Collaboration, Multivocality, and Authority
With the closure of MIAC’s permanent exhibition after twenty-three years, a look back at its long-lasting and far-reaching impact
by Felicia Garcia and Lillia McEnaney
When the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture opened its flagship exhibition in 1997, it did so with a purpose. Here, Now and Always was to be an exhibition different; an exhibition where Native people in the Southwest were the curators, the narrators, and the authority on themselves.
Rooted in Edmund J. Ladd’s (Zuni Pueblo) affirmation that “I am here. I am here, now. I have been here, always,” the exhibition was broken up into several distinctive, yet fluid, themes: Ancestors, Plants and Animals, Cycles, Exchange, Architecture, Survival, Language and Song, and Arts. It was an exhibition with a staggering number of objects—approximately 1,200— and each section told a unique story about Indigeneity in the Southwest. Foregrounding intergenerational storytelling, visitors were urged in the exhibition brochure to “Listen carefully. Let the stories carry you to the center created by each Native community. Here, at the intersection of sky and earth, you will find the Southwest’s people.”
Museums are intertwined within contested histories of colonialism, extraction, and exploitation, and MIAC did vitally important work that fundamentally changed the course of museum practice not only in New Mexico, but throughout the United States. Here, Now and Always actively and purposefully worked against these historical contexts, moving into a reciprocal future grounded in community partnerships.
The following conversation is based on a January 26, 2020 program at MIAC which commemorated the temporary closing of Here, Now and Always. Before a larger panel discussion between the exhibition’s original curators, Felicia Garcia, curator of education at the School for Advanced Research, and Lillia McEnaney, assistant curator at MIAC, reflected on the exhibition’s local impact, national legacy, and overarching themes.
Introduction: How would you describe your positionality?
Felicia Garcia: I am Samala Chumash from Santa Ynez, California. I hold a bachelor’s in psychology from Willamette University and a master’s in museum studies from New York University. Growing up, I never saw my community’s story told from our own perspective. In school, we briefly learned about our history, but the curriculum always focused on the missionization of California. In museums, the anthropological narratives were always written in the past tense, and the content seemed so unfamiliar. I went to school and studied museums to learn how to work within these institutions and take control of our own representation.
Currently, I am privileged to live and work as a guest here in Pueblo territory as the curator of education at the School for Advanced Research’s Indian Arts Research Center. I strive to use my position as a museum professional to carve out a space for Indigenous people to tell their own stories so that our youth both see themselves in these spaces and feel seen. It’s important to acknowledge that my perspective is shaped both by my lived experience as an Indigenous woman, as well as my education within colonial Western institutions.
Lillia McEnaney: Originally from Newtown, Connecticut, I am a non-Native woman currently residing as a guest in O’gha Po’oge. Trained as a museum anthropologist, I hold a bachelor’s in anthropological archaeology and religious studies from Hamilton College and, like Felicia, a master’s in museum studies from New York University. I am currently an assistant curator at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture/ Laboratory of Anthropology, where I am privileged to work on the renewal of HNA.
As a non-Native person working in these spaces, I see my role as a facilitator. There is a long and violent history of non- Indigenous anthropologists and curators conducting extractive research “on” communities. But the past several decades have seen a distinctive shift—largely due to scholarship and activism from Indigenous folks—in the ways in which museums operate, and a resurgence in the academic study of the histories and anthropologies within museums themselves. Rather than following the common anthropological path of being an “expert” on a particular type of material culture or community, I study the institutional structures within museums, aiming to facilitate a space for Indigenous people and narratives to be foregrounded.
Context: What are the historical context(s) needed to understand the impact of Here, Now and Always?
LM: The histories of museums, collections, and anthropology are muddy, contested, and fraught with colonial violence. Fundamentally part of the larger, ongoing Euro-American colonial project, museums are inseparably linked as part of larger social and cultural processes.
As European nation-states expanded and colonized, they also built and mobilized an all-encompassing epistemological structure to understand human difference. These ideologies worked to legitimize and reify their quest for political control. In a chapter titled “Racial Science, Blood, and DNA” in Native American DNA: Tribal Belonging and the False Promise of Genetic Science, Dr. Kim TallBear (Sisseton-Wahpeton Oyate) tells us that the classification and construction of race began with the grouping of humans “on the basis of natural characteristics,” which worked to establish racial difference and “the laws of behavior for [racial] members.” This work of constructing racial classifications allowed for “discrimination against the racially defined other.” Today, these ideas and tactics for control are largely inescapable in our everyday lives, and are particularly evident in the lived experiences of historically marginalized communities whose elimination was, and continues to be, the fundamental goal of colonial rule and the American project.
And while Euro-Americans attempted to study this “racially defined other,” they concurrently began to collect. They took people’s belongings and stories, captured photographs and recorded voices, and attempted to strip away people’s fundamental senses of self, community, and belonging through the manipulation and control of particular types of heritage. The processes and results of collecting aided in the building of nation states, formed symbolic capital over Native people, and represented a desire for stasis while simultaneously building the museum structure, through which Indigenous people were “packaged and marketed,” to borrow terminology from Dr. Curtis Hinsley. These methods of “museumification” worked as mechanisms of control: They kept Indigenous people confined within the romantic imaginations of the Euro-American public. So, today’s museum exhibition panel text, object labels, murals, installations, and display cases work as “meaning- making machines” that govern the living and shape contemporary understandings of Indigenous communities. Fetishizing Indigeneity, museums work as ideologically active environments, where they continue to foster, assert, and maintain sociopolitical dominance over the Indigenous “Other.”
Simply put, museums museumify people. University of British Columbia museum anthropologist Dr. Michael Ames, in his Cannibal Tours and Glass Boxes: The Anthropology of Museums, sums this up poignantly: Museums are “cannibalistic in appropriating other peoples’ material for their own study or interpretation, and they confine their representations to glass box display cases. […] There is a glass box for everyone.”
FG: As Lillia explained, museums are important agents within the ongoing colonial project. Many, if not most, historic Native American collections that are housed within U.S. museums were assembled to document cultures that were thought to be on the brink of extinction. To this day, museums continue to perpetuate the myth of the “vanishing Indian” by portraying Native peoples as “extinct,” “primitive,” passive, and in the past. Further, museums continue to uphold ideologies related to manifest destiny. The impact of these representations transcends institutional walls and continues to have a significant negative effect on Native communities—from shaping individual perceptions of Native peoples to informing federal and state policies. Museums, which are perceived to be neutral and trustworthy sources of information, not only control the means of representation and historical narrative, but continue to play an active role in colonization.
In 2016, while I was living in New York City, I visited a local well-known natural history museum to document the observations of visitors for a class project. While I was stationed in one of the Native American halls, I overheard a mother explain to her child that the people depicted in the vitrines were “from the time of the dinosaurs.” To me, that experience really encapsulated the intended colonial function of a museum: To those visitors, the exhibition communicated that the Native people represented were both primitive and in the past or extinct. It successfully represented Native people as both inferior and “other.”
Difference: How does HNA differ from other museums’ representations of Native people?
LM: In Here, Now and Always, Native voices are the authority. The text—written largely by Indigenous artists, scholars, and community members—is written in the first person, in active voice, and in present tense. These individual text panels are authored to emphasize the fact that the text conveys one perspective on one story. This makes a larger ontological shift explicit: The institution is no longer speaking to you; individual community members are instead sharing stories. And these stories can be heard (or read) in any point in the exhibition, showing that the physical space is indeed constructed around dozens of Native voices. Being exposed to these personal narratives also makes the visitor ask what other perspectives are out there, and what other things can be learned about the people of this region. Here, objects are the supporting act—it is the personal stories and community connections that give the objects their meaning.
But these deliberate strategies may leave the visitor slightly confused about the audience. Who is this exhibition meant for? This ambiguity is, in fact, intentional. As Felicia and I discussed, museums are often uncomfortable spaces for Indigenous people because of their violent histories.
HNA flips this on its head. What does it look and feel like for a white person to be uncomfortable in a museum? And what implications does this have outside of the exhibition’s context? This question fundamentally complicates the understanding of the function and purpose of a museum.
In this, the exhibition’s overarching goal is unique. Many encyclopedic museums, by their very nature and construction, aim to be representative of whatever it is that they are displaying—the “most complete” collection of velociraptor remains, or the “most comprehensive” collection of botanical illustrations. Rather than falling into this common practice, HNA makes it clear that not all possible information is presented. The exhibition instead operates as an entry point for visitors to think about what Indigeneity in the Southwest is and means. It is not meant to be a comprehensive or representative of anything, but instead a first look, or the first chapter, in a longer, more sustained and deliberate conversation about (and with!) Native people in the Southwest.
In doing so, the exhibition unsettles non-Native perceptions of Native cultures (what you think you know is likely incorrect), and at the same time works as an entry point for Indigenous folks to begin to perhaps feel comfortable in these spaces.
FG: From the first time I visited MIAC, it was clear that HNA differed from any exhibition I had previously experienced. Even the name of the exhibition—Here, Now and Always—suggests a deviation from typical museum narratives about Native communities. This wording communicates that Native people are contemporary and present, and not only that they have always been here, but they always will be here. There is an element of survivance to the title that starkly contrasts with the passive depictions that most of us are used to.
When I entered the exhibition space, I was struck by the many disruptions of both Western thought and museology. One of the first text panels I read described the archaeological information within the exhibition as “a story.” Typically, fields of study that are associated with museums, such as archaeology and anthropology, are framed as objective and capable of gleaning indisputably truthful or factual information. Conversely, firsthand information shared by Native communities is treated as subjective, and therefore less credible. By describing a Western field of study as a story, the exhibition challenges visitor perspectives of museum narratives, illustrating the fact that all information shared within these spaces is part of a story that is subject to personal biases, so these institutions cannot be neutral.
I was similarly intrigued by the maps that I encountered within the exhibition, which did not emphasize U.S. borders or place names. To the viewer, this omission suggests that there are alternative ways of viewing land and space. Generally, these map features are accepted as fact, but most Native communities have different conceptions, since land was organized differently and places were recognized by different names pre-contact. Because sources of information like maps are so uniformly ingrained in our educational institutions, we often take them for granted. This slight variation again illuminates the subjective nature of museums and the information they convey.
The authority of the museum is further disrupted by the visitors’ ability to choose their own path through the exhibit. It is the norm for most museums to use exhibition architecture to control the visitor’s path through the exhibit. Additionally, most exhibitions that depict Native people are organized chronologically, and the exhibition path follows the timeline. HNA diverges from this standard by framing time as cyclical. In Western societies, time is solely understood as linear; however, many cultures view time differently. This is yet another intervention that challenges certain Western concepts that we have been conditioned to view as fact.
Yet another example of the many ways HNA differs from typical museum representations of Native people, is the curatorial decision to not group objects and information by community. As Lillia previously mentioned when she referenced the work of Kim TallBear, standard exhibition organization is grounded in Western attempts to categorize and order entire groups of people in order to determine a racial hierarchy. By not adhering to this standard, HNA challenges colonial epistemologies and the perceived isolation between communities. Native peoples have always participated in exchange when it comes to food, tools, ideas, stories, art, etc. Though each community is unique and distinct, any attempt to separate communities into completely isolated groups ignores this ongoing tradition of kinship.
Impact: What is the broader impact of HNA beyond the museum?
FG: Excluding my experiences within tribal museums, it is really rare for me to go through a museum and feel like Native people were considered a target audience when an exhibition was developed—and by that, I mean most exhibitions about Native communities are designed to communicate information about Native people to non-Native people. When I visited museums as a kid, the text always felt so foreign. I knew the information was about us, but I never felt accurately represented by it.
Going through HNA, there were so many recognizable elements that made me feel that the exhibition was meant for me—like the T-shirt all of my cousins bought at the powwow or the HUD kitchen replica that felt like home. Most of these things probably go unnoticed by non-Native viewers, but then there are also some elements that are meant to be more mysterious, like the burden basket full of Tootsie Rolls. Non-Native people probably go through the exhibition, look at that vitrine, and wonder what it means—and the exhibition texts provide no answer. This probably makes them feel slightly uncomfortable, but that’s the point.
Too often, museum exhibits seem to communicate that it is possible to know everything about a group of people and that the public has a right to know everything. However, for most Native communities, we don’t want to share every element of our history and culture with “scholars” or the general public, and we are still actively trying to recover from the harm caused by the extractive methods of anthropologists and archaeologists. By creating displays that are meant just for Native viewers, HNA communicates that not everything needs to be displayed for non-Native people to understand—some parts of our culture are just for us. I think that’s a really important takeaway that can affect an individual’s perception of Native people and Native culture, and it goes far beyond the museum itself.
Similarly, many of the text panels in HNA include an author’s name—most often these authors are Native. This disrupts the museum’s authority by exposing the fact that the texts are written by individuals. When author names are not included on text panels, the information takes on an institutional voice, which gives it a lot of power by making it seem objective.
By including these names, HNA communicates that Native people have valid things to share about their own communities—anthropologists are not the only ones with voices worth listening to. Further, it demonstrates that these panels represent just one perspective, and ideally it compels the viewer to consider all of the other perspectives that must be out there and seek them out. I think if this exhibition inspires visitors to learn more about Native communities from sources created by Native people, that is a success.
LM: MIAC—with HNA as its flagship exhibition—functions with an explicit vision in mind. The museum envisions “a world that recognizes and understands Native peoples as diverse tribes, each with a distinctive history, culture, and language, and each of which is an integral part of the vibrant, historical, and cultural landscape of the American South- west.” At first glance—and perhaps to El Palacio readers—this may not seem like a radical idea, but given the historical contexts Felicia and I have talked about, it is indeed radical for a museum to operate in this way. The reverberations of MIAC’s educational mission are felt far outside of institutional walls—from the way a teacher presents Native history in her classroom, to the way a family from out of town discusses contemporary Indigenous art on the Plaza. As one of society’s most trusted institutions, what museums do and say actively and tangibly matters.
Constructive Criticism: What do you think could have been done better?
LM: Though HNA did heavy legwork, there is always room for improvement! There were serious accessibility issues throughout the exhibit, ranging from light levels and placement of text panels to physical accessibility throughout the gallery space. Visitors also often remarked that the exhibition was “too text- heavy,” which begs the question of how much content visitors were actually absorbing.
FG: In the Ancestors section of the exhibit, there are these little flip books that include cards for the objects that are displayed within the vitrines. These cards are modeled after older museum catalog cards. Lillia and I had a conversation about these cards and discussed how they just don’t seem to fit with the rest of the exhibit. They portray the items as “artifacts” and communicate a sense of ownership by the museum, which just seems to work against the larger purpose of HNA.
Though the exhibition is nearly the same age as me and shows some signs of its age, I was surprised to have such a short list of items that I felt could have been done better.
Influence: Are there any other exhibitions that have built off of HNA?
LM: Here, Now and Always had a tangible impact on the trajectory of museum practice throughout the United States. In many ways, the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian—with HNA curators Dr. Bruce Bernstein and Tony Chavarria (Santa Clara Pueblo) on its curatorial team—built its inaugural exhibitions off the collaborative model facilitated by MIAC.
More recently, Dr. Jill Ahlberg Yohe and Teri Greeves (Kiowa) organized Hearts of Our People: Native Women Artists, which traveled between the Minneapolis Institute of Art, the Frist Center for Visual Arts, the Smithsonian American Art Museum’s Renwick Gallery, and the Philbrook Museum of Art in 2019 and 2020. Collaboratively curated in partner- ship with an advisory panel of twenty-one Native artists and Native and non-Native scholars, the exhibition has largely been seen as a turning point, not for only how Native women’s art is presented and understood, but as a model for meaningful community partnership. MIAC’s recently closed exhibition, San Ildefonso Pottery 1600–1930: Voices of the Clay, co-curated by Russell Sanchez (San Ildefonso Pueblo), Erik Fender (San Ildefonso Pueblo), and Dr. Bruce Bernstein, also worked in similar ways.
Today, collaborative practices—not only in exhibitions, but in all aspects of museum work, from collections management to educational programming—are becoming more and more common, though there is still significant work to be done.
FG: One of my favorite exhibitions that I’ve seen in recent years is the Poeh Cultural Center’s Di Wae Powa (2019). This exhibition features 100 historic Tewa pots that were brought home from the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian. All of the interpretation for the exhibition was written by Tewa community members and really demonstrates the potential of collective narrative. One thing I especially loved about this exhibition was the intro text panel, which was written addressing the pottery itself. I had never seen exhibition objects addressed as the audience for a text panel and probably would have never thought to do so. Western museology has limited the ways in which we connect with exhibition objects, which many of us consider ancestors or relatives. Exhibits like HNA and now Di Wae Powa are so impactful because they inspire us to challenge Western or colonial ways of thinking.
Conclusion: Final thoughts?
LM: I feel incredibly privileged to work on the renewal of Here, Now and Always alongside MIAC staff and community curators. MIAC strives for the new iteration of the exhibition to be reflective of the same values presented in the original. The “new HNA” will address the previously mentioned accessibility issues and integrate new technologies, allow visitors to engage with objects that have never before been displayed, and provide a space for new, younger generations of Native people to tell their stories.
For those who may be interested in continuing the conversation, I would encourage you to seek out anthropological scholarship written by Indigenous authors. Dr. Linda Tuhiwai Smith’s (Ngāti Awa and Ngāti Porou, Māori) Decolonizing Methodologies: Research and Indigenous Peoples and Dr. Amy Lonetree’s (Ho-chunk) Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums are two good places to start.
FG: To me, HNA really successfully demonstrates the strength of collective narrative versus individual authority, which I think is the general direction that the museum field is currently moving. Since this exhibition opened, more and more exhibitions have tried to prioritize and elevate a collective comprehensive Indigenous narrative instead of highlighting a single curatorial voice. As an early career museum professional, this approach has inspired the work that I do, and I look forward to seeing how the narrative evolves in the next iteration of HNA. I echo Lillia’s suggested resources, and for museum professionals who are looking to begin working more collaboratively with Native communities, I recommended SAR’s Guidelines for Collaboration, available at guidelinesforcollaboration.info.
Felicia Garcia (Samala Chumash) is the curator of education at the School for Advanced Research’s Indian Arts Research Center in O’gha Po’oge/Tewa territory/ Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Lillia McEnaney is an assistant curator at the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture/ Laboratory of Anthropology in O’gha Po’oge, or so-called Santa Fe, New Mexico.