A vision of the future for a historical hall
Updating a long-static museum hall means more than picking new tiles – curators aim to respect modern Indigenous perspectives
The Hall of Northwest Coast Indians is the American Museum of Natural History's oldest hall. A centrepiece on the New York museum's main floor, it is a treasure trove of totem poles, masks, rattles and other objects – most of them from Indigenous peoples in Canada.
On Monday, the museum announced a multiyear, multimillion-dollar project to update, restore and conserve the hall and enrich the interpretation of its exhibits. Representatives from the Haida, Kwakwaka'wakw, Nuu-chah-nulth and Tlingit communities were to be in New York for the announcement.
"We've been talking about this possibility ever since I arrived at the museum in 2001," said Peter Whiteley, the museum's curator of North American ethnology, in the division of anthropology, in an interview with The Globe and Mail. "This hall, while it did have some cosmetic changes in the late fifties and early sixties, is pretty much the same as it was in 1910, so we are absolutely thrilled that this is happening."
The renovation will see a number of items currently on display come down, with other pieces brought in from the museum's collection – all done in consultation with First Nations.
The hall, which opened in 1899, is a museum highlight and a top tourist destination, but it was also a game changer in the field of anthropology, with its revolutionary approach by anthropologist Franz Boas. This is where Boas made his argument for cultural relativism in museum interpretations of Indigenous cultures – with objects from each nation viewed within the context of that nation's particular culture. Boas grouped the works by nation rather than chronology or function. So you don't find a hodgepodge of spoons or masks from different communities grouped in one case. Crucially, this was a challenge to the prevailing approach of representing societies in evolutionary terms – on a trajectory from "primitive" to "advanced."
"It's an absolutely iconic hall in the history of anthropology – in the history of American intellectual life," Whiteley said.
Other museums followed, adapting the Boasian method, which was informed by his interactions with First Nations on the Northwest Coast, Whiteley said. "And that's what motivated the vision in the hall."
The Boasian vision will remain, certainly. The renovation is being led by New York-based design firm wHY but driven through consultations with Indigenous communities. Whiteley and other AMNH officials have made several trips to the Pacific Northwest over the past few months to meet with local communities, including many in B.C., to discuss the project. A meeting will be convened this fall with experts from up and down the coast – mostly Indigenous but also some non-Indigenous – representing the many cultures in the hall.
"We want to both honour the legacy of the Boasian hall and to reframe it within the perspectives of contemporary First Nations," Whiteley said. "We also definitely want to call attention to the art aspects as well. … We want to retain our perspective on the contextualization of the art within cultural practices of everyday life, so we will not be isolating individual objects as art objects without a context."
There are currently 1,800 to 1,900 items on display in the hall. That will likely be reduced somewhat – not enormously, Whiteley said – in a cull of older items "that are really in need of some TLC," with new objects being installed from the museum's ethnographic collection of Northwest Coast materials, which Whiteley said comprises 9,000 to 10,000 pieces.
An integral part of the project will be a conservation effort involving more than 1,000 items from the collection. Conservators plan to examine, document and treat a broad range of items, beginning with six massive totem poles.
Whiteley has a list of about 140 items from collections that he would like to see installed in the hall, but nothing has been confirmed and the list is a work in progress.
"The very beginning of the conceptualization of this has been that we have wanted it to be a collaborative project and we don't want to shy away from the difficult issues either," Whiteley said. "I'm sure we'll reach views where not everybody agrees, but at least we'll know where we stand and seek to move forward from that."
One thing that isn't on the list is the Yuquot Whalers' Shrine. The shrine from Vancouver Island, which includes human remains, was a controversial acquisition by the museum in the early 1900s and remains in storage. And the model of the shrine now installed in the gallery will be coming down.
"We will not [do anything] with the whalers' shrine. We know that that's a sensitive item and we continue to be open to discussions about that with the Nuu-chah-nulth, with the Muchalaht," Whiteley said.
Repatriation in general – the return of objects to First Nations – will be part of the discussion during this process. "That's one of the difficult issues that we will definitely be talking about," Whiteley said.
"At that time we would like to enter into some discussions around bringing some of our belongings home," said Nika Collison, curator at the Haida Gwaii Museum in Skidegate, B.C. "It doesn't mean that we'll be loading ourselves up and walking out the door with open cases," she said. "But we're very clear that that's what will begin the discussions."
A renovation plan approved in 2008 was put on hold because of the financial crash. Now, the project – with a price tag of $14.5-million (U.S.) – kicks off this fall with object de-installation beginning in January. AMNH is aiming for a completion date of 2020, to coincide with the museum's 150th anniversary. The plan is to keep the hall partly open throughout the process.
"We're just thrilled about this," said Collison, whose museum has worked with AMNH on a number of initiatives, including digitizing the current hall and developing a robot that allows a curator on Haida Gwaii to interact with visitors in New York. "It's one of our tightest relationships and a long-term one, and we really feel like we have each other's backs."