in Museum 

Sensitive Native American Photographic Images:
  Stepping Back to Look at
the Big Picture

Nigel Holman

Introduction:  In Anticipation of a Controversy

For little more than a decade, museums and Native Americans have been negotiating a new relationship. For museums, this has been part of a larger attempt to redefine themselves and their roles in society. For Native Americans, this has been in part an attempt to tackle a number of long-unresolved grievances and to begin to play active roles in institutions that have been recognized as being potentially of great value for cultural continuation and renewal for many tribal communities. The repatriation of scared objects and human remains in museum collections has begun to take place in this context. The legislative mandates of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 (NAGPRA) and the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) Act of 1989 represent the inability of both parties to successfully integrate their own world views with those of the other without the involvement of legislators and lawyers. Was such an integration possible, or even desirable? Could an imposed legislative solution have been prevented, or should it have been?

These would be moot questions were another similar issue not looming on the horizon. This is the issue of the curation and use by museums of Native American cultural materials defined in much more general terms than the sacred and communally-owned objects and human remains of NAGPRA and the NMAI Act. Sensitive photographic images, particularly those depicting religious ceremonies and sacred places, will almost certainly be the principal category of cultural materials over which the claims and counter-claims of Native Americans and museums will be debated and disputed. Simply stated, some Native American communities are taking a variety of positions that share minimally the common objective of restricting access to sensitive photographic images held by museums. A Fellowship in Museum Practice at the National Museum of the American Indian afforded me the opportunity to explore the many dimensions of this emerging issue.

In particular, I was able to place the work I had carried out as the founding Executive Director of the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center in Zuni, New Mexico, into a wider context. While this context certainly encompasses all museums holding Native American collections, it became apparent that the issue can only be understood or resolved satisfactorily in the context of a debate about the future of museums. Furthermore, it ultimately makes most sense when seen in a context of the social forces that simultaneously bind American society together and pull it apart. Are these overly-dramatic conclusions?  I don't think so, and the Center for Museum Studies Bulletin is a good place to sketch out my reasoning.

The Future of American Museums

The state of American museums in the 1980s can be summarized by drawing from the chapter titles of Museums for a New Century. In numerical terms, there was a "growing museum movement." Museums were "stewards of a common wealth" with "a new imperative for learning."  A new awareness existed of the role of leadership in "guiding the values of museums" as organizations and institutions. Museums were intoxicated with "the collaborative spirit" and were evolving "from [places for] private appreciation to [places for] public awareness."  Museums  justifiably had a very positive self-image at this time. The innovative programs and activities described in Museums for a New Century, that were making museums public institutions in unprecedented ways, were justifiably lauded.

Few could have then imagined the upheaval that would result from repatriation requests from Native Americans that began in the late 1970s and grew in number throughout the 1980s. Yet, were the demands of Native Americans to reclaim parts of their cultural heritage simply the extension of principles that the museum profession was itself embracing?  For some in the museum profession, defining the repatriation debate in this manner is threatening. They would prefer to see repatriation as the politicization by Native Americans of museums because this allows them to counter with the argument that museums exist as stewards of a common wealth that are - or at least should be - above politics. But museums are public institutions in a different sense:  they are open and responsive to social change. As a result, museums change by assuming the characteristics of the changing society in which they are embedded. The philosophical foundation of contemporary museums is that the past, as curated by these museums, is owned communally. This is undeniably an improvement over the earliest European museums that were owned and visited by a privileged minority. Yet this position is based on the Euro-American notion, questioned by Native Americans and others, that ownership of collections for the common good is a self-evident and unassailable philosophy. Clearly these contrasting meanings of the term public institution are a challenge to us all.

How much more of an extension of the principles of Museums for a New Century is an expansion of Native American rights over photographs of Native American subjects held by museums?  To think about the issue of sensitive photographic images in these terms rather than in terms of a conflict between a profession (museum anthropologists) and an ethnic group (Native Americans) is an important first step in the right direction. Accusing those who question the appropriateness of the notion of ownership of political correctness is a step in the wrong direction. For our understanding of this issue to evolve we have to have an idea of how museums will change in the next few decades. This is necessary because we need solutions to problems that serve the future, not perpetuate the past. The authors of Museums
for a New Century presented their vision of museums of the relatively near future in 144 pages. I will present my vision less elegantly, but more succinctly. It contains ideas from my reading of the works of Alvin Toffler:  Future Shock (1970), The Third Wave (1980) and Powershift (1990). In particular, I find the distinction between the Second Wave and the Third Wave a useful one, and find traditional museums to be archetypical Second Wave institutions (see sidebar.)

Over the next few generations, museums will lay increasing emphasis in the storage and public presentation of information. The collections-based notions that have propelled traditional museum thinking are disappearing. The recent emphasis in museums as educational institutions, as expressed for example in AAM's profoundly important Excellence and Equity, is one reflection of this change. Debates about deaccessioning and the use of compacted storage to reduce long-term collections management costs are also reflections of this same change. The replacement of display cases with computer monitors in museum galleries reveals museums becoming information brokers in ways they never were before. Artifacts willI increasingly be seen as simply one form in which information is stored rather than as the raison d'etre for museums. Experiments that have put art on the Internet will develop into virtual museums consisting of powerful computer hardware and software and gigabytes of computer storage holding massive amounts of historical and cultural information, photographic images of art and artifacts and curatorial commentary. The proliferation in recent years of museum publications is a forerunner of these trends in information dissemination. Finally, I have frequently heard curators state that museums will gain knowledge about their Native American collections through the relationships with Native Peoples that will develop as a result of the repatriation process. This is a further reflection of the same trend.  If objects must be deaccessioned, a return in the form of information is of significant value to the museum.

The museum profession, like society around it, is becoming fragmented. Museums are not just simply proliferating or being produced from an old mold. They are being created with new characteristics and new philosophies, so that some new museums share little in common with some old museums. The opening of ethnic-specific museums is one symptom of this fragmentation that has been debated in earlier issues of the Bulletin by Richard Kurin and Claudine Brown. Individual museums are fragmenting. They have launched satellite sites in malls, schools and other unconventional places. One planned component of the National Museum of the American Indian, the so-called Fourth Museum, is not a museum in the traditional sense but a delivery system that will provide museum-like services to tribal
communities around the country.

The traditional structure and philosophy of museums is in many respects incompatible with these society-wide changes characterized by Toffler. Will museums stay the same?  Can they stay the same?  I would answer "No" to both questions. The term, museum, will continue, joined - as it is already - by cultural centers, science centers, ecomuseums, halls-of-fame and art spaces. If Toffler is correct, museums as institutions of the Second Wave will become extinct. Yet, just as surely, they will re-create themselves as institutions of the Third Wave.

The transition from Second to Third Wave society will not happen smoothly. Such radical changes in society cannot occur without some forms of conflict. During the transition, there will be conflicts between groups holding the contrasting world views of the Second and Third Waves. During and after the transition, the new, fragmented groups of the Third Wave will compete with each other for the intellectual and material territory formerly dominated by Second Wave institutions. In museums, conflicts will arise as a result of the contrasts between object-based and information-based logic and practice. They will also arise as a result of the fragmentation of the museum world which, especially if it continues to grow, will become the increasingly uneasy container for a great many divergent and contradictory points of view. Museums and their employees are not immune to changes in society. Other institutions and professions have undergone similar radical changes in recent years due to the first affects of the Third Wave. Why should our institutions and our jobs be any different?

Curation, Control and Conflict

We can now return to the issue of Native American rights to photographs of religious ceremonies and sacred places and consider it in terms of the present character of museums as Second Wave institutions and their likely future character as Third Wave institutions. The presence in museums of these photographs and all manner of other Native American cultural material is a product of traditional museum collecting philosophy. The establishment of tribal museums is conventionally interpreted as the inevitable spread of the Euro-American museum concept to all cultures. For the museum profession, this is a very satisfying interpretation. It can, however, also be persuasively interpreted as the fragmentation of the museum profession and the mutation of some of its most cherished principles. The former interpretation emphasizes the similarities of practice between traditional museums and tribal institutions. The latter emphasizes the differences in practice. The similarities, adopted as a result of the influence of traditional museum thinking on the creation of the tribal museum, will, over time, come to be overwhelmed by differences that evolve from local experience and experimentation.

In the case of what I have termed photographic images, it is important to recognize that the issue is not about photographs as thin, three-dimensional artifacts but about the image as an item of information that, like any other form of information but unlike an object, can be communicated and duplicated. Museums curate photographs, but they control images. For example, the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center has handed over control of the sensitive images of religious ceremonies and sacred places to Zuni's religious leaders. But we also introduced the religious leaders to the idea of curating the photographs that are the medium of these images, and it is our expectation that this collection will be used extensively by initiated tribal members in forms of historic research that are new to Zuni and new to museums. These photographs, however, were from the National Anthropological Archives. The continued availability of these images to all-comers in Washington, DC means that the Zuni religious leaders cannot control the images that record information of Zuni religious practices even though they possess and curate copies of those images in the form of photographic prints. Furthermore, many individual sensitive images exist in numerous collections or have been reproduced in books or even postcards. If A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center - that has been exploring the ideas of community participation and ecomuseum thinking for the last five years - represents a fragmentation of the museum concept, the transfer for curation of part of its photographic collections to Zuni religious leaders represents an even further fragmentation of this concept.

By arguing for the right to control information held by museums, have Native Americans made the transition from Second Wave to Third Wave thinking quicker than the rest of us? This conclusion is only reached if we accept Toffler's simple trajectory for social change. An alternative framework was offered by Marshall McLuhan back in the 1960s. His ideas concerning the relationship between society and technology emphasized the notion that technological improvements in the transmission and dissemination of information were creating a "Global Village" and that modern society would increasingly take on some of the information-processing characteristics of tribal society. Information that formerly could only be communicated face-to-face was available - at least in theory, and increasingly in practice - to every member of the human race. For Toffler, we proceed inevitably into a new future. For McLuhan, new technology was re-introducing old patterns of social interaction. Most importantly, however, both models predict conflict as a consequence of these profound social upheavals. Accepting the inevitability of such conflicts is the first step to solving them.

There is now active participation of groups within society with different perspectives in debates on matters that were formerly debated and discussed internally by museums. These include members of ethnic groups in our communities and groups who want to select (censor?) the art in our galleries. And it is certainly to the credit of museums that they have encouraged - if not unanimously embraced - such participation. It is inevitable that these groups will see some things differently from each other and differently from museum convention.

Repatriation of material culture is being accomplished using the object-centered logic of the Second Wave. Most significantly, museums are relinquishing sacred artifacts based on conventional Euro-American principles of ownership. On the other hand, the emerging dispute over the control over information employs Third Wave ways of thinking. While there can be control over a tangible, unique object by simple possession, this is not possible in the case of images. Not only are images forms of information that can be easily disseminated through various media like other forms of information, but the inevitable corollary is that their dissemination cannot easily be controlled.

This contrast does not present a dilemma that is unique to Native Americans. The profits of American corporations in a range of industries are significantly reduced by counterfeit products abroad that carry popular, but illegally-used patents, trademarks, product names or copyrighted designs. The illegal copying of information encoded in computer software costs Microsoft and other corporations millions of dollars each year. Corporations wishing to prevent unfair competition from abroad and Native Americans wishing to control historical information are all seeking to manage intellectual property (conventionally defined in commercial sphere as copyright, trademarks, patent and trade secrets.)  These are intangible assets whose value and significance relative to tangible assets will grow substantially greater during the Third Wave.

Corporations are frustrated by the unwillingness of foreign countries to enact and enforce strong intellectual property laws. Some Native Americans - unwilling participants in the American experience - are frustrated by the unwillingness of many museums holding Native American collections to forego their responsibility as 'stewards of a common wealth' for policies that favor just one of its constituencies:  the creators of the cultural materials in question though, in the case of photographs, not the recorders of it.

Conclusions, But No Answers

While describing Native American culture in terms of intellectual property makes some sense, the values in commercial and cultural information are not the same. Commercial information has monetary value. It is protected to encourage commercial creativity. Cultural information is different. It has no monetary value. It is placed in the public domain to encourage cultural creativity. If commercial creativity is one of the reasons why the United States has come as far as it has in little more than two centuries, then supporters of public funding for the arts and others would argue that cultural creativity is another. The presence of cultural information in the public domain is seen by many as a cherished part of the democratic tradition of the United States. It is one of the freedoms that are not afforded to citizens of some other countries, and it would be easy to stigmatize as undemocratic any group in society that seeks to truncate these freedoms.

Yet it would be just as easy to stigmatize as intolerant institutions that reject Native American wishes deriving from their religious beliefs. From my experience in Zuni, I know that the concerns of its religious leaders, in the area of sensitive photographic images as in traditional cultural properties, are a genuine expression of their religious beliefs. They cannot be dismissed simply because they represent religious principles being applied to a challenge posed by a modern technology, such as photography.

It is in the arena of these ideas that the debate about the curation and use by museums of photographs depicting Native American religious ceremonies and sacred places must take place. It is a debate that pits freedoms afforded to individuals and groups by the Constitution of the United States against the rights of our elected governments and public institutions to act in ways considered to be in the interests of the country as a whole. These cherished freedoms and rights are regularly in conflict as demonstrated in daily news stories concerning the militia movement against the federal government or pro-lifers against pro-choice advocates.  Museums are now simply being challenged in ways that other institutions have already faced. A tidy resolution to this issue is unlikely, but how it is conducted will tell us a great deal about how the museum community will respond to the challenge of the Third Wave.

Nigel Holman was the founding director of the A:shwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center (1992-1995.)  He holds degrees in Anthropology from the University of Cambridge and has been the director of museums in England and the United States. Mr. Holman is a 1995 recipient of the Smithsonian's Fellowships in Museum Practice program. The member of a two-career household, he recently relocated to New York City.

Sensitive Native American Photographic Images

Reading List

Excellence and Equity:  Education and the Public Dimension of Museums. A report from the American Association of Museums. Washington, DC, 1992

Museums for a New Century. A Report of the Commission on Museums for a New Century.
Washington, DC, 1984

Toffler, Alvin. The Third Wave. New York:  Bantam, 1981.         

Toffler, Alvin and Heidi. Creating a New Civilization:  The Politics of the Third Wave.
Atlanta:  Turner, 1994.

SIDEBAR:  Alvin Toffler and the Second and Third Waves
Alvin Toffler's publications present a coherent and credible synthesis of how society is changing and what it will be like in the next few decades. The First Wave was the Agricultural Revolution, a process lasting many centuries and millennia. The Second Wave was the Industrial Revolution, a process that was imposed upon First Wave cultures and which played itself out over three centuries. In each case, the processes Toffler describes systematically affected all facets of society. The Third Wave is already known by several names:  the Information Age, the Electronic Era, Post-Industrial Society or the Global Village. It is significantly more problematic and potentially disruptive - even destructive - than the First and Second Waves due to the speed at which it will alter communities entrenched in Second Wave thinking. Third Wave thinking, as discussed in this article, is simply any idea that is conceivable given the new parameters afforded by modern technology. For instance, our notions of democracy could conceivable change given the advances in telecommunications to allow more direct participation of individuals in decision-making processes (virtual town halls, etc.)

According to Toffler, the Third Wave will see the creation of new institutions, schools and corporations based on new technologies and new ways of thinking. "It writes a new code of behavior for us and carries us beyond standardization, synchronization and centralization, beyond the concentration of energy, money and power. This new civilization has its own distinctive world outlook; its own ways of dealing with time, space, logic and causality. And its own principles for the politics of the future."

The political consequences of Toffler's writings have received much attention recently with an endorsement by U. S. House of Representatives Speaker Newt Gingrich. To reject them for this reason would be a mistake. They are thought-provoking because they offer us a new perspective on the contemporary social context of museums - a context that is inseparable from politics and, fortunately, from political debate about the future of American society.

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