A Place to Learn in the Post-Colonial Era

…non-Natives, including curators and other scholars, cannot themselves adequately represent the views of others and should no longer try. What they can do however is report on those views and provide better opportunities for people to represent themselves within the established museum context, through collaboration, joint curatorships, commissioned programs and exhibitions, and other forms of, empowerment.

Michael Ames 1992

The task of writing this week’s blog has fallen on me, Jonathan McMahon, the content guy.  So, for my first foray into our electronic institution I wanted take a moment to be a little reflective; not just on the museum, but also my experiences in the museum field.  Sit back, relax if you can, and read a little on the cultural history that led to the birth of the Ah-Ta-Thi-Ki Museum.

Now allow me to pontificate for a bit.  None of this is new for most of you but here’s a little refresher.  For almost 500 years, the indigenous peoples of the Americas suffered at the hands of colonizing Western powers.  Two continents and hundreds of islands in the Caribbean, the Atlantic, and the Pacific were home to countless cultures in the Americas before the disease, greed, and religion of the European empire builders came to seek their fortunes.  Travelers began collecting American Indian objects as examples of material culture, which were used to paint a mental image that often either villainized or romanticized native peoples.

So of course museums came to the rescue, right?  WRONG!  Museums were the worst offenders.  They were places where glorified cabinets of curiosity became the trophy houses of the elite “gentleman explorers” of Western states.   The early museums portrayed “culture” as a coherent, monolithic, and static system that paid insufficient attention to the way ideas and meanings were rooted in relations of power and the practical tasks of daily life.  Chances are your favorite museums were (or maybe still are) guilty of these.  Few museums were representing cultural descendants in a contemporary context, instead focusing on their historic and prehistoric past, which in turn supported negative stereotypes and misconceptions which manifest themselves in the outdated and racist notions of “authenticity” and “primitivism” as Phillip Cash Cash argued in 2001:

Traditional Arts Coordinator and Tribal Member, Pedro Zepeda, shares knowledge of his Seminole culture at the Ringling College or Art and Design.

At sites where cultures intersect, such as museums, the mobilization of meaning and ritual expression often loom larger than life when originating cultures assert claims of authenticity and authority over objects.  More often than not, these indigenous claims are counter hegemonic since they often arise out of lived cultural realities that exist outside the boundaries of the museum. As a result, the exclusive domains of property, representation, and control that constitute the common, everyday functions of the museum are directly challenged, thus calling into question traditional museum policies and practice.

Feeling guilty?  Don’t.  Even though the European colonizers dictated the cultural narrative and the colonized cultures were all too often sidelined as others told their story things are changing.  In recent decades a new tide surged onto America’s shores when indigenous people began speaking out and writing their stories, their histories, in their own words.  It was during this post-colonial period when Billy Cypress began his mission to create a museum for the unconquered but still marginalized Seminole Tribe of Florida.  This museum became the only one to feature the Florida Seminole voice above all others.  As the Tribe’s fortunes have shifted in an era when political and public opinion is shaped by biased sensationalism, it continues to be of the utmost importance for the Tribe to tell their own story. 

I am the first to admit that even this museum has been responsible of a few missteps (lacking contemporary Seminole views, less focus on modern and contemporary Native art, celebrating the exploitation of the Tribe by non-Native scholars and artists) but recent progress has been made in the forward momentum and improvement of our institution.  In the last few months the Interpretive Plan Committee has been meeting with Seminole Tribal advisory groups in an attempt to resolve these issues. 

The late Billy Cypress (right) reviews construction plans for the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum

As a non-Native employee, it is my duty to help facilitate the mission of the Tribe’s former museum director and help the Seminole Tribe tell its own story.  Whether I am performing a boring task such as looking something up in a book to include in a text panel, or loftier projects such as organizing meetings within the various Seminole communities to determine our exhibit and program topics, I am but a humble and temporary employee of the tribe because, as some dead white guy once said, “Who controls the past controls the future. Who controls the present controls the past.”  Let’s just hope the right people are telling the story.

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Author: Jonathan McMahon

Research Coordinator at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum

One thought on “A Place to Learn in the Post-Colonial Era”

  1. Coming from a South African frame of reference this article seems particularly pertinent and relevant.I am glad countries other than South Africa are making these important changes.

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