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“Woke” Museums: Metropolitan’s Diker Display Fuels a Growing Debate on “Identity Politics”

In his Wall Street Journal review last week of the Metropolitan Museum’s provocative new installation, Art of Native America: The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection, veteran cultural journalist Edward Rothstein once again demonstrated a lack of tolerance for exhibitions of American Indian art that explore the societies’ injustices and hardships, rather than sticking with dispassionate scholarly analysis.

I, too, was disappointed by the Met’s installation, but for entirely different reasons. (More on that later.)

I had first clashed with Rothstein’s take on Native American displays in 2004, when we shot off warring reviews (his for the NY Times, mine for the Wall Street Journal) of the inaugural installation of the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) in Washington.

Rothstein’s WSJ appraisal last week of the Met’s Diker installation gave me traumatic flashbacks to our earlier skirmish. This time, he chastised the Met for “cloaking” its new year-long display “with the pride and resentments of identity politics.”

I guess it’s time for me to dust off some old arrows.

Apache artist, Quiver and Arrows, ca. 1875, on loan to the Met from Diker Collection
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Back in 2004, I had referred to our differences (without mentioning Ed by name) at the beginning of my WSJ assessment of the NMAI:

As an art museum, the Smithsonian Institution’s new National Museum of the American Indian is a failure. But as a museum limning the lives, beliefs and histories of diverse Native American tribes from the Arctic to South America, NMAI is a substantial success. Only by accepting this museum on its own terms can you appreciate the accomplishments of its staff and the “community curators” from 24 tribes who collaborated to tell their peoples’ stories from the inside.

If past is prologue, I shouldn’t have been surprised that Rothstein, now critic-at-large for the WSJ, objected in his review to the Met’s use, throughout its Diker display, of “quotes from Native historians and academics repeating familiar tropes without much illumination.”

Complaining about what he experienced as “a constant thrum of blame and self-celebration instead of scholarship,” he particularly objected to “the accompanying commentary [that] seems intent on unifying, not distinguishing, compressing 18 centuries and over 50 cultures into a single schema.”

According to Rothstein:

There is no way to conceptualize what we are looking at, either by tribe or culture….The museum makes no effort to shed light on important cultural distinctions [emphasis added].

The exhibition he describes is not the exhibition I saw: “Cultural distinctions” among tribes were elucidated in object labels throughout the Diker display, with pithy, informative analysis of what we were seeing. I thought the level of scholarship, which Rothstein found wanting, was up to the Met’s usual high standards.

Don’t take my word for it. The labels (and their related objects) eloquently speak for themselves:

Photo by Lee Rosenbaum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

You can’t have actually have read these labels and say that the show gives us “no way to conceptualize what we are looking at, either by tribe or culture.” Deeply informed and vividly descriptive, they bear the authoritative stamp of Gaylord Torrence, guest curator for the installation.

CultureGrrl readers may remember Torrence, the Nelson-Atkins Museum’s senior curator of American Indian Art, from my admiring 2010 WSJ review and blog post about the Kansas City museum’s sweeping reinstallation of its Native American collection, which he played a major role in assembling.

Gaylord Torrence
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Since Torrence’s labels were up to snuff in terms of scholarship, I’m guessing that what most irritated Rothstein were the regional section texts like the one below, which juxtapose curatorial commentary with italicized, polemical pronouncements from those whose cultures are on view:

As I did at the National Museum of the American Indian, I found it appropriate to approach these objects not only from the curatorial perspective, but also from the informed, if censorious, viewpoint of Native Americans themselves.

Speaking of the NMAI, here’s the Diker installation’s signature quote, from the director of that museum (one of many shuttered by the government shutdown):

Kevin Gover, director of the National Museum of the American Indian, as seen in his office overlooking the Capitol
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Interestingly, Rothstein did admire the NMAI’s long-term Americans installation, which doesn’t rely on that museum’s superlative collection, but assembles and interprets images of Native Americans by non-Natives. Go figure.

As it happened, Rothstein and I were on the same page in our reviews of another “identity”-driven display: In his January 2018 WSJ review of the Jewish Museum’s reinstallation of its permanent collection, Rothstein took that museum’s curators and director to task for being insufficiently attentive to Jewish identity—my “tribe” and, I believe, his. He faulted the museum’s stated objective of emphasizing “universal values that are shared among people of all faiths and backgrounds,” rather than elucidating Jewish beliefs and culture, as embodied in the objects.

Perhaps one tends to be more receptive to “identity” displays that relate to one’s own identity.

What disappointed me about the Met’s installation was not the interpretation of the objects, but the objects themselves. From what I’ve seen of the Diker Collection (selections from donations, promised gifts and loans to the Met), it doesn’t rise to the level of quality of leading Native American displays elsewhere—the NMAI, Nelson-Atkins, Denver Art Museum and Fenimore Art Museum (its Eugene Thaw Collection), to name a few.

To my eyes, some of the works already owned by the Met (notably those from the Ralph Coe and Nelson Rockefeller collections) are of greater interest and/or quality than the Diker holdings.

By stipulating that their works must always be shown in the Met’s American art galleries (not in its Rockefeller Wing where the other Native American objects are installed), the Dikers have not only underscored their defensible conviction that Native American art has more affinity with American art than with objects from Africa or Oceania; they’ve also evaded invidious comparisons to superb Native American objects displayed in the Met’s Rockefeller Wing, including these:

Northwest Coast 19th-century Headress Frontlets
Center: Gift from Ralph Coe Foundation
Left & Right: Bequests from Nelson Rockefeller Collection
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Northwest Coast Bent-Corner Dish (which held fish, whale or seal oil), ca. 1750-1800, on temporary loan from Fenimore Art Museum’s Thaw Collection
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum
George Walkus, Yagim Mask, 1920-25, Kwakwaka’wakw, British Columbia, gift of Ralph Coe Foundation
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

It remains to be seen how the Met will reconfigure and reinterpret its Native American collection when it completely overhauls and reimagines its Rockefeller Wing for the arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas, beginning in late 2020. The insistence that the Diker works remain in the American Wing hobbles curatorial prerogatives, in the not-so-grand tradition of Annenberg, Lehman, Linsky, Altman, Gelman, etc.—collectors who carved out distinct fiefdoms at the Met.

Sylvia Yount, head of the Met’s American Wing (whom CultureGrrl readers may remember from her time as American art curator at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts), told me that the Diker material will remain in its current gallery “for the next decade, with regular rotations of light-sensitive work.” Happily, the agreement with the Dikers does allow “the possibility of adding other Native American works from different collections to the display, as well as featuring related installations of Euro- and Native American works in dialogue.”

That’s already happening, with (for example) Standing Bear‘s monumental drawing of the defeat of Lt. Colonel George Custer‘s troops by Lakota Sioux and Cheyenne warriors, on view alongside paintings and bronzes of the American West:

Center: Standing Bear/ Mató Nájin (Minneconjou Lakota/Teton Sioux),
“The Battle of the Little Bighorn,” ca. 1920, Gift from
the Diker Collection
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

According to Yount:

Soon we will be transferring the Coe collection to the American Wing, as it roughly follows the same chronological parameters of the Diker collection and other artistic production in our department. Some Coe works may be displayed in other galleries in the Wing, in conversation with non-Native works….

The Rockefeller gifts of Northwest Coast material will remain in AAOA [Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas], as they’re part of that department’s foundational collection. We feel that featuring a range of Native American art—pre-colonial, historical, modern and contemporary—in different contexts at the Museum makes for a richer presentation, interpretation, and understanding.

What would truly “make for a richer presentation, interpretation, and understanding” would be to hire a staff curator with expertise in Native American Art—an urgent need, given the sweeping plans to reorganize the expanded collection. The Nelson-Atkins’ Torrence was guest curator not only for the Diker display but also for the Met’s 2015 “Plains Indians” exhibition.

“I am committed to hiring a full-time curator with an expertise in Native American art, as soon as it is institutionally possible,” Yount told me. “In the meantime, we are planning other partnerships with Native American scholars on future projects.”

Having no in-house expertise for an important aspect of its collection seems very un-Metlike.

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