an blog | AJBlog Central | Contact me

Do We Need To Reshuffle Native American Art Collections?

This decade may end up being the years of a great re-shuffling of art, with some museums — mostly in the U.S. — returning looted antiquities to the country in which they were found and, presumably, stolen, and others continuing to return Nazi-looted art that turned up in their collections. On the later score, The Guardian recently wrote about a promise by France to return seven paintings to the descendants of their owners, and today The Telegraph published an article about a new effort in France:

President Francois Hollande’s administration is setting up a group of experts and curators to pro-actively track down families, rather than simply waiting for them to come forward. The group, which will start work next month, will carry out its detective work with the help of a new computerised database compiled of digital scans of thousands of pages of relevant documentation currently gathering dust in archives.

hall-of-northwest-coast-indians_dynamic_lead_hero_imageIn a completely different area, I came up an article the other day with a new question: why is Native American art in the collections of natural history museums?

Written by Katherine Abu Hadal, a designer and researcher who is interested in Indian culture, the article was first published on her blog and then on Indian Country Today Media Network, it begins:

Natural history museums—they are all over the US and abroad too. They house amazing dinosaur fossils, exotic hissing cockroaches, and wondrous planetariums—right next to priceless human-designed art and artifacts created by Native peoples of the Americas.

Like me, you might wonder why these designed objects are juxtaposed with objects of nature such as redwood trees and precious metal exhibits. Yes, of course art is part of the natural world that we live in—but then, why are there no Picasso paintings or Degas sculptures on display in the American Museum of Natural History?

…When Native American, Pacific, and African art and artifact is lumped in with natural history exhibits, it sends a message that these groups are a part of the “natural” world. That the art they produce is somehow less cultured and developed than the western art canon. It also sends the message that they are historical, an element of the romantic past, when in reality these peoples are alive and well, with many traditions intact and new traditions happening all the time.

She raises some good points. It’s true, of course, that art museums collect Native American art — as they should. Natural history collections are a throwback in many ways, and they’ve had to adapt their displays as science has advanced. Shouldn’t they have to adjust to the now-prevailing view of Indian artifacts, that is – art?

No one likes to admit errors. And we can’t have museums reordering their collections with changing fashions all the time. But in this case, natural history museums could either sell or lend their Indian art collections to art museums.

That, at least, is what I think I think is the best answer to this problem.

Photo Credit: Hall of the Northwest Coast Indians, Courtesy of the American Museum of Natural History


  1. Perhaps the reaction against natural history museums is a bit “politically correct” and dismissive of the scholarship of previous generations. The anthropological approach to the study of indigenous peoples should not be seen as necessarily “lower” than an art historical approach. First Nations people themselves would prefer certain items to be returned to them. Iroqouis False Face masks, for example, are so sacred that they are not meant to be looked at, or photographed. Although we may appreciate their beauty, these artifacts were not seen as “art” within their own cultures, and were not intended for display. Seeing them in the context of other cultural artifacts, if we are to see them at all, might give us a deeper understanding of the power they held within their culture of origin. Perhaps it is a disservice to reduce them to “art.”

  2. (Please note: I meant that First Nations people would prefer the items returned to the tribes themselves.)

  3. Ultimately, a museum is mostly “about” how the collection was created. This could certainly be rethought; but (as LMP suggests) once the question becomes, “Where does this object really belong?”, the answer may well be “not in a museum” or “not in this country.” The intermediate issue is how institutions that already own both Native American “artifacts” and “fine art” should arrange their collections. Here in New England, the MFA, Peabody-Essex, and Yale Art Gallery have taken different approaches to the integration of Native American objects in their recent reorganizations.

    • Thanks for your comment. How would you characterize the three different approaches?

      • Yale’s renovated gallery stays with an updated version of the traditional “Art of the Ancient Americas” approach. The MFA retains that but also includes some North American native objects in its new American wing, which is arranged chronologically and mixes fine and decorative arts. PEM, which began as a natural history museum and cabinet of curiosities but has moved towards art, has made Native American art a major collecting focus, and is acquiring contemporary works in the field.

    • I think you hit the nail on the head when you say that a museum is largely about how it was created. And in the case of the AMNH it was created out of the anthropology school during a time when “culture” had a very different meaning than contemporary anthropologists idea of “culture.” Social scientists were rushing to preserve the primitive cultures and document fast disappearing ways of life. There was not much thought about these works as something which would be called “art” as it is defined in the western canon.

      However, as an art history student I do recall the study of the western art history does not begin in europe but in the middle east and egypt (after the stone age art is covered from around the world). I guess it seems inconsistent to me why egyptian “art” is taught as part of the western canon (in Janson’s-its been a few years since I’ve studied it so maybe this has changed in recent editions) when say other art (west african, turkish?) is not. It seems to me that the idea of the western art canon is a fabricated one based on our present day of what art is and where it originated. I understand that it is taught in this way to show that perhaps egyptian influenced greek and then roman, and so on. I just think that way of teaching it is not all that helpful for many reasons (which I will not state here for the sake of space).

      And going back to your comment, I think it is exactly an anthropological moment when we realize we cannot separate objects from the context in which they were created or procured-meaning that it is a real important problem about what to do with native American artifacts-these objects were procured in an unequal power relationship and displayed in a way which also communicates an unequal power relationship. I’m not saying I have the answer, I realize the scope of the problem and I am certainly not saying that the cultural museums are “low culture” in comparison to the fine art museums. I respect the curators greatly and I realize they do their best with the legacy they have been given and they are highly qualified people. Their job is the difficult one, I am just stirring the pot so to speak 🙂

  4. In Chapter 4 of ‘What Art Is’ Michelle Kamhi and I include a section on “American Indian Artifacts” which amplifies LMP’s comment: “American Indian artifacts [have] in recent years . . . received increasing attention under the rubric of ‘multiculturalism.’ As indicated by a major exhibition of the ‘art’ of the Plains Indians at the Minneapolis Museum of Art in the early 1990s, such work comprises artifacts of practical function—from clothing, storage bags, and tepees to the paraphernalia of warfare and ceremonial dance. . . .”

    Our section on Africa in the same chapter is devoted entirely to K. Anthony Appiah’s discussion of Asante goldweights in “The Arts of Africa” (New York Review of Books, April 24, 1997), an expanded version of the essay he wrote in 1995 for the catalogue of “Africa: The Art of a Continent,” an exhibition at the Guggenheim.

    As Appiah argues: “. . . quite often among these elegant objects [depicting such things as people, animals, plants, and tools], so obviously crafted with great skill and care, [there is] one that has a lump of unworked metal stuffed into a crevice. . . . or sometimes, a well-made figure has a limb crudely hacked off. These amputations and excrescences are there because, after all, a weight is a weight: and if it doesn’t weigh the right amount, it can’t serve its function. . . . Goldweights . . . have many of the features that we expect of works of art. . . . But in the end, as I say, they were weights: and their job was to tell you the value of the gold dust in the weighing pan.”

    Such reasoning, of course, applies to the artifacts of any culture, all of which, like the goldweights, have practical “jobs” to do. (Speaking of museum “re-shuffling,” doesn’t that pickled shark at the Met properly belong in the American Museum of Natural History?)

    Louis Torres, Co-Editor, Aristos (An Online Review of the Arts) and Co-Author, ‘What Art Is: The Esthetic Theory of Ayn Rand’ (2000)

    • Your points, worthy ones, seem to me to muddy the waters further. If your argument holds, then the clocks now on view at the Met, the Frick, etc. — not to mention the porcelain dishes, the musical instruments, the costumes — do not belong in art museums either, as you acknowledge. What applies in one culture applies in all, I think.

      But if this is an argument for stasis, I am not quite sure it’s a good one. A science museum would change an exhibit when something accepted in the past is disproven, wouldn’t it?

      • The term “art” in the Met’s full name, for example, is broadly understood to refer not just to “fine art” (which is what Appiah argued goldweights are not) but also to “decorative art” and “couture” (which has been defined as “the art of dressmaking and designing”). Thus such things as clocks, porcelain dishes, and costumes do belong in art museums. On that we agree! Since such matters are discussed at length in Chapter 11, “Decorative Art and Craft,” of ‘What Art Is’ (not Chapter 4, as I mistakenly indicated in my comment), I’ll leave it at that.

  5. Perhaps the concept that “what applies to one culture applies to all” only works in a culture of moral relativism like ours. Not every culture agrees that every other culture’s views are equally valid. Only a modern secular culture can accept that tenet. The museological treatment of objects which are considered sacred by still-living neolithic cultures cannot be compared to that of decorative objects and musical instruments created within the same western culture that puts the objects on display. We may accept a Fra Angelico hanging on a museum wall next to a Warhol (or not, but the right to disagree and the right to hang aa such are consistent with our western values)–but another culture would see this as sacriledge. How do we as secular westerners honor other cultures we claim to respect, if we insist on our very modern view that what applies to one culture applies to all? 

    • I must clafify what I meant by “What applies in one culture applies in all, I think” == I was speaking of the categorization only of objects with a utilitarian nature, as the examples I used show. Isn’t a clock a clock in all cultures? And a dish? Or a costume?

  6. The Metropolitan has an American Wing and a separate wing of the Arts of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas; Native American works are displayed in the latter only. If you were going to show Indian works in the American Wing, how would you decide which works to show? Even if you limited the choices to work created within the boundaries of the United States, you’d still have a stupendous variety to choose from. And how would you relate these items to what is mostly a collection of American oil paintings? (It seems like apples and oranges to me.) If the Indian objects are shown as merely esthetic objects, then their meaning will be lost; but to explicate their meaning would require extensive wall texts and turn them into something other than esthetic objects. It’s a puzzle, but I would be interested to see how the MFA handles it.

an ArtsJournal blog