How Museums Present Narratives of Native Americans: A talk from Brianna Rae

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Brianna Rae of the UConn Anthropology Department gives a presentation on the past and present of Native American representation in museums.  Photo by Judah Shingleton/The Daily Campus

Brianna Rae of the UConn Anthropology Department gives a presentation on the past and present of Native American representation in museums. Photo by Judah Shingleton/The Daily Campus

The treatment of indigenous peoples in the Americas through their interactions with European colonizers has long been a topic of discussion among academics, particularly in recent years. However, one aspect of the relationship between the United States and Native tribes which has largely gone unremarked upon in most discourse is the portrayal of Native Americans in museums. We like to think of museums as places of truth, where history is put on display for us to view as it was, yet museums are just like any other form of representation and are created by individuals with agendas and biases. 

This was the topic of a lecture Tuesday night in Oak Hall by UConn Ph.D. candidate Brianna Rae. For several months, Rae has conducted fieldwork by visiting museums throughout the northeast and documenting their representation of indigenous groups.  

Rae began her presentation by describing the history of museums and how Native representation has changed in museums over time. In the late 19th century, it was not uncommon for museums and fairs to pay indigenous people to act out their daily lives in live displays. Though the parties involved received compensation, they often suffered from dubious treatment by organizers. In one case, an Eskimo on live display at the Museum of Natural History in New York City died of tuberculosis and was given a fake funeral to appease his son, Minik, while his real remains were put on display in the museum. 

By the early 20th century, live displays went out of fashion. The reason was not due to any moral outrage, but over high costs associated with feeding and housing the Native people. Instead, museums began using wax figures and dioramas to represent the groups being examined. Without the authentic material objects brought by live performers, museums resorted to robbing the graves of indigenous people for human remains and artifacts. 

These dehumanizing methods of obtaining pieces for exhibitions were banned after protests from Native people. Initially, some museums resisted the terms of the new law, which included the return of artifacts that were probably stolen without tribal consent. This has led to a certain degree of hostility between museums and indigenous communities. 

The rest of the lecture was devoted to a discussion on the differences between museums run by Native people versus non-Native people. Museums on Native American history operated by tribes began in the 1960s and have become increasingly common in the subsequent decades. Rae made the powerful point that, “Until this point, white Westerners had full monopoly over Native representation for over 300 years.” In museums operated by Native Americans, one of their main goals is typically overcoming the harmful narrative that indigenous people are going extinct, a narrative traditionally pushed by museums operated without Native American supervision. 

At the end of the presentation, Rae opened the floor to questions from the audience. Fellow graduate student in the Anthropology program, Kitty O’Riordan, asked Rae if she had seen many examples of portrayals of modern Native Americans in museums. Rae replied that, while rare, it was more common in the portrayal of traditions. One example was an exhibit in a Native-run museum on the evolution of powwow costumes. Sage Phillips, one of the sophomores who works with the Native American Cultural Programs, asked what comments Rae had heard from visitors on exhibitions in museums she went to. While Rae said that she had heard few truly enlightening comments from visitors, she intends to utilize visitor surveys in the future to better gauge their perspectives. O’Riordan later commented that Native tribes should have primary say in telling their own histories because they know the most about their own past and cultures.  

Rae’s presentation was eye-opening on how we think of Native Americans and who we should trust in learning their stories. For more information on Native histories and cultures in the Northeast, visit the Pequot Museum and Tantaquidgeon Museum in Connecticut, the Mashpee Wampanoag Museum in Massachusetts and the Tomaquag Museum in Rhode Island. There, you can hear indigenous people talk about their own people and see how Native culture has managed to remain present and vibrant in the modern day. 


Evan Burns is campus correspondent for The Daily Campus. He can be reached via email at evan.burns@uconn.edu.

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