Lessons from Denver

The Denver Art Museum (DAM as it is affectionately known) has recently reopened their Native American Art section after a seven-month closure.  Why?  So they could attribute the names of actual makers to the pieces they made.  Could a slow and steady movement be catching on?  Are we finally moving away from the old methods of ethnographic presentation or simple art historical approaches to displaying Native art?  Will I have to find something else to harp on during my blogs?  One would hope so.


Let’s shift focus on what others are doing and talk a little about our own identification projects here at Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki.  Seminole material culture has certainly not been spared from the scourge of ethnographic collection and display.  Hundreds if not thousands of objects in our own collection have incomplete records of who made certain items.  Even many of the faces within the hundreds of postcards in our collection are nameless while the non-Indian photographers are celebrated as noble recorders of history.  It’s time to take the anonymity out of the Museum whenever it’s possible. 


Here at the Museum we try to attribute the names of the makers and owners of the object in our collections.  We also make a point of identifying the people in historical pictures.  This has not always been the case as shoddy collection practices were prevalent until relatively recently.  That’s why we are making the addition of artist/maker names to as many objects as we can in the Permanent Artifact Collection (dolls, baskets, beadwork, ect.) a priority.  During the next few years we also plan on researching and writing biographies of the Seminole artists in our Fine Art Collection.

Osceola Wearing an American Flag by Seminole artist, Noah Billie.

I think we are off to a good start but we have a long way to go before we can claim any real accomplishment.  Through our community contacts we were able to get some Tribal seniors to visit the Museum and identify the makers of some of our ethnographic collections, such as dolls and baskets.  In August of 2009 the museum took possession of the Boehmer Collection of Photographs.  This collection of photographs may be one of largest visual records of the Seminole Tribe from the 1930s thru the 1960s.  While many of the people in the photos were identified before we received them there were a few faces researchers and our staff couldn’t recognize.  The community was again helpful in identifying their friends and relatives.

Collections staff meets with Tribal elders to identify individuals in photographs during an advisory tour in April of 2010.

Of course the best way to ensure these kinds of things occur is by ensuring Tribal members are involved in every aspect of their museum.  I’ll be the first to admit we don’t always hold fast to those ideals but in the last two years the Museum has begun to cultivate community with Tribal members so we can gather as much information as possible on the rich and vibrant Seminole culture by connecting the past with a contemporary population of Seminoles.  I would personally like to see more museums take a proactive approach by applying these principles.  Together with other members of the international museum network we can move our organizations to new levels of distinction while gaining credibility amongst the communities we claim to represent.


Jonathan McMahon


Author: Jonathan McMahon

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

2 thoughts on “Lessons from Denver”

  1. Congratulations on your efforts to attribute your art. I hope working with Seminole elders yielded amazing results!

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