NEW YORK — When he first visited the American Museum of Natural History, Morgan Guerin had a list. Not things he wanted to check, though – a list of things he hated.
It started with seeing some insignia of his Musqueam Indian band – sacred items not intended for public display – in the museum’s northwest coast room.
It was not just any visit. Guerin was there at the museum’s invitation in 2017 for the start of a project to renovate the room, incorporating Indigenous perspectives. For him and representatives of other Indigenous communities in the Pacific Northwest and western Canada, the five-year, $19 million renovation of Northwest Coast Hall, which reopened to the public on Friday, was the opportunity to tell their own stories.
“Our people are very, very tired of being ‘studied’ because the misconception of who we are has always been the downfall of the outside community,” he said. “We’ve always been there, ready to tell people who we are.”
The room was the museum’s first gallery, opened in 1899 under the auspices of Franz Boas, an anthropologist deeply interested in the native cultures of northwest and west coast Canada. Boas was also a proponent of what was then a revolutionary idea: that different cultures should be considered in their own right and not on some sort of comparative scale.
However, the room had remained largely unchanged since the early 1900s. When museum officials decided it was time to renovate, they knew they couldn’t do it without the contributions of people whose cultures are exposed.
“A lot of what we’ve done has been to try to bring this historic collection into the 21st century, and that’s telling new stories with active voices in all of these communities and nations,” said Lauri Halderman. , vice-president of the exhibition.
The museum brought together representatives from indigenous communities to discuss what the gallery should contain and what it should look like for the showcase of 10 Pacific Northwest tribal nations.
It was not a simple process, made even less simple by the impact of the pandemic, which forced remote rather than in-person collaborations.
“We had to figure that out as we went along. … It’s hard work,” Halderman said. “But I think it was validated beyond expectation when everyone came up and said how proud they were.”
The room features iconic pieces that anyone who has been to the museum will remember, including a 63ft long canoe which for decades was placed outside the room but has now been brought in and hung from the ceiling with several giant sculptures.
The exhibits are accompanied by texts in English and Indigenous languages, and the room includes a gallery section showing how young Indigenous artists use patterns and designs from previous generations. There is also a video with people talking about the tribes past and their concerns in the present.
There remains the fundamental question of whether museums should hold these collections and try to tell these stories in the first place, given the role that theft and colonization have played in their construction and the way that indigenous communities have been treated.
The museum continues to wrestle with the issue, said Peter Whiteley, curator of North American ethnology. He said the institution, which has repatriated objects over the years, decided during the renovation process that it was willing to carry out limited additional repatriations and develop greater collaboration between the museum and the tribes. native.
Members of Indigenous Nations and museum staff who participated in the process said it showed what was possible in terms of listening to Indigenous voices.
“The best thing about it… is that it’s our voice speaking,” said David Boxley, representing the Tsimshian Tribe.