This blog is the place to exchange ideas, news, issues and thoughts about diversity and multiculturalism in museums. The Multicultural Initiatives Committee is a Texas Association of Museums Affinity Group.

Tuesday, 14 July 2009

Museums, Diversity, and (Insert Culture Here): Appropriating Cultural Sensitivity Policy of the National Museum of the American Indian

This essay, by Christina Hardman, is the last in a series of essays written by the Texas Associaton of Museums scholarship recipients:

A well-designed collections management policy is important to the administration of a museum as a public trust on many different levels. Such policy creates a clear standard toward which the museum’s administration can look when dealing with everything from defining which collections are pertinent to the museum’s mission, to how to deal with acquisition, disposal, care, and display. However, a new appreciation for the meaning and significance of cultural patrimony has created a need for concern beyond the more traditional requirements of a collections management policy. Initially, these new concerns raised many questions for museums with collections of Native American origin. What responsibilities does the museum have toward the individual or group for which the object is an exceptional cultural resource? What additional responsibilities does the collections staff have toward the care and management of an object with respect to its cultural context? The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) has attempted to address such issues with regard to access and care of the collections, and the practice of cultural sensitivity policy within the museum as a whole. Yet such policy can also be viewed as a standard by which any museum can encourage diversity through cultural sensitivity as it relates to those represented within the museum, as well as the surrounding community.
That which differentiates NMAI’s policy is as much a reflection of the issues surrounding the state of Native American cultural patrimony as it is of the culturally sensitive items in the collection itself. Initially, one must consider the incidents leading up to the need for and creation of such policy, first and foremost being the systematic removal and collection of said objects from their cultural context. Many objects hold both a spiritual and mnemonic significance in terms of serving as both something to be revered and a way in which to remember significant events. The removal of the vast majority of those objects to private collections and museums has not only created historical interruption and cultural gaps in the conveyance of tradition, but it has forced indigenous cultures to look toward museums as the last bastion of their own cultural resources.[1] To a greater or lesser extent, depending upon geographical location, the same can be said of cultural resources collected as a result of both Jewish and African Diasporas, not to mention scores of cultural, religious, and minority groups. Although objects themselves may have different usage and meaning, historical and cultural interruption can affect any culture group in much the same way.
Consideration of the objects themselves in their original cultural context must also be addressed. According to W. Richard West, Jr., founding director of NMAI, the “object, if anything, was a secondary consideration to the primacy of the ceremonial ritual or process that led to its creation.”[2] Therefore, any object taken out of its cultural context and categorized in Anglo-American and Western European terms must be once again examined with regard to indigenous meaning. By its own mission, NMAI attempts to do exactly that by encouraging the “understanding of Native cultures…through partnership with Native people and others.” (The mission statement in its entirety can be found here: Once a museum has recognized the need for diversity within its exhibitions, programming, and collections, the same considerations may be made for those specific groups within the surrounding community or those represented within the museum. Within this framework, almost any community or culture may be substituted for the term “Native” and the same concepts applied in terms of consultation, collaboration, and cooperation with the specified group.
As is also evident by their mission statement, the foundation of thought behind NMAI as an institution is based on the idea that while it is a “museum” with objects and is a producer of exhibitions, collaboration must occur between the museum and Native peoples. This collaboration requires the incorporation of methods that integrate Native understandings of history and culture.[3] This includes consideration for Native religious and cultural beliefs with restrictions on access to culturally sensitive objects.[4] Native traditional care is based on the object’s spiritual meaning and its use within the community, rather than the object itself. As a middle ground, standard museum and Native practices regarding care integrate and change the relationship between the two. [5] In this same manner, collaboration can and must be a priority for museums at large. In much the same way that Native people have felt alienated from their own culture as it has been represented by museums in the past (and in some cases continues to be so, even today), many other groups, whether based on ethnicity, culture, or religious belief, are removed from the process of interpreting their own past. It is not enough to rely on history books for second-hand interpretation by an individual many times removed from the group or individual represented. It is the responsibility of the museum to reach out to the community at large and involve various groups in the interpretation of their own history and culture.
Many larger institutions with significant collections of Native American objects, such as the Denver Art Museum and the Arizona State Museum have had such policy in place for years (some even before the creations of NAGPRA, as in the case of the Peabody Museum at Harvard University). While such policies were originally created to address the challenges faced by Native American people and their representation and historic interpretation in museums, they may also be applied in a broader scope to address such issues related to many different culture groups. Although the policy is no longer completely unique to NMAI in its recognition of the cultures that created the objects and their vested interest in the care and use of the collections, it has been both accepted and rejected by the professional museum community at large and has fueled a public debate that continues even now. The future creation of such policy in the larger professional museum community, and its acceptance by those who view museums from the perspective of public trustee, must develop out of knowledge of the various cultural groups, their beliefs, and an understanding of the need for cultural sensitivity in museums.

[1] Berlo, Janet Catherine, Ruth B. Phillips and Carol Duncan. “The Problematics of Collecting and Display, Part 1.” The Art Bulletin, Vol. 77, No. 1. (March 1995), pp. 9.
[2] West, W. Richard Jr., “The National Museum of the American Indian: Steward of the Sacred.” Stewards of the Sacred. Eds. Lawrence E. Sullivan and Alison Edwards, eds. Washington, D.C.; The American Association of Museums: 2004, pp. 8.
[3] Cobb, Amanda J. “The National Museum of the American Indian as Cultural Sovereignty.” American Quarterly, Vol. 57, No. 2. (June 2005), pp. 493
[4] National Museum of the American Indian. Collections Management Policy. Smithsonian Institution, revised 28 April 1995, Item IV, Section E, Subsection 1, Paragraph (d).
[5] Cobb, pp. 493.

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