Upon a recent conversation with some co-workers I recently learned about a provocative new exhibit that got me thinking about how the content within our museum affects our audience perception of Native American stereotypes and what steps we are taking to foster Native pride. The exhibit I am referring to is called “Reclaiming Cultural Ownership: Challenging Indian Stereotypes and was created by the noted artist Shan Goshorn of the Eastern Band of Cherokee. This particular exhibit features juxtaposed elements of stereotypical Native American imagery captured from everyday objects and photography of Native Americans by Goshorn. I believe the crux of the exhibit is threefold; to expose mainstream America’s conceptions of Native Peoples as potentially hurtful and wrong, to understand how this is a systemic issue in America, and to “unlearn” these conceptions.
The task of Exposing, Understanding and Unlearning behaviors placed on minority groups by mainstream American society is an incredibly complex undertaking. However, it is a task that is essential and should be championed by those groups being affected. Native American museums have an instrumental part to play in this. By creating content that is cognizant of these three issues they are doing their part to disseminate the proper information. As an example of a successful tribal museum the question is begged; is the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum willing to champion the triad of Exposing, Understanding and Unlearning. As I sit here writing this blog I can say the jury is still out. However, there is a silver lining.
In a previous blog post I highlighted a thought provoking keynote address about the Third Place by the great museum thinker Elaine Heumann Gurian. Elaine described the concept of the Third Place as a neutral community space, where people come together voluntarily and informally in ways that level social inequities and promote community engagement and social connection. I feel that the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum should embrace the Third Place concept. It will be important for our museum to become increasingly active in the social engagement arena because by doing this the triad concept of Exposing, Understanding and Unlearning will happen organically. If embraced, the Third Place will spark dialogue amongst tribal members and promote understanding between tribal members and non-tribal members alike. Over time the misconceptions and stereotypes that are still prevalent in the mainstream will become “unlearned.” As an example of a successful tribal museum, the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki is in a unique position to become a Third Place.
The challenge, when taking on weighty topics such as Third Place and Exposing, Understanding and Unlearning, is to change perceptions of what a museum is and what it can offer society. This is sometimes true amongst evened tenured museum people. However, I am the eternal optimist and believe that entrenched and antiquated notions of what museums are can be transformed to meet new and challenging concepts. It is imperative that we at the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki have the wherewithal to incorporate new ideas and to challenge the status quo.