Museum Repatriation, 2004

“Heritage is created through a process of exhibition (as knowledge, as performance, as museum display).” – Barbara Kirshenblatt-Gimblett, Destination Culture, p149. If this is the case – how does a community based on specific living practices share a voice, a story, and continue a traditional way of life when the environment is constantly being altered and lost by different sets of values or ideas? How can I get back to this moment, this reality? I’m sitting again on the subway. Watching the people sway to the movement of the train. A woman reads a book in front of me. Other people stare or carry their own…

Form to content. How can the forms of viewing provide a clear vehicle of expressing content, meaning, that is not skewed by political and moral values? How can consideration for ways of life enter into context? I often wonder about the people on this train. What they do – where they are going and where they come from. I wonder my position in the world – to these people. We share a brief subway ride, maybe our eyes meet for a second – but generally stay to what we know, what we know how to do, and to the comfort of our own world. There is a hidden language developing between everything we know, and everything we don’t, a language of consideration I would hope.

So in the ideas of exhibition, when the process facilitates a kind of interaction between viewer, tradition, and display, how can the act of seeing become an act of awareness? Reading through this week’s texts, I come across chance happenings – an interval where someone looks at the subway map behind me. Our eyes meet. An idea where theory and practice form a dense relationship, sometimes engaged sometimes rival. The article on the experience of the National Museum of the American Indian and the museum’s policy and agenda form contradictory experiences on repatriation through the methods of action and display. Shari Huhndorf describes the museum setting as it tries to appeal to visitors through “performing the ‘Indian’ experience.” While the museum tries to reposition the role of the viewer in Native American life, the displacement also creates a barrier to the hardships endured by the Native Americans. Huhndorf posits this ascribed role by the viewer as another form of oppression of Native American life and values which been lost and recontextualized as exhibitionism, as another means of colonialization by the viewers becoming the “other.” What I find interesting is the way the museum has set up its exhibition policy and program agenda – in trying to pay close attention to allow native Americans an active participation in developing the museum and allow some modes of community based discussions. However, I find what the museum states and Huhndorf experiences to be in opposition. So how does the role of the NMAI put theory and contextualization into practice? How do the policies meant to facilitate and engage in Native American ways of life fall short? Where do they explore similar levels of understanding? How does the NMAI portray a social awareness of the functionality of museums as well as how does it participate in its own form of colonialization through the museum artifacts and exhibition process?

In James Clifford’s passage of travel reflections in Routes: Travel and Transportation, there is an underlying sense of the way each museum focuses on modes of display (act of translation from local traditions to tourist consumptions). There is no right way of representing indigenous tribes from Vancouver, but how the museum honors the repatriation and consideration of the life of these tribes are pulled into question and further elaborated on in the National Museum of the American Indian’s exhibition policy and program agenda. There seems to be an understanding to engage with Native American communities, but the different ways of engagement have a multifaceted contextuality. From local museums of family owned objects, to large collections of acquired ritual objects. The tourists get a rich complex interplay between object, ritual, and experience of a way of life, while the Native Americans have lost ritual objects that has specific meaning and deep value that isn’t translated by the museums who have acquired them. Clifford describes an incident where a Native American returned a reimbursement check to the museum for an acquired ritual object because the value of the object in no way was measured by the amount received on the check. Now there are a few ways of looking at this because in one way the museum is trying to pay respects or retribution for the lost object, but at the same time becomes insulting because of the value placed on the objects by the museum is different from that placed by Native Americans.

How can one best engage in the process of social awareness and heritage? How can one begin to communicate to a local system that is unaware of its neighbors? A chance smile on the subway puts a smile on my face. It’s a start to an awareness.


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