An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Spring 2018

The New World of the Indigenous Museum

Philip J. Deloria
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Museums have long offered simplistic representations of American Indians, even as they served as repositories for Indigenous human remains and cultural patrimony. Two critical interventions–the founding of the National Museum of the American Indian (1989) and the passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (1990)–helped transform museum practice. The decades following this legislation saw an explosion of excellent tribal museums and an increase in tribal capacity in both repatriation and cultural affairs. As the National Museum of the American Indian refreshes its permanent galleries over the next five years, it will explicitly argue for Native people’s centrality in the American story, and insist not only on survival narratives, but also on Indigenous futurity.

PHILIP J. DELORIA, a Fellow of the American Academy since 2015, is Professor of History at Harvard University. He is the author of American Studies: A User’s Guide (with Alexander Olson, 2017), Indians in Unexpected Places (2004), and Playing Indian (1998) and editor of Blackwell Companion to Native American History (with Neal Salisbury, 2002).

When Indigenous visitors from across the country and the world come to Washington, D.C., they often head for the Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI). Located on the Mall, in close proximity to the Capitol, the distinctive building captures the curvilinear forms of the natural world while simultaneously evoking the elaborate perched stone cities of Southwestern cliff-dwellers. Inside, visitors find flags from a host of tribal nations surrounding a vast domed space, a gathering place for local groups, national organizations, and museum programming.

In the original configuration, put in place at the museum’s opening in 2004, three permanent exhibition galleries anchored the museum, along with a theater and film documentary, two changing exhibits, and the Mitsitam Café, which served Native foods from North and South America. Embedded within those three large galleries were a series of smaller spaces featuring tribally curated exhibits meant to explore the history and culture of individual groups, even as the museum itself sought to explore more general themes: Our Lives, Our Peoples, Our Universes. On opening day, some twenty-five thousand Indigenous people marched in celebration on the Mall, welcoming the museum into being. It was a joyous occasion, an assertion of Native pride, presence, and survival. What could possibly go wrong?

Same-day negative reviews appeared in both The New York Times and The Washington Post accusing the NMAI of a lack of scholarly rigor and haphazard exhibits marked by vagueness and superficiality. Disappointment and harsh words also came from Indigenous critics, who wanted a more visibly confrontational politics. Many visitors, who could not pigeonhole the museum into a familiar category, became disoriented: Was it an art museum full of beautiful, well-lit aesthetic objects? (Not really, though the lighting was often excellent.) A history museum? (No, it presented nothing like a linear history.) An anthropological museum, full of “culture areas” and representative ethnographic pieces? (Definitely not!)1

The NMAI was (and is) a disorienting museum. It gleefully decontextualized ethnographic artifacts, assembling arrowheads, ceramic masks, and small gold pieces into new forms, creating aesthetically oriented swirls and patterns bundled together into display cases. The small “pods” of tribal self-presentation interrupted and punctured viewers’ efforts to find a linear argument as they moved through a gallery. And those pods were themselves uneven: some focused on only a few objects, some on text-heavy recounting of tribal history and culture, some aiming to create an experience of Indigenous home space. Some were simply more compelling than others. Many visitors wanted a recounting of a painful history, around which they could organize viewing experiences of guilt, empathy, and painless redemption, before heading to the café for quasi-exotic food. (No hamburgers here; only bison burgers!) The museum studiously avoided the tone of dispassionate anthropological expertise found on so many wall labels in other museums. In other words, it seemed to have willfully walked away from the capital-M authority of the Museum itself. Visitors’ confusion was the result of an assertive Indigenous museum practice–nonlinear and holistic–that doubled down on the absence of the forms and language of the classic Western museum.

The authority of the Museum had been a long time in the making. Beginning in the sixteenth century, Renaissance rulers, aristocrats, merchants, and scientists assembled eclectic collections of material–natural history, art, religious relics, and antiquities–into what we commonly refer to as “cabinets of curiosities.” These cabinets–sometimes a literal cabinet, but often a discrete room overstuffed with material–served as both the venue for scholarly study and the performative basis for claims to knowledge, authority, and power. The cabinets demonstrated the commanding reach of elites, for they often featured objects from trade routes, explorations, and conquests stretching across the globe. Native cargo from the New World and the Pacific frequently made its way to such cabinets, marking “the Indigenous” as a key element in an Enlightenment project that married power and knowledge with European imperial and colonial endeavors around the planet.

In such cabinets, one can see the germs of what would become long-standing museum practices. A collection of disparate objects required categories and cataloging; in that process, one might create knowledge. A collection required care; it became a proprietary site for new forms of archival science and storage. A collection required management of objects coming in and objects going out; the arts of accession, deaccession, and provenance were constituted and consolidated. A collection required collecting: out of the cabinets were borne the field agent and the collecting expedition, a venture with no purpose other than the acquisition of objects. And a collection created a vast web of possibilities for recontextualization, for moving objects out of one location (a utilitarian cooking pot, for instance) and into another (as a definitive example of American Indian life). The most important recontextualization may have centered on the authority of collectors themselves, for the objects constituted them as unique figures of authority.

At the same time, the cabinets–and the more formalized museums that soon followed–also constituted and displayed the Indigenous as a category and object: non-European, defined in light of colonial encounters, and primitive–either as “natural” or as “savage” in relation to the “civilized.” Indigenous people and their things were quickly incorporated into emergent scientific discourses: natural history (they were like animals), ethnology and anthropology (they were “earlier” forms of human social organization), archeology (you found them when you started digging), and craniology (skull comparisons might reveal racial differences in intelligence and capacity). They had cultural functions as well. Indigenous objects had a trophy-like quality to them, serving as evidence of past conflict and Western military and civilizational superiority. Indigenous material culture could function as a kind of fetish or token for the claims to Indigenous lands.

In this light, it is unsurprising to find that, in the early United States, collecting and cabinets took on particularly nationalist forms as they were gradually reshaped into that thing we call the museum. Philadelphia artist Charles Willson Peale developed a museum out of a collection of portraits, placed on public display in his home. The exhibit–for we can truly name it that and identify it as a characteristic of museums–proved popular, and when Peale realized he could charge admission, he began collecting not simply art, but also antiquities, natural history specimens, fossils, and American Indian artifacts, among other objects. His son Titian Ramsay Peale would sign on as an artist/naturalist/collector to a number of exploring expeditions in the American South and West as well as the 1838–1842 Wilkes Expedition, which explored the globe. In 1794, the Peale Museum moved to the American Philosophical Society, thus constituting its authority around the nation’s first scientific association, even as it revealed that the museum and its things could also serve as experiential commodities.

In New York, John Pintard’s 1791 American Museum featured more curiosities than natural history specimens, and it changed hands several times before becoming, in 1841, P. T. Barnum’s American Museum, a combination of display, freak show, amusement, theater, and zoo that proved a central venue in the development of American popular culture. In Virginia, Thomas Jefferson, likely in 1783, made the first systematic archeological investigation in the United States, trenching and carving an Indian burial mound on the Rivanna River, an effort that he recounted in Notes on the State of Virginia (1785). Philadelphia physician Samuel George Morton’s Crania Americana (1839) based its argument–racial differences demonstrated by cranial capacity, which indexed intelligence–on an ever-growing collection of human skulls. Many of these were of Indigenous people; most were not archeological specimens, but were procured by Army surgeons on battlefields and by robbing graves and recent burials. In 1829, British scientist James Smithson died, leaving his estate to the United States for the founding of “an establishment for the increase and diffusion of knowledge among men,” thus creating the Smithsonian Institution, which formalized the meeting of what we now recognize in terms of scientific research, collecting and collections management, exhibition and programming, and the imagined community of the nation.2

This potted history suggests only some of the ways that American Indian people might be incorporated into the project that was “the museum.” They were the objects of knowledge, rarely active subjects in its production; others would speak about them and occasionally for them. This dominating knowledge was matched by the accompanying devastation of Indigenous lands and peoples; museums and their collections were not neutral or innocent. They were full of Indian things. In the latter half of the nineteenth century, for example, frontier officers and doctors sent in a steady stream of human remains from battlefields and graves (to the Army Medical Museum, for example), accompanied by a vast array of material culture that dispersed across any number of American museums. Founded in 1879, the Bureau of Ethnology (later, Bureau of American Ethnology) was created to transfer records and organize the anthropological knowledge of the United States under the rubric of the Smithsonian Institution. It housed information from the great geographical surveys of the 1870s and established its own fieldwork and collecting programs. The Bureau’s first effort– the 1879 Stevenson expedition to the Zuni Pueblo–acquired thousands of items, anchoring a collection that would eventually surpass ten thousand objects, all taken from a single location!3 By the early twentieth century, as historian Douglas Cole and others have documented, the long-held belief that Indigenous cultures were “vanishing” led to a rush of collection activity and the establishment of major museum collections in New York, Chicago, Denver, and elsewhere.

Those museums established expectations for Indians: Native peoples were vanished, racially and socially primitive, voiceless, and spoken for by knowledgeable authorities. Their material traces were commonly organized around three categories: American history, in which they made a quick appearance and then disappeared; anthropology, in which they illustrated social evolution or, at best, cultural relativism; or art, in which their objects were recontextualized around form more than function, and in which they served as a primitivist foil for American and European modernism.

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  • 1For an excellent introduction to the controversies and critiques surrounding the NMAI, see Amy Lonetree and Amanda J. Cobb, eds., The National Museum of the American Indian: Critical Conversations (Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press). On media coverage specifically, see Aldona Jonaitis and Janet Catherine Berlo, “‘Indian Country’ on the National Mall: The Mainstream Press versus the National Museum of the American Indian,” in ibid., 208–240.
  • 2David R. Brigham, Public Culture in the Early Republic: Peale’s Museum and its Audience (Washington, D.C.: Smithsonian Institution Press, 1995); Thomas Jefferson, Notes On the State of Virginia (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1982); Samuel George Morton and George Combe, Crania Americana: Or, A Comparative View of the Skulls of Various Aboriginal Nations of North and South America. To Which Is Prefixed an Essay on the Varieties of the Human Species. Illustrated by Seventy-Eight Plates and a Colored Map (Philadelphia: J. Dobson, 1839); Ann Fabian, The Skull Collectors: Race, Science, and America’s Unburied Dead (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2010); David Hurst Thomas, Skull Wars: Kennewick Man, Archaeology, and the Battle for Native American Identity (New York: Basic Books, 2000); and James W. Cook, The Arts of Deception: Playing with Fraud in the Age of Barnum (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 2001).
  • 3See, for example, Chip Colwell, Plundered Skulls and Stolen Spirits: Inside the Fight to Reclaim Native America’s Culture (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2017).