Museum world meets Native American world


SUITLAND -- Bruce Bernstein carefully opens a white metal cabinet. The objects inside it are covered with a square of muslin. Odd-shaped lumps, some angular, some gently rounded, form hills and valleys in the unbleached fabric. You cannot look directly at these objects, Bernstein says. You cannot know what they are. You cannot touch them. "Only the initiated may see them."

Strange words for a museum professional. But this is the Cultural Resources Center, part of the Smithsonian Institution's National Museum of the American Indian. And Bernstein, assistant director for cultural resources, is implementing a new way of thinking about museum objects -- and how they are exhibited. The philosophy represents a reinterpretation of Native American history and a significant rethinking of a museum's obligations to the cultures its collections represent.

"Museum ideas of preservation and Native American ideas of preservation are very different," he says. "We are taking these two very divergent ideas and trying to bring them together."

The National Museum of the American Indian, scheduled to open to the public in 2003, is located next to the Air and Space Museum on the National Mall. When it is fully operational, the museum will encompass four venues: the main exhibition space in Washington; the George Gustav Heye Center, which opened in 1994 in Manhattan; a fledgling "virtual" museum and other outreach programs; and the Cultural Resources Center, a 145,000-square-foot facility with a library, research and conservation centers, and space permanently to house the collections.

"We have decided that over time, our contribution to museumology will be our approach. That is: Our commitment to enlist on a consistent basis the ideas and interpretations of Native Americans for our collections," says founding museum director W. Richard West, who is Southern Cheyenne.

"There are discipline-based approaches [such as] anthropological approaches, art historical approaches. All have validity. We have chosen to add to the rich mix, the voices of native peoples themselves."

Focus on sanctity

Sometimes called "traditional care," the museum's philosophy puts as much emphasis on the sanctity of the objects as on their display and it gives as much weight -- or perhaps more -- to the opinions of Native American cultural or spiritual leaders as to the ideas of curators and scholars.

This week, at the annual convention of the American Association of Museums, which is being held in Baltimore, the idea of traditional care and its relevance to the greater museum world will be a subject of discussion.

One panel, titled "Handle with Care: Sacred Objects and Museum Methods," will focus on incorporating Native American beliefs into the museum setting. Panel members will include a representative from the Smithsonian's National Museum of Natural History, who will speak about the beliefs of non-Native American cultures and their impact on cultural institutions.

"Museums have their own way of caring for objects because their mission is to preserve and protect," says Susan Secakuku, a member of the community services department at the resource center, who will lead the discussion.

"But museums use objects in certain ways for certain reasons, and tribes already had their ideas of what these objects were for. This is important in the Native American community, but it's not just a Native American issue; it's a larger issue."

The notion of traditional care represents a sea change in institutional attitudes toward the peoples who made the objects owned by the museum. It is a recognition that the peoples themselves have as much right to their creations as modern-day Greeks have to the Parthenon, that they are the inheritors of the culture. It is also an example of how the idea of cultural domination has been replaced with respect and even reverence.

The cornerstone of the museum's holdings is a vast collection amassed by Heye, a wealthy New Yorker who died in 1957. Its 800,000 objects, which span 10,000 years, include totem poles from the northwest coast of the United States and Canada, hides decorated with vividly colored beads from the central plains, pottery and basketry from the Southwest, feather creations from the peoples of Amazonia and paintings from contemporary Native American artists.

The collection also includes human remains. Over the next four years, the museum aims to identify and return all of them, says Thomas W. Sweeney, director of public relations, who is a member of the Citizen Potawatomi of Oklahoma.

Since last year, the Smithsonian has been transporting the objects, box by box, from an overcrowded storage facility in New York to the resource center in Maryland, where they will be permanently housed. Already about 60,000 objects have been transported, but the entire process will take five years. (No human remains will be transported to the Maryland center.)

Tribes consulted

At other museums, paintings or sculptures are considered masterpieces to be carefully preserved forever. When not on display, they are locked away. At the resource center, Native American spiritual leaders may "borrow" objects for on-site use in ceremonies. And many objects are considered by Native Americans to be living things -- to be fed and granted access to air and light.

Before decisions are made about storage or display, Native Americans are consulted about how their objects were used, how they are used today and how their tribe wants the objects to be housed and displayed.

The process begins when staff members visit a tribe and invite its members to send a delegation to Maryland. Already dozens of groups, including the Lakota from South Dakota, Kiowa from Oklahoma and the Mapuche from Chile, have come. In a typical visit, the Native American leaders share knowledge about objects in the collections, perform ceremonies and offer suggestions about how to house and display the collections.

But there is no blanket policy for the care and feeding of the museum's collections: What pleases one tribe may not satisfy another, Bernstein says.

For example, before any objects left the New York storage facility, they were "smudged," or blessed by tribal elders. Cleansing smoke from burning sage or cedar was wafted over the objects with an eagle feather.

Some tribes request that certain types of pipes be stored or exhibited as two pieces: bowls separate from stems. Connecting them would signal war. Others ask that certain objects be kept standing up, or that they are never confined. Members of the Pueblo of Santa Clara in New Mexico believe that some of their objects -- the ones covered by the muslin cloth -- are sacred, Bernstein says. Custom demands that these objects be viewed only by a spiritual leader. And the museum will defer to their wishes.

Neither Bernstein nor any of the staff members are willing to give specifics about the objects that are deemed sensitive or answer questions about which Native American leaders made which requests. The information -- which often has to do with spiritual beliefs and sacred objects -- belongs to the members of the tribes, they say.

"I can say to you that some tribes have sacred mountains on their lands and would like us to orient their objects in that direction, but I cannot give specifics," says Jim Pepper Henry, who manages the museum's repatriation program and is a member of the Kaw tribe in Oklahoma. "They may not want to tell and with good reason: Look at the history of the government's relationship with them over the years. No wonder they don't want to tell -- it might get used against them."

Nature a part of museum

From the view of a soaring eagle, the resource center resembles a nautilus, a delicate, spiral shell. Its roof is layered with copper tiles, a design meant to recall a pine cone or the scales of a butterfly wing. Nestled in a bit of woods in this Maryland suburb of Washington, the building seems in harmony with the land -- and stands in sharp contrast to the more angular storage facilities of the Air and Space Museum, the American History and the Natural History museums that are nearby.

"We never call it a storage center because it is many things," Sweeney says. "It is the home of our collections, a place of welcome to members of tribes, and, on a limited level, to the public."

When Bernstein stands in the circular entrance hall and looks through the glass front doors to the east, he can see a man-made waterway that flows slowly south past a white pine planted by a Mohawk chief as a symbol of peace. Above his head, there is a skylight; at his feet a smoky glass window is cut into the floor. To the north, if he looks through the wall-to-ceiling window, he can see a gray stone bridge that leads to a circular clearing in the woods that can be used for ceremonies.

Before design plans for the resource center or the museum in Washington, D.C., were drawn up, architects consulted representatives from many of the native nations. The plans, called "The Way of the People," called for the resource center to face the rising sun, a direction of great significance to many tribes. They called for a skylight because some native people believe that man first descended from the sky. And they called for a window to the earth because still others believe man first emerged from the earth.

Bernstein, who grew up in California and came to the Smithsonian in 1997 from the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe, leads the way downstairs.

Everywhere the colors of nature dominate: the reds of a mountain range, the dusky tans of the desert, the greens and blue of earth and water. The shape of the circle, which has symbolic resonance for many tribes, is echoed in the entrance hall, domed ceilings, skylights.

As the assistant director walks quickly down a light-filled hallway, he stops short at what should be a corner formed by the meeting of two hallways. It is instead a circular juncture with a skylight. "See this?" he says. "This circular area marks the North, West, South, East axis. It is a reminder of a more important world."

Bernstein opens a door and suddenly, the air is filled with the scent of burnt sage. This is an indoor ceremony room for visiting spiritual leaders who come to spend time with sacred objects, he says.

In another room, assistant curator Emil Her Many Horses is planning an exhibit. Called "Our Universes," it is scheduled to open in 2003 and will be one of three inaugural shows at the Washington museum.

He sits at a long, mahogany meeting table across from two visitors: Francisco Caal, a Maya priest and the spiritual leader of his tribe, and Esteban Pop Caal, also a priest and who studied under Caal. Both are members of the Q'eqchi division of the Maya and have come to Maryland from their village in the highlands of Guatemala near the town of Coban.

Unlike many curators, Her Many Horses, who is Lakota, will not select all of the objects in his exhibit. Instead, over the next few days, the Maya priests will discuss their vision of the universe and will select the objects that will best tell their story. It promises to be a slow process. Caal, the tribal elder, speaks only Mayan. His words are translated by Pop Caal into Spanish. Pop Caal's words are translated into English by associate curator Ramiro Matos.

"At first I could not understand how they would do this," says Caal. "I did understand how I would help them with this kind of exhibition. I am honored."

AAM in Baltimore

The American Association of Museums, the premier organization of U.S. museum professionals, holds its 95th annual meeting in Baltimore this week. Fifty Baltimore-area museums play host to the association members, who will meet at the Convention Center for five days of private sessions on issues including diversity, museum partnerships and new technology.

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