and participation. On the one hand it is a community museum when the community exercises power over the museum, and makes the fundamental decisions that guide its creation and operation. On the other hand, it is a community museum when the community takes an active role in its technical and creative tasks.

The process by which a community appropriates it's museum is a process by which these characteristics are increasingly realized. That is, a community appropriates the museum to the degree to which it exercises power over it, and makes the basic decisions concerning its operation; and to the degree to which it takes on and participates in the conservation, research, exhibitions and other activities for cultural preservation and revitalization.

Appropriation in Community Museums

I chose two native American communities to compare for this study, because they both have developed relatively successful, self-directed museums and I thought their experiences would be revealing as to how this process took place. By comparing the cases of Santa Ana and Ak-Chin, I will try to identify some factors that seem to favor the development of the process of community appropriation of the museum.

It would appear that a precipitating event that makes widespread community concern come to a head, such as archaeological discoveries and the threat of losing possession of the artifacts, as occurred in both Santa Ana and Ak Chin, is a factor that favors the development of a process by which a community can move towards appropriation of the museum as a useful tool in conserving its own patrimony. In other cases, similar precipitating events have been the threat of losing an important collection (Haute-Beauce), the loss of historical documents (Yucuhiti), or threats to an historical monument (Culhuacan).

Another factor is the presence of strong, representative leadership, which has the vision to articulate the community's concern in a program for action. Both Ak-Chin and Santa Ana are communities which have been able to maintain a significant degree of self determination in electing their own authorities, so that both the tribal chairperson at Ak-Chin and the municipal president of Santa Ana had a true mandate to propose cooperative endeavors. On the other hand, they both knew how to give community concerns a concrete shape in a project. Both were shrewd negotiators, and knew how to access external sources of support for their projects. They also resorted to their informal networks of relatives and friends to activate support within the community.

Another characteristic of their leadership is that they were aware of opposition within the community and sought ways to include their critics in the project. The tribal chairperson at Ak-Chin sought to include representatives of the different families of the community in the museum staff, and invited opponents of the museum project to participate in the visits to other museums. The municipal president of Santa Ana was criticized for his position as a wealthy merchant weaver, but he invited a group of schoolteachers and young people who opposed him to the municipality and specifically asked them for their support. This group later participated very actively in the design and production of the exhibits. The leaders of both Ak-Chin and Santa Ana sought to open up avenues that would involve not only their own informal network within the community, but also those who would be more likely to resist their initiatives.

Precipitating events and the initiative of local government authorities would seem then to allow a first moment of appropriation, in which the community's leadership assumed the project to create a museum as their own, exercised their own power and control over the project, and took it up as a vehicle for their own concerns and objectives. However, it also appears that the very leadership which made possible the initiation of the museum project later became a certain obstacle to community appropriation. Precisely because of the grip these leaders had, the projects were in danger of becoming personal, rather than communal. In both communities a process of conflict and the development of new leadership took place and expanded the museum's possibilities.

In Ak-Chin, resistance to the museum project lasted two years, during which the tribal council delayed releasing the funds for the construction of the building. In 1988 the chairperson who had initiated the project was not reelected. The new tribal council decided that constructing housing for the elderly had greater priority. Some community members criticized the use of hard-earned tribal funds for travel and to create a museum which would glorify the tribal chairperson's family. But during this same time period new leadership was emerging. A museum staff composed of representatives of different families received training through visits, academic programs and participation as spokespersons for Ak-Chin in public forums. They took on the task of promoting community involvement by offering summer school programs, creating exhibitions and consulting each family about the museum design by visiting them one by one. The staff advocated the project before the tribal council and finally won it's approval for the building. The museum staff members had become spokespeople for the tribe, and also one of the symbols of Ak-Chin's extraordinary ability to become self-managing and self-sufficient. The appropriation of the museum project had moved from the tribal chairperson to a representative group of young adults, who were competent professionals with a cause they could articulate as the community's cause, and who sought to further community involvement in numerous ways.

In Santa Ana, the town questioned the municipal president's right to decide over communal property when he designated the museum building. When they elected the first museum committee the townspeople promptly put one of his critics in charge. The municipal president had also created a private dance group of the feather dance with his own resources. The museum committee chose to develop a project that made a specific claim over communal traditions that the municipal president had begun to manipulate on his own. The private dance group was overshadowed by the museum's dance group, which involved almost a hundred people. The museum became a vehicle to unite almost half the families of the community, the new municipal authorities, the musicians, the church committee and even people who had emigrated. The committee had begun to appropriate the museum as a legitimate springboard for community action.

In both cases the museum project came into the hands of new leadership. Although the process followed in Ak-Chin was very different from the evolution of events in Santa Ana, they both resulted in the emergence of a representative group which had appropriated the museum as their own concern, and as a vehicle for seeking out what they saw as the common good. This step sets the stage for the next challenge. How is this process to be continued and deepened? How could appropriation be further extended to the whole community?

At this level the experiences of Ak-Chin and Santa Ana are very different. The election of new museum committees every year in Santa Ana is a mechanism which allows new community members to take on the responsibility of the museum in a continuous way. Known as the cargo system, this is a traditional mechanism used by indigenous communities throughout Mexico and Central America to provide a broad range of social services to the community. Thus, the circle of community members who can appropriate the museum is continuously expanded. After nine years, 63 families out of a total of 250 have shared direct responsibility for the museumís operation. Not all of these committee members have shown the same degree of commitment and creativity, but the majority seek to make a significant contribution. In fact they compete among each other to contribute to the town's welfare: expanding the museum; organizing temporary exhibitions, traveling exhibitions, contests, theater presentations, festivals, exchange meetings and a children's museum program; conducting workshops in oral history and photography; and speaking on radio programs.

On the other hand, the involvement of the village assembly in issues concerning the museum also promotes a level of community appropriation. The assembly has exercised its power to make decisions concerning the museum on several occasions, sanctioning the proposal to create the dance group, discussing whether to approve the committee's proposal to transfer a pre-hispanic stela to the museum and deciding who should represent the town in traveling exhibitions.

In Ak-Chin, the situation is different. The museum staff follows a modern model of community service as opposed to the traditional model of community service practiced in Santa Ana. The staff represents a body of professionals employed by the tribe to provide a service to the community. It has the advantage of commanding a wide range of expertise in exhibition development, records management, oral history, photography and program development. In this sense the staff has more internal resources and is less dependent on external professional support than the committees in Santa Ana. It also has a good theoretical grasp of the ecomuseum concept, obtained through the visits and training programs it carried out, whereas the museum committees of Santa Ana only briefly discuss what a community museum is during committee meetings and exchanges. The museum staff at Ak-Chin has proposed and have carried out a wide variety of activities involving the community: folk artists have been involved in teaching basket-weaving, elders have been involved in oral history projects and in the language program. Museum staff developed a program to create a native garden which remembers the original plant life of the community and their traditional uses. They have offered classes to young children since 1989 to remember their traditional culture and learn their language. At present the staff is campaigning to organize a museum committee to support these tasks, and the tribal council recently approved their initiative.

To conclude, several factors appear to favor community appropriation of a museum. One is the presence of a precipitating event that crystallizes community concern over its cultural patrimony. The other is strong, representative leadership that has the vision to articulate the community's concern in a program for action, integrating external and internal support for the project, and inviting the participation of its own opposition within the community. A third factor is the development of a process which expands the ownership of the project to new groups, overcoming its original ties to a particular leader's agenda. At this stage, new representative leadership emerges, making the claim that the museum project should be a vital concern of the whole community, that it should be organized by and for the whole town.

The continuing evolution of community appropriation seems to be influenced by many factors. One is the presence of traditional or modern models of community service. Another is the presence or absence of mechanisms for community control and decision-making such as the village assembly. Another important factor is the ability of the second generation of leadership to construct new and effective forms of community participation. The level of professionalism and the ability to develop community programs independently from external support also impacts the level of community appropriation.

There are two important themes related to this inquiry which I have not developed yet. One has to do with how professional experts can develop relationships with communities that allow community members to participate in the museum's tasks. Dialogue between communities and experts is an important theme I want to address in a second part of this study. Another important perspective is to look beyond how the community appropriates the museum, to analyze how the community affirms its bonds to parts of its own history and culture through the museum.

Through making decisions and participating in the museum, the community can generate, articulate and collectivize images about itself. This theme contributes to understanding the impact a community museum can have, so it will be another important aspect to consider in my study.

(Teresa Morales is Coordinator of the Program of Community Museums of Oaxaca, Mexico. This status report is based on Ms. Morales Fellowship in Museum Practice at the Center for Museum Studies, under the sponsorship of Nancy Fuller, Research Manager for the center.)

Cultural Appropriation in Community Museums                                                                                         Reading List

Ak-Chin Community. (1988). Water Settlement Celebration.

Ak-Chin O'Odham Runner, December 1987 - August 1995.

Bahr, Donald M. "Pima and Papago Social Organization." Handbook of the North American Indians. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983.

Bonfil, Guillermo. Mexico Profundo: una civilizacion negada. Mexico: SEP-CIESAS, 1987.

Ezell, Paul H. "History of the Pima," Handbook of the North American Indians. Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1983.

Fuller, Nancy J. "The Museum and Community Empowerment," Museums and Communities. Washington, D.C. and London: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1992.

Rivard, Rene. Opening up the Museum. Quebec City, 1984.

Whitecotton, Joseph W. The Zapotecs: Princes, Priests, and Peasants. University of Oklahoma Press, 1977.

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