Posted on May 9, 2022 at 7:18 p.m. by West Side Rag
By Peggy Taylor
Ellen V. Futter, president of the American Museum of Natural History, in COVID quarantine, missed the preview of the Museum’s oldest gallery, the Northwest Coast Roomwhich will open its doors to the public on May 13. But she marked the momentous occasion via Zoom and saluted the Indigenous Nations co-curators, saying, “This completely redesigned and gloriously reinvigorated room would not have been possible without you.
Although the hall has existed since 1899, when it became the first permanent exhibition dedicated to the interpretation of cultures, it has always interpreted these cultures without the input of their members. That has now changed. After a five-year, $19 million renovation, the more than 1,000 artifacts on display are interpreted by the Indigenous communities themselves.
For five years, they collaborated with the curator of the Museum of North American Ethnology, Peter Whiteley, to present the gallery in a new and more meaningful way. Consultants from nine Indigenous communities also worked under the guidance of Nuu-chah-nulth scholar and cultural historian Haa’yuups, who unfortunately, like President Futter, was unable to attend the briefing. .
Both chiefs were absent, but the co-curators were excellent back-ups as they brought the artifacts to life with stories, songs and dances to the sound of deer toes snapping from their elaborate ceremonial robes. They performed under the largest existing canoe on the Northwest Coast (65 feet long), which, once again suspended from the ceiling, allowed participants to fully admire the Haida and Haílzaqv designs that adorn it.
The presentations were so powerful that some attendees wanted the performers to be an integral part of the exhibit. But David A. Boxley noted, “We are not museum exhibits. We are a living and proud people, and we will continue. (This quote from one of the exhibits.) Garfield George of Clan Deisheetaan, Tlingit Nation, agreed, “People look at these artifacts and think wow, this is good. But they think we’re a dead culture, we’re not here anymore. But we say we are still here in our grandfather’s land.
The artifacts, not all new, are spread across eight alcoves and four corner galleries representing 10 nations. The alcoves have been reconfigured with walkways that facilitate the flow of visitors and, conceptually, reflect the porosity between these communities.
Unlike the original gallery, which opened directly to the artifact display cases, the reconfigured gallery begins, on the right, with a video featuring Indigenous experts explaining the history and persistence of the Northwest Coast peoples . On the left, the ‘Our Voices’ exhibit focuses on issues such as environmental conservation and racism.
“Nothing about us without us,” said James McGuire, curator of repatriations at the Haida Gwaii Museum in British Columbia, “We have gone from a people being studied to a people telling our own stories.”
THE ISSUE OF REPATRIATION
One of the great concerns of Native Americans, and one that museums around the world are facing, is that of repatriation. In the ongoing process of discovery, representatives of indigenous cultures have examined objects recovered from the Museum’s storerooms and found extraordinary treasures that have never been displayed to the public. Since 1998, the Museum has returned 1,850 significant objects to Native American peoples, guided by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990.
An example of an artifact that the Museum has returned to the Tlingit people is the beaver-shaped canoe prow of the only canoe to survive the bombardment of a Tlingit village by the United States Army in 1882 in Angoon, Alaska. In 1999, a Tlingit delegation discovered the beaver at the Museum and requested its repatriation. Today, he participates in all Tlingit ceremonies to remember hardship, resilience and healing.
For more information, click here. The American Museum of Natural History is located on Central Park West between 81st and 77th Streets and is open Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.