The West Chester University Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology’s newest exhibition, “Earth Day at 50: Lessons for a Sustainable Future,” focuses on past and present environmental activism both nationally and locally, the reality of the current global climate crisis and sustainable practices for a livable future. In this exhibit, the student co-curators display artwork by contemporary indigenous artist-activists such as Jaida Grey Eagle, Christi Belcourt, Isaac Murdoch and the Onaman Collective.
According to the WCU Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology’s website, this exhibit “highlights Indigenous environmental protests and movements,” and thankfully, I was able to have a conversation with two of the displayed native artists, Grey Eagle and Murdoch. I talked to them about their stances on the acquisition and exhibition of native art within the museum.
The museum, as an institution, is historically colonial. Some say museums sprouted from early princely displays called “cabinets of curiosities,” which were cabinets filled with colonial objects retrieved or stolen from faraway lands. These cabinets were symbols of wealth for people who displayed these artifacts to their visitors.
The institution of the “museum” has a past directly tied to imperialism. Objects within museums were potentially stolen or unrightfully claimed from nations under colonial rule. A modern example of this would be collections within the British Museum. The British Empire once reached all corners of the globe, and they stole a lot of culturally important objects from their colonies. For example, the British Museum owns sculptures taken from the Parthenon in Greece, and while the Grecian government has asked for these objects to be repatriated, the British Museum will not return them. Does the British Museum own a right to these objects? I would say no.
American anthropological museums share a similar past to that of the British Museum. We continue to display artifacts that were potentially illegally or coercively obtained through colonialism, especially native artifacts and ceremonial objects.
I asked Murdoch, a contemporary indigenous artist of the Serpent River First Nation, if he believes that ceremonial objects should continue to be displayed in museums.
“No, I think that they should be displayed by being used. I don’t think that ceremonial objects should be in museums; I think that they should go to the people who are the rightful stewards of those items,” Murdoch stated.
He believes that these items should be viewed in their rightful context, which often is in ceremony.
“I think that museums have taken away a very important component to the ceremonial imagery of our people, and that’s actually being together as people. For example, many years ago we would make ceremonial images, and it was a really sacred thing for us… [These] images were prayed to — they had meaning — and it involved a lot of prayer and ceremony, and that’s something you don’t see in a museum.”
He said that putting ceremonial art into a gallery or a museum “is taking people off the land and into contemporary colonial spaces, into this other world that’s not even real.”
When I spoke to Jadia Grey Eagle, an Oglala Lakota artist and photojournalist who recently spoke to the West Chester University community, on whether ceremonial art should be displayed in museums, she said that “older art needs to be repatriated to communities [because] a lot of those objects have been stolen.”
Grey Eagle said she will not hold a relationship with museums that have ceremonial objects and are not looking to repatriate them.
Representation of indigenous people within galleries, and the broader media, is important. Grey Eagle spoke to me about how “when [she] was younger, there was very little to no representation of indigenous creatives and journalists creating work representing their communities and their people [and a lot of the representation that was available] was always focusing on people going through afflictions, like drugs, alcohol or poverty… and that really affected [her] self-esteem quite a bit.”
The media representation wasn’t the world that Grey Eagle witnessed when she went back home. “I saw ceremonies that have lasted since time immemorial, witnessed language that’s older than this government, and in that in itself is so beautiful. My life back home was really beautiful. It was about food, family, ceremony and coming together in community.”
For Grey Eagle, there was a dichotomy of media representation of her people and Grey Eagle’s own understanding of who her people are.
Representation matters, and representation within galleries and museums matter, what objects are being displayed and supported within galleries and museums and who makes those decisions.
A common thread in my conversations with Grey Eagle and Murdoch involved how museums should repatriate ceremonial objects while simultaneously supporting contemporary indigenous artists; selling their art is how contemporary native artists support themselves.
For Murdoch, displaying his art in a gallery is “not the preferred way of conveying our art. We want our art in somebody’s home or out on the frontline. We want our art in ceremony. We want our art on our bodies — in so many different places, other than a gallery.”
However, the upside of displaying native art in galleries is the ability to transform someone who sees it. Murdoch said “My art is in galleries, and I think that there is a chance that people can see my art and [that it] can inspire them for change… motivate them for change, to think differently or feel different. That’s a plus. It’s not the preferred way for people to experience ceremonial imagery, but at the same time, it’s better than goddamn nothing. There are some people who have gone into galleries and come out completely changed… so it does serve a purpose in a gallery, where it is always controlled by white males. These galleries that display indigenous art never are really controlled by indigenous people.”
Within the WCU Museum of Anthropology and Archaeology, the goal was to elevate and raise awareness of indigenous activism. For example, the student co-curators asked the artists which art they would like to display in the exhibit and to give guest lectures to coincide with the art. There were efforts made to make sure the indigenous perspective was represented in this exhibit, and their hope was to present a perspective that has been lost in mainstream media.
Emily Rodden is a fourth-year student majoring in anthropology. ER871398@wcupa.edu