Fellowships in Museum Practice Report

Old Traditions/New Obligations: Museums and the Management of Indigenous Collections

Marjorie Harth


In 1997, I was awarded a Fellowship in Museum Practice to pursue a research project on museums that manage indigenous collections. My work at the Smithsonian focused on the National Museum of the American Indian but involved other museums and offices as well, notably the National Museum of Natural History, the Office of Institutional Studies, and the Center for Museum Studies, which was my home base. The fellowship permitted me to undertake two periods of residency--in March 1998 and May-June 1999. Although the length of time between the two resulted from scheduling problems not originally anticipated, it turned out to be beneficial; I was able to assimilate material from the first trip before returning, and, when I did, my work was more focused and productive. The intervening year also allowed me to follow the ongoing development of the NMAI over a longer period of time, and this too proved useful.

My interest in this research area had its source in the professional position I have held since 1981. As director of a college art museum (Montgomery Gallery, Pomona College) whose diverse collections include Native American materials, I had encountered firsthand some of the issues involved in managing indigenous collections, something I was not specifically trained to do. The passage by Congress in 1990 of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which legislated detailed collections inventories, notification of related tribal groups, and, in certain cases, the return of objects, made clear that our records were inadequate and that, as director, I was ill prepared not only to oversee the Gallery's compliance with the new law, but to understand and act upon its long-range implications for the exhibition and interpretation of these collections. The fact that the Montgomery Gallery is a teaching institution, and that my museum studies classes focus on ethical issues, encouraged me to turn an unanticipated, and daunting, set of challenges into an opportunity for research. I am extremely fortunate that Pomona College has, from the outset, responded both to the Gallery's need for repatriation consultation and to mine for research time and support.

From the beginning, I was interested in comparing our experience with that of other institutions in the U.S. and, eventually, in other countries with minority indigenous populations; this derived from the immediate need for practical assistance and, somewhat later, from the recognition that NAGPRA represented more than a set of requirements that, once met, could be forgotten. A sabbatical semester in 1996 gave me an opportunity to travel in New Zealand and Australia, interviewing museum professionals, scholars, and a number of individuals involved in various ways with indigenous collections and populations. Deliberately casting a broad net, I gathered material (both factual and anecdotal) and set two goals: to identify issues and dilemmas commonly shared by museums with indigenous collections, and to formulate clear-cut solutions that would be of value to other museums in a position similar to ours.

My first objective was relatively manageable, as many of the dilemmas facing museums with indigenous collections are, in fact, widely shared. The second, perhaps not surprisingly, proved elusive, and I have been obliged to conclude that the definitive and broadly applicable answers that I had hoped (naively) to identify do not exist, at least not in the form I had hoped. What will be productive in the long run is not, I now believe, a new set of guidelines or procedures, but, rather, a new way of thinking about institutional responsibility.

From the search for answers, I have shifted my emphasis to identifying questions that museums and the professionals who manage them might productively address on an individual basis. This redefined focus has extended the potential reach of the project, which now draws from the recent experience of museums with indigenous collections lessons that, I believe, may well be relevant to museums more broadly, whatever the nature of their collections and public, as we enter the 21st century.

As had been the case in New Zealand, Australia, and elsewhere in the U.S., my research time in Washington was organized around interviews, primarily of NMAI staff and others who work with indigenous collections and related issues. One of the ongoing challenges of this research has been to understand and appreciate the uniqueness of the situation faced by each museum and museum professional while simultaneously grasping the larger social, cultural, and professional framework of which each is a part--"not losing sight of the forest for the trees," as the proverb advises. If I have been able to accomplish this, and if the results turn out to be useful, it will be due to the Museum Practice Fellowship, which gave me an opportunity both to look closely at the NMAI-- unquestionably the best case study for the subject--and, at the same time, to take a longer view and to see the broader relevance of particular situations.

My study of the NMAI was guided by Jim Volkert, assistant director for Exhibitions and Public Spaces, who served as my sponsor, and by the many members of the museums staff who agreed to be interviewed. The perspective view that has allowed me to begin to formulate conclusions was provided by the Center for Museum Studies, especially Nancy Fuller and Steve Weil, and by Zahava Doering, Director of the Smithsonian's Office of Institutional Studies; each has an exceptionally broad and deep understanding of museums that is markedly different from the others, and, together, they have formed an advisory triumvirate to which I am indebted.

The questions I posed naturally varied to some degree with each individual, but certain issues and themes recurred. These included the following:

1. Special rights of indigenous members of the museum's public: Do these exist? Are they agreed upon by museum staff, board, public?

2. Special responsibilities of museums with indigenous collections: What are they, and how are they fulfilled? Is the museum with historical indigenous collections responsible for reflecting the contemporary reality of the living cultures represented? For playing an active role in the revitalization of indigenous cultures? Should museums representing diverse cultures to equally diverse audiences attempt to be agents of social change?

3. Special provisions for indigenous collections: Does the fact that the museum has preserved objects of significance necessarily entitle it to possess them? Does the preservation of cultural objects necessarily contribute to preservation of the culture of origin? What accommodations are/should be made for objects whose preservation (exhibition, interpretation) is not consistent with the object's intended cultural purpose?

4. Proprietorship: Although, as fiduciary trusts, museums legally hold their collections for the benefit of the public, most understand this to mean "ownership."Is fiduciary responsibility for indigenous collections different than that for other collections? Should "ownership" be replaced by "custodianship?" "Stewardship?" What does/would this mean in practice?

5. Voice: Traditionally, museums "speak for" the cultures represented in their collections, irrespective of the ethnic origin of their staff or the source of its information. Is "native voice" important? How is it/can it be most effectively incorporated?

6. Colonialist posture: To what extent do museums continue to reflect a colonialist stance vis-- vis indigenous cultures and collections? How has this history, which is common to the museums of many countries, conditioned our approach to managing indigenous collections? How can we change this without forsaking our core mandates?

7. Commercialization: Do museums bear any responsibility for the commercialization of indigenous art and its negative consequences?

8. Redress: What role does/should a desire to amend historical injustices play in motivating museums to address and resolve indigenous collections issues and in determining how they are resolved? Is "white guilt" necessarily problematic? Is there a danger of overcompensation? Of backlash? How can the appropriate balances be maintained?

Based on interviews in Washington, in combination with those conducted previously, it is apparent that museums that manage indigenous collections are confronting issues that challenge not only standard policies and procedures but the very definition of the museum as a public institution. The result is an emerging complex of new strategies--new ways of thinking about, understanding, and fulfilling core mandates--that will, it is hoped, enable these institutions to remain viable at a time of enormous social and cultural change. Collectively, these changes can be seen, at least to some degree, as a renewal of the traditional notion of the museum as a truly democratic institution based on Enlightenment principles. At the same time, however, there appears to be in these museums a closer relationship between theory and practice than has traditionally been the case, with the result that the fundamental elitism and authoritarian stance toward the public that have characterized the museum as an institution appear to be diminishing.

In the post-colonial, postmodern, pluralistic climate of the late 20th century, museums are facing new expectations that they must meet if they are to survive as viable institutions. No longer simply a matter of how museums can best collect, preserve, exhibit, and interpret, the question now is whether they should, in every case, continue to do so; and, if so, just what those functions mean today. Those institutions that are currently struggling with issues related to the management of indigenous collections are not alone in confronting and resolving such identity issues; but they are, in my opinion, on the cutting edge of a process that could well serve as a model for museums more broadly in the 21st century. There is, I believe, a great deal to be learned by watching and understanding their progress.

The invitation to discuss my work with colleagues in Washington at the conclusion of the fellowship period gave me an opportunity to project the future course of this research, which is the focus of a year's sabbatical just beginning. Having transcribed all interviews to date (approximately 50), I intend now to incorporate material from specific museums, in the U.S. and abroad, into a discussion organized according to the traditional defining responsibilities and values of the museum as an institution: public, collection, preservation, exhibition, interpretation, permanence, authenticity, etc. In this way, I hope to strike a balance between the particular and the general, and to indicate ways in which all museums might benefit from the challenging process of self-examination and redefinition that can now be seen so strikingly in museums that manage indigenous collections.

When I applied for a Smithsonian Museum Practice Fellowship, my stated goals were threefold: to improve the way my museum manages the Native American collections in its care; to extend my teaching of museum studies to include related issues; and to produce a document of value to the museum profession. The first two of these have been met to some degree, although the process is ongoing, and there is no point at which one can rest on ones laurels and declare the task accomplished; the third, which remains unmet, is now my primary focus. In order to draw from this research conclusions that are relevant and useful to other museums, the assistance, insight, and support of a great many individuals have been, and will continue to be, necessary. For that already provided so generously by the Smithsonian Institution, I am profoundly grateful.

(Marjorie Harth is the director of Montgomery Gallery and professor, art and art history, Pomona College; Claremont, CA)

Old Traditions / New Obligations: Museums and the Management of Indigenous Collections

Reading List

Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine, eds., Exhibiting Cultures: The Poetics and Politics of Museum Display. (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press), 1991

Ivan Karp and Steven D. Lavine, eds., Museums and Communities: The Politics of Public Culture. (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press), 1992

Moira G. Simpson, Making Representations: Museums in the Post-Colonial Era. (New York: Routledge), 1996

Stephen E. Weil, A Cabinet of Curiosities : Inquiries into Museums and Their Prospects. (Washington, DC: Smithsonian Institution Press), 1995

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