Out With the Old, In With the New: Interpreting Culture in the 21st Century Museum

“…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.” (1992, Ames) 

Hi all. Saul here, talking about interpretation. One of the main challenges for most museums is how to interpret culture. Too often the stories in museums were told by curators, collectors and “experts” not of the cultural groups being represented. The result is a skewed version of the cultural whole and is portrayed to the typical museum visitor in a static manner, a “snap shot in time.”  What is not taken into account is the deep cultural significance of objects on display and in some instances sensitive cultural objects have been proudly displayed much to the chagrin of the associated culture. This is institutional colonialism in its purest form. To compound the issue, few museums consulted with or showed contemporary issues of cultural groups that still exist. Instead, the focus centered on the cultural groups romanticized past which conveyed the same stereotypes they have worked so hard to refute. 

This is not an article bent on bashing so many museums that are guilty of this antiquated version of cultural representation. This is an attempt to shed light on a ground swelling movement within the interpretive community at large, and impacts culturally specific museums in particular. The movement is called “Community Co-curation” and it involves community members in every aspect of the exhibits development process from conceptualization to fabrication. As a result, the community is fully invested in the outcome of the project, which leads to more credible interpretation. It also results in community empowerment, giving a strong voice to cultural groups who were once marginalized by museum representation. Community Co-curation is not a new methodology but as the old guard of museum elites gives way to a younger generation of museum professionals, it is gaining significant traction.

There are institutions and individuals who have built models of successful Community Co-curation that we must take into account. The Wing Luke Museum of the Asian American Experience in Seattle has become a national model for their community-based exhibition processes. In 1995, the Museum received the Institute for Museum and Library Services National Award for Museum Service on the strength of its cutting edge work in fostering broad-based participation in the development of exhibitions and programs.

 With each exhibition, The Wing Luke brings many community members into the development process, and integrates oral histories and a range of multimedia techniques into its displays. Upon subsequent conversations, Cassie Chin, Deputy Executive Director of the Wing Luke Museum stresses three tenants all museums must abide by to create sustainable relationships through Community Co-curation.

Interpretive tour at the Wing Luke Museum (Tim Bies/Olson Kundig Architects)

Cassie states:

1.)    Emphasize long-term relationships. We’re not going away and will continue to work in this model, building relationships with the many communities over time. So even if right now we are working with one specific community, in the future there will be many other opportunities.

2.)    Look for ways to connect on multiple levels. While we may be just working with a handful of communities on exhibitions in a certain year, we also try to work with other communities on public programs and special projects to be able to continue that valuable relationship building.

3.)    Feature both thematic exhibitions and group specific exhibitions. At times we have exhibitions that hone in on one specific ethnic group. At other times we have thematic exhibitions that cross over many groups and provide opportunities for groups to come together, share and build exhibitions together. Thematic exhibitions allow us to build and maintain relationships with more groups that if we were just focusing on one group. Periodic group specific exhibitions however also allow us to go in deeper with a specific community.

Jeremy Spoon, Assistant Professor of Anthropology at Portland State University has done community collaborative work on a global scale. His projects include working with native groups in Nepal, Kenya, Hawai’i and the Western United States.  His cutting edge work attempts to step beyond a static ethnographic description of cultural groups in relation to interpreting ancestral landscapes and focuses on indigenous ecological and cultural knowledge to support area management and interpretation. His approach includes context which incorporates ecology, politics and economics of a particular area at a

particular point in time. Spoon’s model is also flexible to the point of accounting for the inevitable process of adaptation and change natural to any people-land relationship.

Dancers from Hawai'i and the Bay Area in Keolalaulani Hālau offer a tribute to Pele in Hawai'i Volcanoes National Park. (Alohalani Alapai)

 

The case study most applicable for museum interpretation is the Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) Cultural Representation at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. This project examined public responses to an interpretive exhibit developed in collaboration among a committee of Native Hawaiian elders, National Park staff, the Mountain Institute, the Hawai’i Tourism Authority, the Volcano Art Center, and the Ford Foundation. The exhibit included 67 paintings at three separate venues of the volcano goddess Pele selected by the committee of elders. Spoon’s research utilized a sample of 217 quantitative and qualitative surveys to gauge public response. Results showed that the public is overwhelmingly supportive of indigenous-themed and Community Co-curated interpretive exhibits and is interested in learning more. Most importantly,  Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) were also satisfied with the project and are interested in collaborating more with the Park’s interpretive program. Spoon’s findings were presented back to the Park and inform the development of future exhibits.

By examining the examples presented we must do our self reflexive duty and ask: Where does the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum fit within the spectrum of Community Co-curation? It is our job as employees of the Seminole Tribe of Florida to tap into and tailor our activities at the Museum to reflect and/or incorporate many tribal partners. I feel that we are meeting this priority to a certain extent. However, it is imperative that we do better! One positive step we are taking is instituting a museum wide Interpretive Plan. This plan will include internal tribal stakeholders who will act in a decision making capacity which will help us formulate our interpretive methodology. Another step we are taking is focused on Community Co-curation in the exhibits development process. In 2012 we will rededicate a temporary museum gallery space to Community Co-curated exhibits exclusively. These exhibits will include tribal members in all phases of the decision making process from conception to fabrication.

These ideas, amongst others, have incredible potential for building internal tribal partnerships and thus strengthening the Museum as a whole. The future looks bright if we accept the challenge of properly interpreting culture in the 21st century museum.

The case study most applicable for museum interpretation is the Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) Cultural Representation at Hawai’i Volcanoes National Park. This project examined public responses to an interpretive exhibit developed in collaboration among a committee of Native Hawaiian elders, National Park staff, the Mountain Institute, the Hawai’i Tourism Authority, the Volcano Art Center, and the Ford Foundation. The exhibit included 67 paintings at three separate venues of the volcano goddess Pele selected by the committee of elders. Spoon’s research utilized a sample of 217 quantitative and qualitative surveys to gauge public response. Results showed that the public is overwhelmingly supportive of indigenous-themed and Community Co-curated interpretive exhibits and is interested in learning more. Most importantly,  Kanaka Maoli (Native Hawaiians) were also satisfied with the project and are interested in collaborating more with the Park’s interpretive program. Spoon’s findings were presented back to the Park and inform the development of future exhibits.

By examining the examples presented we must do our self reflexive duty and ask: Where does the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum fit within the spectrum of Community Co-curation? It is our job as employees of the Seminole Tribe of Florida to tap into and tailor our activities at the Museum to reflect and/or incorporate many tribal partners. I feel that we are meeting this priority to a certain extent. However, it is imperative that we do better! One positive step we are taking is instituting a museum wide Interpretive Plan. This plan will include internal tribal stakeholders who will act in a decision making capacity which will help us formulate our interpretive methodology. Another step we are taking is focused on Community Co-curation in the exhibits development process. In 2012 we will rededicate a temporary museum gallery space to Community Co-curated exhibits exclusively. These exhibits will include tribal members in all phases of the decision making process from conception to fabrication.

American Association of Museums accreditation award to Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum in 2009

 

 

Bibliography

1992, Michael Ames. Cannibal Tours and Glass Boxes: The Anthropology of Museums. UBC Press, Vancouver B.C.

Cool websites

www.wingluke.org

http://jeremyspoon.com/

Food for Thought

The Participatory Museum by Nina Simon

http://www.participatorymuseum.org/

 

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From Surviving to Thriving: An Everglades Economy- Exhibit Opening

 

On Saturday October 30th from 1:30-4 p.m. the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum will be having an exhibit opening reception for the Surviving to Thriving: An Everglades Economy exhibit. The festivities kick off around 1:30 p.m. with guided behind the scene tours of the museums and the collections with our collections staff, RSVP required. At 2 p.m. We will gather in the museum’s orientation theater for a key note address by Craig Tepper, Director of Environmental Resource Management for the Seminole Tribe of Florida.

Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Collection # 2001.3.4

 

After the keynote address, guests will be able to tour the new exhibit. Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum staff will be on hand to answer questions and provide valuable insight. Guest will then be free to tour the rest of the Museum or go directly out to our boardwalk area where hors d’oeuvers and refreshments will be served till 4 p.m. Please join us in the celebration!

How Does the Third Place fit into Exposing, Understanding and Unlearning?

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.

“Steven Ross,” a black-and-white photograph by Shan Goshorn,

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.

Commercial and promotional objects featuring Native people and imagery are part of an exhibit by Shan Goshorn

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.

The Evolution of an Exhibit

            There is a perception by many museum visitors that museum exhibits are static, unchanging, frozen in time. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Museum exhibits can evolve! The end point of a museum exhibit, or what a visitor sees, is only a small part of the journey. In this article I would like to highlight the process and the transformative steps our most recent exhibit Postcards and Perceptions: Culture as Tourism has undergone.

The Big Idea

            The process of creating the Postcards and Perceptions: Culture as Tourism exhibit was atypical due to the fact that the postcards idea had already been exhibited in the past. The decision to refurbish the exhibit was an interesting one. Usually exhibits do not revisit the same theme and if they do, a significant amount of time must have already

passed. Upon revisiting the subject matter it was revealed that we could create some incredibly interesting storylines that the first exhibit did not touch upon.       

            The original exhibit was called: Seminoles Look Back: Our People in Postcards and was featured in the later part of 2005 and most of 2006. In the original curatorial statement it was revealed that since the museum has such an extensive collection of postcards (over 600) they only had time to scratch the surface of this interesting topic. Most of the original exhibit dealt with the craft and history of postcards, the photographers who captured the original images and the tribal members who were most prominently featured in postcards of the time period. The exhibit also displayed historical dress from the museum’s permanent collection which was actually depicted in the postcards. In many ways this exhibit was successful and it effectively displayed a segment of the museums collection with great historical value.

The Re-creation

            When re-creating a previously well done and popular exhibit it is extremely important not to fall into a few traps, for example: How do we create new and fresh storylines when using previously exhibited material?…and…How can we change the exhibit design and layout to make it even more exciting than the last? The first thing we had to do was revisit the previous exhibit and ask ourselves what subjects did the previous exhibit not cover. This involved sifting through the postcards used in the exhibit, then going back through the postcards we had in the collection. The long and somewhat tedious process eventually started to reveal an obvious theme.

            Most of the postcards depicted Seminoles in tourist camps which were popular in the early to mid part of the 20th century. Building upon the tourist camp idea, we took it a step further to examine how Seminole identity was being portrayed, revealed and changed through the medium of postcards. When examining the literature of the time period, what also becomes apparent is that there was some definitive perceptions of Seminoles and American Indians in general placed upon them by the popular culture of early 20th century America. Most often, depictions of American Indians at this time was unflattering, an unfortunate circumstance of minority relations with the population at large. On the flip side, the tourist camps provided an economic opportunity for the Seminoles. Over time, Seminole entrepreneurs purchased, owned and promoted their own tourist camps. Today the Seminole Tribe of Florida enjoys economic success and political independence. These roots stem from the experiences, struggles and opportunities of the tourist camps.

            Exhibit design and layout is also a key factor in attracting the visitor’s attention. To enhance the postcards theme we have incorporated details that we hope will appeal to the visitor. All text panels and labels will be styled in the likeness of either a postcard or a postage related theme. The actual postcards will be displayed on the wall in a scrapbook like collage. Adding color to postcards was a key selling point back in the early part of the 20th century. We wanted to do the same with the exhibit and create a colorful environment by adding banners and color to the exhibit walls. Visitor interaction is an incredibly important aspect to any exhibition. We have created a fun photo opportunity with a life size postcard. Visitiors can get their pictures taken and we hope they will friend us on Facebook and post their pictures to our site.  We have also created a visitor feedback area in which the visitor can make comments. The exhibit poses a question in the beginning: “How did the tourist camps effect Seminole identity?” Visitors are then asked to think about this question while touring the gallery. At the end the same question is posed. The intent is to get the visitor to formulate and comment on their conclusions at the feedback area.

 

Have Exhibit, Will Travel

            A branch of the Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum’s exhibits division is called STEP, an acronym for Seminole Traveling Exhibits Program. We are very excited about this program and it will allow us to create exhibits, available for rent to the museum public nationally. Sharing the Seminole story is vital and STEP allows us to share with a much wider museum audience. One of the intentions of Postcards and Perceptions: Culture as Tourism is to first, exhibit at our museum and secondly, transform it into a traveling exhibition. This also has posed some challenges when trying to develop, such as: When creating components, how do we take into account the rigors of travel?…and…How do we make this exhibit appeal to a wider audience?

            Considering the first issue, when developing this exhibit for travel we had to be flexible in the design elements. We also had to be flexible in the sense that some sensitive artifacts, included in the showing at our museum, could not be included into the traveling exhibit due to conservation concerns. This needed to be taken into account when creating the storylines. The goal was not to lose intent when an artifact had to be removed from the exhibit for travel. We also had to be able to tailor the exhibit spatially to meet other institutional needs. The exhibit is presented in sections and not in chronological progression. Telling the story in sections rather than sequentially allows other museums to be able to change the order of the sections or even subtract a section and not lose the original intent of the exhibit.

            The second issue we had to consider is that we had to broaden our storylines just a bit to be able to meet a wider audience. The exhibit is still focused on the Seminole Tribe of Florida. However, the social situations, opportunities, and obstacles the Seminoles faced are a microcosm of what Native Americans also faced during this time period. For any exhibit to be a successful traveling exhibit it has to be accessible to all audiences and fit in a myriad of institutions.

            The evolution of an exhibit is an exciting and a dynamic process! We hope you visit us and experience Postcards and Perceptions: Culture as Tourism. If you do, think about the journey the exhibit has taken to get to its present state. Who knows, it might even come to a museum near you!

Exhibits, Collaboration, and the Museum as the Third Space

Greetings, name is Saul and my title within the museum is Curator of Exhibits. But for anybody who has experience within the museum world knows that titles can be somewhat misleading. It might be more appropriate to list my title as Collaborator of Exhibits!

Greetings, name is Saul and my title within the museum is Curator of Exhibits. But for anybody who has experience within the museum world knows that titles can be somewhat misleading. It might be more appropriate to list my title as Collaborator of Exhibits! Throughout my professional career I have always tried to strive for collaboration. This approach incorporates the best of what museum professionals and partners have to offer.

 Collaboration is especially important when building exhibits. While, we have our own internal exhibits team, I consider all departments within the museum as contributors to the team. This concept is important for two reasons. First, it is essential to have most, if not all departments represented within a museum exhibit. Obviously collections and education elements are key, but aspects such as oral history, research coordination, marketing, development, traditional arts, and community outreach are also essential. Second, the more people involved in the development and ultimately the final product of an exhibit the better. When individuals feel that they have an important stake in the process the outcome will be that much stronger.

 Tribal museums are unique in the sense that most often they are located within and are an integral part of the tribal community. It is our job as employees of the Seminole Tribe of Florida to tap into and tailor our activities at the Museum to reflect and/or incorporate many tribal partners internally (Seminole Tribe) and externally (Native America). I feel that we meet this priority in numerous aspects of our museum projects. However, it is imperative that we do better! One Museum wide plan that we are working on is the Interpretive Plan, which I think has incredible potential for building internal tribal partners. Through this plan we are creating ideas to build an even stronger base of Tribal support and involvement when developing exhibits and programs. Another collaborative program that I am excited about is STEP (Seminole Travelling Exhibits Program). One of our goals is to share STEP with other tribal museums in a reciprocal or low cost manner. This is extremely important for building external collaborative relationships with other tribal museums across the country.

 I would also like to take a moment to comment on the changing face of museums, especially tribal museums in the 21st century. I first heard of the theoretical idea of museums and libraries as being a “Third Place” during a keynote address by the great museum thinker Elaine Heumann Gurian during a recent Florida Association of Museums conference. Elaine described this concept as neither work nor home, the Third Place is a neutral community space, where people come together voluntarily and informally in ways that level social inequities and promote community engagement and social connection. She cited Ray Oldenburg’s 1989 book The Great Good Place: Cafes, Coffee Shops, Bookstores, Bars, Hair Salons, and Other Hangouts at the Heart of a Community as the inspiration behind Third Place, and can be directly related to the idea of museums as civic space in her book Civilizing the Museum: The Collected Writings of Elaine Heumann Gurian. Both writings seek to explain the critical importance of these Third Spaces within a community and how socially engaged places strive to positively improve social relationships. I feel that the museum industry should trend towards the Third Place concept in the future, especially since all communities are becoming more fractionalized due to technological advancements. It will be important for museums to become increasingly active in the social engagement arena and to become the best alternative in the tech vs. human interaction divide. I believe emerging and established tribal museums are in a unique position to become Third Places. I also believe that entrenched and quite possibly dated notions of what museums are can be transformed to meet new and challenging concepts such as Third Place. However, as I stated before, it is imperative that we as museum professionals and institutional leaders have the wherewithal to incorporate new ideas and think outside the box!

Thanks for letting me bend your ear!

Food for thought:

“What would happen if we almost for the sake of argument said it is neither a library nor a museum, but it is a third place. Not just a third place, but a third force if you will. I think our institutions inevitably are going to be forces as well as places.”
Harold Skramstad, President Emeritus
(Henry Ford Museum and Greenfield Village)
(from Pastore 2009)

“Many subtle, interrelated, and essentially unexamined ingredients allow museums to play an enhanced role in the building of community and our collective civic life.” (Elaine Heumann Gurian 2001)

Join Us:

The Randle/ Sheffield Collection: Life Along the Tamiami Trail in the 1940’s and 1950‘s, Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum Big Cypress, July 17th 2009-January 18th 2010

Postcards and Perceptions: Culture as Tourism, Ah-Tah-Thi-Ki Museum Big Cypress February 12th 2010-November 28th 2010