The story of any North American natural history museum would also have to be, at least partially, a story about Native North Americans—about their physical removal from the land and cultural removal from a central position in our various national histories and narratives. Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History—in particular, the museum’s Native North American Hall—is finding new ways to tell some of these stories.
Located just off the museum’s southern entrance and adjacent to the gift shop, the hall features a sizable set of glass-fronted display cases and vitrines dedicated to exhibiting the cultural artifacts of numerous Native American peoples spanning from northern Mexico to Canada. The vitrines, reminiscent of department store window displays, are built into the very architecture of the space and span from floor to ceiling. Like the objects in any shop window, the hall’s artifacts are meticulously arranged to create a desired effect. The casual viewer peruses the objects on display, each artifact carefully spaced and arranged on the wall like a diagram. Seeing the objects isolated and behind thick glass creates a false sense in the viewer that knowledge is being gained through the simple act of looking. Given the scant descriptions of the objects provided, whatever knowledge may be grasped is likely insubstantial, and sits at the level of perception. In addition to some variously placed smaller displays, there are several large free-floating vitrines in the space, built in a similar manner, populated by faceless mannequins outfitted in the indigenous clothing of various nations. The display walls are painted an institutional shade of pale green. In disrepair, with some artifacts missing or showing signs of damage, the Native North American Hall appears to have been abandoned by the museum, which is tantamount to an abandonment of the museum’s imperative to educate the public, to provide up-to-date information on developing ideas regarding the history and science of the objects it stewards, and to enunciate new stories those objects might tell.
While seemingly extensive, the exhibition represents only a small selection from a massive collection. Of the 70,000 Native North American cultural objects in the museum’s collection, approximately 1,400 are arranged for display in the hall. For certain objects and histories—those not perceived as dynamic or vital—museum storage tends to be the first and final resting place. On one of my earliest visits to the hall, sometime in 2011, I was immediately struck by its quality of being stuck in time. Indeed, a key element of the hall’s narrative is that the displays have remained largely untouched since their initial installation in the early 1950s. Entering the space is akin to opening a time capsule.
That feeling, however, is likely to change. On October 29, the Field Museum announced through a press release that it was planning a renovation for the hall scheduled to be completed by 2021. For some time previous to the announcement a sign had been posted at the entrance declaring, “This exhibit hall will be changing over the next few years to include fresh and more inclusive perspectives on Native American cultures.” The wall text goes on to quote Dr. Patty Loew, a professor of journalism and director of the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research at Northwestern University: “For too long our histories have been interpreted through an outsider’s lens. This renovation, in which indigenous people are participating, provides an important and long-overdue opportunity for us to tell our own stories.” A history told “through an outsider’s lens” leaves a void that is especially empty for those groups that have been marginalized through political and legalized violence. The renovations, which will address the architecture of the hall as well as the larger cultural concerns, make visible the museum’s new-found efforts to engage Native communities in order to better represent Native American histories and interpret Native American cultural objects. The renovations are taking place under the guidance of a robust advisory committee made up of contemporary Native American tribal leaders, scholars, artists, historical society representatives, and cultural caretakers. The reimagining of the hall will include rotating exhibits; more thoughtful, inclusive, and expansive museum didactics; and contemporary examples of Native American culture—which has continued to thrive even as the museum’s displays have remained static.
What is at stake is the question of who has the authority to tell which stories, and how that telling influences and constructs our realities. Clearly, Native communities, including Chicago’s, need to play a substantial role in how these objects are displayed and discussed. In the press release, curator of North American anthropology Alaka Wali says, “It’s not just a new exhibition—it represents a whole new way of thinking.” Yet new ways of thinking do not happen on their own; they require concerted and committed efforts by groups of interested parties sustained over long periods.
Funding is also helpful. At the end of 2017, the Andrew Mellon Foundation awarded a $700,000 grant “to support the reinstallation and reinterpretation of the Hall of Native North America at the Field Museum of Natural History.” Such an award from such a recognized foundation reinforces what many people sensitive to Native American and Indigenous struggles already know: it is time to rethink the role natural history museums play in society. It is time to reconsider and even critique the kinds of stories and approaches to cultural representation that museums have historically championed and embraced.
By moving toward ongoing collaboration between the museum and the community it represents, as opposed to monolithic declarations regarding what culture is and how it should be presented, the museum seems to be embracing a more progressive role. From 2017 through 2019, the University of Chicago’s Neubauer Collegium for Culture and Society, in conjunction with the Field Museum, is hosting a project titled Open Fields: Ethics, Aesthetics and the Very Idea of a Natural History. The series of open-ended discussions was conceived as a response to natural history museum displays of Native American and Indigenous artifacts, with the express goal of considering how certain tactics of cultural exhibitions are becoming more and more out of date, and to acknowledge how rarely displays of Native American artifacts found in large public institutions reflect how Native Americans see and construct their own heritages and identities. The questions posed by the historical practices of the natural history museum point a way toward understanding how such institutions might represent other people’s cultures in ways that are inclusive and appropriate and that acknowledge the past, as opposed to repressing it.
Despite the museum’s exciting plans, it is important to understand the reasons why such a renovation and reconsideration of the hall would be necessary in the first place. Delving into the history of the natural history museum, how and why it came to be, for whom and at what cost, requires facing a toxic past and its real and symbolic effects.
The press packet regarding the hall’s renovation includes several photographs of conservation technicians in white coats standing over artifacts. These museum workers are examining and measuring the objects inside the Regenstein Laboratory, a 1,600-square-foot conservation and collections management facility on the museum’s upper floor. The process of deinstallation by the museum, an exhuming of artifacts from their display cases, is itself a preservation effort that requires careful steps. Objects that have been exhibited for so long pose certain kinds of risks, and one caption in the press materials alludes to “harmful chemicals” common to “old collection practices.” The objects, in other words, can have genuinely toxic effects if not handled properly.
It is also worth noting that many U.S. natural history museums have large collections of human remains, which are disproportionately Native American or non-European. Archaeology, which includes the material practice of removing artifacts from designated archaeological sites, was one of the driving forces behind the fervent collection of such remains. The question of why Native American remains were understood to be collectible is directly related to European conceptualizations of who does and does not count as fully human, who is part of history and who is categorized as prehistoric. “Savage,” “barbaric,” and “civilized,” far from loose descriptions, were official categories that late 19th century anthropologists, ethnologists, and social theorists used to create an evolutionary model of social development. Prominent 19th century writers and thinkers such as Edward B. Tylor promoted the idea that all cultures passed through these three universal stages, which cast European styles of life as the most developed and desirable. Unsurprisingly, non-Europeans, including people indigenous to North America, were mostly seen as lacking, stuck in the past, underdeveloped, or about to disappear.
But what is the specific history of the Field Museum? Founded after the World’s Columbian Exposition held in Chicago in 1893, the museum owes much of its initial collection to the work of turn-of-the-century anthropologists Frederic Ward Putnam and Franz Boas. Key figures in the development of U. S. ethnology, anthropology, and archaeology, they organized an extensive anthropological building for the Exposition that showcased Indigenous and Native artifacts, skeletal remains, and related information explicitly displayed to invite visitors to follow humanity’s progress from primitive to civilized. Afterward, Putnam worked to find a benefactor who would fund preservation of the fair’s anthropology displays. Ultimately, timber magnate Edward Ayer, whose world-class collection of books and manuscripts related to Native American and precolonial cultures is now at Chicago’s Newberry Library, convinced Chicago-based department store mogul Marshall Field to fund the establishment of a museum. Initially called the Columbian Museum of Chicago, the museum’s name was later changed to honor Field, and the Columbian Exposition displays were preserved.
In a 2002 issue of Fieldiana, an academic journal published by the Field Museum, the late 19th century is described as a time when “there was a feeling among American anthropologists that the aboriginal cultures of the New World should be studied immediately, before the native way of life vanished forever.” The use of the neutral term “vanished” stands out. Native lifeways did not simply disappear by accident but were systematically destroyed—as a focused project of public policy and populist politics, through means including outright war and the deployment of well-armed vigilante and volunteer militias subsidized by federal and state governments. In California, according to historian Benjamin Madley, extensive fund-raising was needed to pay for the work that was Indian killing throughout the mid- and late-1800s. His book An American Genocide: The United States and the California Indian Catastrophe describes how the Native Californian population was reduced from 150,000 to 30,000 between the years 1846 and 1870, largely a result of state-sanctioned and state-supported massacres. And while the term “genocide” did not gain a legal definition until the post-World War II 1948 United Nations Genocide Convention, Madley and others advocate for formally applying the legal definition of the term to U.S.-sponsored Native American massacres during the late 1800s. To retroactively and rightly frame Indian removal as genocide is to label it a crime recognized under international law, which would have profound legal ramifications. That such actions were “committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group,” as defined by the UN Office on Genocide Prevention and the Responsibility to Protect, is a statement that stands largely unquestioned today but is only the first step in a long process that has both legal and cultural implications. Reframing Indian removal as genocide presents a new set of welcome problems for the politics of social and collective memory within a U.S. context. It would demand a reconsideration of the traumatic tales and experiences of colonialism, not only in the privacy of one’s personal life but more importantly, in the public space of our cultural institutions. A formalized national-scale reassessment of public forms of historical remembrance, including monuments, textbooks, and museums, would be required. History—in all these forms—is written by the conqueror and thus tends to explain events in a way that justifies their cultural and economic domination. Also up for debate would be how a nation built on state-sanctioned systematic violence should apologize for and recompense those affected by its practices. Clearly, the United States has an aversion to facing its past and is long overdue for a moment of truth and reconciliation.
To purposefully, systematically destroy something while simultaneously portraying it as simply vanishing creates a complicated political, philosophical, and social reality that requires recounting. Late 19th century American anthropologists felt it was urgent to study what was being made to disappear, so they gathered as much material as possible without regard to whether it would be analyzed later. This large-scale project of gathering and preservation is a key component of what is commonly referred to as “salvage anthropology.” To salvage means “to save”; thus, “salvage anthropology” aims to use the act of collecting artifacts as a means of saving those cultures in danger of disappearing. But the act of collection necessarily removed cultural objects from their contexts, making it that much harder for Native communities to preserve their traditions within their communities rather than have them become objects for study. When a non-Native institution preemptively assumes Native American cultures need preservation, it ignores all the ways that Native American cultures have preserved and cared for themselves for thousands of years through social practices that preexisted the appearance of European settlers, anthropology, or natural history museums. The Field Museum’s new policies regarding community engagement now include making artifacts available to Native American artisans so that they can examine in detail, for instance, how certain ceremonial capes and other significant garments and objects are put together. But such a policy requires that these contemporary Indigenous makers travel to Chicago to visit artifacts that arguably belong in tribal and reservation museums, or even in personal Native American collections. Such a policy prompts one to ask how tradition comes to be interrupted in the first place and to question the palliative policy of allowing people to visit their heritage in order to reestablish or strengthen traditions they have a right not only to visit but to reclaim. Essentially, those who claim the authority to know how best to preserve or salvage other people’s cultures and who assume the responsibility to take care of what remains are taking a paternalistic position.
What room does salvage anthropology leave for the transformation and updating of tradition? Not much. To salvage and display objects from cultures that are being destroyed is to relegate those cultures to the past, as if they are no longer capable of growth, as if they have always been ancient or prehistoric. Customs are not as static as we may believe. All cultural groups reinvent and renew customs and practices in response to the particular needs of the times. Chicago, for example, has one of the largest urban Native American populations in the country, with members of more than 100 tribal nations living here. According to the website of the city’s American Indian Center, the oldest urban Indian center in the country, it serves approximately “65,000 American Indians [living] in Chicagoland’s six-county region.” That the Field Museum’s hall has not historically addressed this vibrant population and its ongoing cultural value, at least not until very recently, is indicative of how Native American cultures are only seen to exist as part of a pre-European settler past.
Viewing the disheveled collection might lead one to ask, whom does the Native North American Hall represent? At first glance, the obvious answer might be the original owners of these arranged artifacts. Clearly, large museums are complex organizations emerging from multiple and even competing perspectives, making it impossible to determine or even formulate a single coherent vision. Nevertheless, museums do establish and reflect prevailing beliefs and sensibilities, including the hidden and not-so-hidden biases that shape how we define, imagine, and evaluate those people we see as different. The objects and cultural artifacts that have been collected and displayed enhance the prestige and advance the worldview of the institutions that do the collecting and displaying. Such exhibitions reflect the assumptions and intentions of the organizers as much as the presumed assumptions of the expected audience (in the Field’s case, close to two million visitors in 2017). Whomever the hall represents (collectors, curators, or some anticipated audience), the producers of these objects have historically had little say in any part of the process. Could such a place ever feel welcoming to Native North Americans?
At the same time, the renovation of the hall has opened up a field of possibilities beyond simply changing out artifacts. The contemporary art exhibition, Drawing on Tradition, on display in the Native North American Hall though January 21, was organized by the museum in collaboration with contemporary Native American artist Chris Pappan. The exhibition, part of the museum’s campaign to reform its relation to outmoded and racist styles of anthropology, acts as something of a historical intervention by providing an example of what role the artist can play in bringing attention to natural history museums and their histories, as well as to larger social issues connected to the forceful removal of Native Americans and the violent resettlement of North America. Pappan uses several types of media—paintings and drawings, installations directly on the glass of the vitrines, and video and sound work—to engage in direct dialogue with the hall. His Kaw, Osage, and Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe heritage informs the work, which revolves around the traditional practice of ledger art. This Plains Indian practice of narrative drawing began on hides, bones, and rocks thousands of years ago and was eventually adapted to paper with the arrival of non-Native traders, government agents, missionaries, and military officers who carried ledger books and other record-keeping paper during their expeditions. This history situates ledger art as a dynamic creative practice that relied on traditional approaches of storytelling updated to meet the demands of the times and the availability of new materials. Pappan carries forward the practice of adapting tradition, showing how vibrant the result can be when undertaken in a critical yet faithful manner.
This can be seen in his drawings and paintings, which feature digital-adjacent processes like skewing, solarizing, mirroring, and stretching. Pappan’s distorted figures and objects, which operate in relation to the distorting outsider’s lens, vacillate between historic personalities, mundane objects, and myth. Anna’s Spirit (2014) uses delicate graphite lines, inkjet printing, and map collage on ledger paper to memorialize Anna Brown. Brown was one of the first victims of the infamous Osage Indian murders of the 1920s precipitated by the discovery of oil on the Osage reservation in Oklahoma. In Pow Wow Chair, ca. 1980 (2016), Pappan lovingly renders foldinglawn chair with intricate precision using acrylic and collaged fragments of maps. In the wall panel explaining the work, Pappan writes, “When you go to a powwow, you put your folding chair down, and that’s your area and people know where to find you . . . It’s temporary and portable, like everything in life for the Plains people.” For the exhibition, which is meant to prompt viewers to question the nature of the vitrines and displays, Pappan has also produced a series of large-scale semitransparent prints that are adhered directly to the glass of the display cases. Some of the prints feature enlarged duplicates of Pappan’s graphic works, others feature images from historic ledger art found in the museum’s collection, and still others feature fragments of maps—especially maps related to Indian removal, which speak to complex feelings of dislocation and layered understandings of home.
To guide his artistic process, Pappan started with a long period of research, visiting the museum and its archives routinely. The semitransparent prints offer a critical image to reflect on while partially blocking the viewer’s ability to gaze freely at the displayed artifacts behind the glass. Pappan’s transparencies function to literally interrupt what would otherwise be a smooth looking experience. The thoughtful planning of the exhibition particularly shines through in the pairing of Pappan’s contemporary ledger art with works by one of the most prolific and well known turn-of-the-century ledger artists, Silver Horn. A member of the Kiowa, a Plains tribe in the Oklahoma region, Silver Horn produced thousands of works on paper throughout the late 1800s and early 1900s. One of the key works in the exhibition that exemplifies the idea of drawing on tradition while simultaneously updating it is a mixed-media work by Pappan titled Hero Mythologies (2016). The graphite and acrylic work is drawn, collaged, and painted on ledger paper from 1907 and presents a modernized visual narrative of the Split Boys story. The story begins with a Kiowa woman climbing up a tree to the sky world, where she meets the Son of the Sun with whom she has a child. One day she decides to return to earth and lowers a rope. The Son of the Sun hits her with a stone, killing her. The child is found alive and cared for by an old Spider Woman. When the child is older, he plays with a hoop. He throws it up, and when it comes down it splits the boy in two. The two boys go on to have many adventures together. Eventually one of the boys disappears and the other splits himself into ten pieces or bundles, which are are considered sacred objects for the Kiowa people. Near Pappan’s interpretation of that tale is a digital touch screen displaying the same story told by Silver Horn. The two versions resonate and reverberate in a way that challenges many of the assumptions operating in the Native North American Hall. Pappan enlivens the story for a contemporary audience.
Also included in the exhibition is a video installation projected high above the artifacts and displays. It is large enough to be seen as one enters the hall from the museum’s atrium. Here, Pappan collaborated with photojournalist Adam Sings in the Timber and photographer Debra Yepa-Pappan, as well as with musician Santiago X. The video’s soundtrack loops and echoes throughout the space, a slow electronic beat mixing occasionally with audio captured during a 1983 powwow in Macy, Nebraska. The installation continues to update and redefine the notion of ledger art, this time by digitally superimposing portraits of contemporary Native American folks over early moving image footage credited to Thomas Edison. The digitally altered video samples the well-known Buffalo Dance film originally made in 1894. Regarded as one of the earliest films made of Native Americans, it depicts Hair Coat, Parts His Hair, and Last Horse dancing in a circle with several other people in the background. The three Lakota warriors, once performers for Buffalo Bill’s Wild West Show, now dance to a digitally produced electronic beat and are intermittently punctuated by powerful portraits made of Native Americans by Native Americans.
It is fitting, given how often Native American stories are told by non-Natives, to end this account of the clash of cultural histories by quoting the artist. “We will not be relegated to the past nor be considered mere victims of historical trauma,” Pappan writes in the exhibition wall text. “We are a thriving people, and we have not abandoned the things that make us unique in the world. Our culture isn’t stagnant, it changes with the times and is a living thing.” v