Saturday, 1 February 2014

Seattle Art Museum pulls B.C. First Nation's mask from Super Bowl wager

Seattle Art Museum pulls B.C. First Nation's mask from Super Bowl wager | CTV News 

Here is another example of  cultural misappropriation by another museum in America. Anthropologists and many museums have spent many years building relationships with Indigenous peoples that can be quickly destroyed by ignorance. The Seattle Arts Museum placed a bet with their counterparts in Denver. The winner of the Superbowl would receive a piece of art work. Seattle would lend a mask (circa 1880) which resembles a hawk created by the Nuxalk First Nation (in Bella Coola, BC) to a Denver Arts Museum. Usually the origins of these masks are less than ethical.  These artifacts often have religious significance and were often acquired in a less than honourable fashion. Seattle would receive a Frederic Remington (1895) bronze The Broncho.

Nuxalk First Nation
Too often though the relationships between museums and Indigenous peoples are not built by all museums; the Seattle Art Museum staff apparently failed to undertake proper training at post-secondary institutions before joining their museum or follow ethics new standards. Canada has quite an extensive experience in relations with Indigenous peoples. In 1987 the Glenbow museum in Calgary spent considerable sums and time trying to understand the Indigenous world-view concerning the artifacts that that museum was displaying for their Olympic (Calgary 88) exhibit.

American museum have quite a bit they can learn from their Canadian neighbours. I conducted an interview with Dr Ruth Phillips about her book Museum Pieces: Toward the Indigenization of Canadian Museums and the controversies surrounding museums and their obligation to First Nations political and spiritual demands in North America. The ways in which Aboriginal people and museums work together have changed drastically in recent decades. This historic process of decolonization, including distinctive attempts to institutionalize multiculturalism, has pushed Canadian museums to pioneer new practices that can accommodate both difference and inclusivity. Drawing on forty years of experience as an art historian, curator, exhibition critic, and museum director, Ruth emphasizes the complex and situated nature of the problems that face museums, introducing new perspectives on controversial exhibitions (1967, 1988) and moments of contestation (1997).

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  1. Dr. Ruth Philips brings up that many aboriginal people still suffer from the effects of colonialism. I’m not sure that we will possibly ever mediate the effects of colonization of aboriginal people. I do think as a society Canada is working towards inclusion of aboriginal perspectives, culture and values. Our world events, such as the Calgary Olympics, represented aboriginal art work in its exhibition. As Dr. Philips points out we face the issue of Westernization trying to simplify too much resulting in a narrow view of the perspectives we are examining. An issue of the artwork represented at the exposition in Calgary left the impression that aboriginal culture was something of the past. The way it was presented left the impression that “real” Indians did not exist anymore. I do not know the degree to which aboriginal people were involved in the planning of the exhibition or the knowledge the planners had regarding aboriginal peoples and culture. Due to the oversight of including contemporary aboriginal art that represents the current aboriginal people I feel fairly confidents in saying it was minimal at best.
    I would argue that educators have the same responsibility that museums have. Educators should be knowledgeable about the different First Nations in their classrooms to be able to appropriately incorporate various perspectives and cultures. Educators also need to accept that they are not by any means experts in everything. Lacking the knowledge to sufficiently represent a culture they may be examining in their class may require a guest speaker who does have sufficient knowledge. Without the sufficient knowledge to accurately teach aboriginal perspectives and culture and not bringing in a guest speaker who does have the knowledge can lead the oversimplified view of aboriginal cultures. The oversimplified view can lead to inaccurate understanding of aboriginal culture in students. For aboriginal students the lack of knowledge on behalf of a teacher could create a lack of respect from the student and the idea that the teacher is “stupid” in every other subject. This could push a student who already possibly struggles with school further from it. This is not to say teachers should avoid aboriginal perspectives and culture in their classrooms, but rather that it is not something to be taken lightly.

  2. When I heard about the controversy surrounding the Seattle Art museum’s Super Bowl wager, I was reminded of a number of similar stories. Just as the mask created by the Nuxalk First Nation was acquired through questionable means, numerous other artefacts have been plundered or illegally obtained by Western museums. Egypt for example, has repeatedly requested that the British museum return the famed Rosetta stone, as well as other artefacts contained in its collection. Greece wants the Elgin Marbles returned. The large collection of statues was stripped from the Parthenon in the 19th century before being purchased by the British Government. Other countries, including Turkey, Italy, and various Middle-Eastern and African countries have had national treasures plundered during colonial conquests or stolen through deception. In some cases states have prohibited foreign archaeologists from entering their country or stopped excavations already in progress until certain items are returned. Similar high-profile cases, which question who owns the artefacts, are common in the media, with celebrities even joining in to pressure museums or educational institutions to return what they have taken. While this type of controversy will always surround museums, I found it encouraging to hear Dr. Ruth Phillips describe the work that has been done in Canadian museums to move towards a more diverse narrative, with more collaboration with First Nations. I think we can learn a lot from the steps they have taken, for example avoiding a simple, homogenous view of Aboriginal people. In a similar fashion, teachers of Canadian history can introduce complex issues and diverse perspectives to provide a unique educational experience for their students. In hindsight it is easy to look at the Seattle museum as being culturally insensitive, however many of us would probably have made the same mistake, demonstrating that there is a real need for more multicultural education.

  3. When I first started reading this post I was unsure why there was a problem. I thought that it would be great for the museums to share the art pieces because it would provide a deeper learning opportunity for people in either state. It was after further reading that I realized that the artwork may not have been obtained or displayed in a culturally appropriate format. There have been many terrible acts against the Indigenous people in North America since the first arrival of Europeans, and stealing their possessions is just one of them. I am interested in what museums are doing to make right any injustices to the people whose artifacts they display.

    In an article called “Building Relationships through Communities of Practice: Museums and Indigenous People” by Kelly et al., the concept of; “communities of practice” as it relates to Museum practices in Australia, is explored. Museums in Australia are trying to reconcile relationships with Indigenous people as well as create social change (p. 217). One of the first steps that the article outlines is that the museum needs to create a context for itself which is part of the world but also the local community, before attempting to make social changes (p 222). Next they must create relationships with the communities they work with (p. 223). When the museum creates a context that situates themselves within the culture they depict, and then creates a relationship with the people who belong to this culture, the museum can begin to learn from the culture and gain respect.

    As a result of this process, the museums across Australia are no longer seen as displays, but rather places for mutual learning (p. 230). The museums now celebrate the relationships they have with the Indigenous people in the area and see them as an integral part of the community and the learning environment (p. 231). The article is summed up by the following quote: “Museums in Australia now exist for and with Indigenous people... rather than being places that exhibit material about them” (p. 231). I think this quote defines what all museums across the world should be aiming for, not just for the obvious cultural reasons, but also because the benefits of this deeper connection are infinite. When the people feel connected to the exhibits, knowledge of the culture will grow and this is a great step towards an understanding of others that all people deserve.

    It is my opinion that if the Denver and Seattle Museums situated themselves with the context of not only the state, but the communities and cultures within the state, as well as built relationships with the Indigenous people whose artifacts they are displaying, there may be a greater chance for mutual learning. If the Indigenous people see the museum as a negative part of the community they will not want to participate in the museum and resentment and misunderstanding will grow, but if learning is created together, this could potentially change. I think that the best way to create understanding is to build relationships, and while it may need time to foster this relationship, I think the museums discussed in this blog should follow in the footsteps of the museums in Australia because you have to start somewhere!

    Kelly, L., Cook, C. and Gordon, P. (2006), Building Relationships through Communities of Practice: Museums and Indigenous People. Curator: The Museum Journal, 49: 217–234. doi: 10.1111/j.2151-6952.2006.tb00214.x

  4. Bre Bonan – Blog #6
    There are many things I like about neighbouring country, but sometimes they things that happen across the border really do not make sense to me. Like how they can misrepresent the people in their country, especially Aboriginal Peoples’.
    After reading the post about the Seattle Art Museum, I was reminded of how in North Dakota, Sioux people are still trying to convince the state that they want the sports team, The Fighting Sioux, to change their name and mascot.
    I am not sure why this is so difficult to change. As society changes and progress, as we as people being to better understand one another, we should be able to change the way things are being done. Just because something has always been done a certain way, does not mean we do not have to question why it is being done that way, and if there is a better way of doing things, then it is time for change. I do not see what the big deal is to change a name and a mascot, other than perhaps some money, which always seems to be the issue when you really look into changing anything or making something better.
    I remember how the town of Morris, Manitoba used to have a gas station called The Mohawk, now called The Husky. There was a bit of controversy there too, because people wanted the name changed because it was insulting to have a stereotype as a logo. Animals seem to be a good go-to option for mascots – they do not offend as easily as us humans.