Mini Thesis Series: New Curatorial Methods
In my master’s thesis, “Transforming the Museum Space: Native Feminisms as Activism in “Hearts of Our People””, I examine the exhibition from 2019-2020 and its creation in spite of the historical and social context surrounding it. Perhaps just as importantly, I look at how an exhibition like this one—by employing the methods used in the creation of this show—can change how museum professionals go about and think about curation. These methods are focused on decentering settler colonialism in museum culture. I recognize that museums are monuments are colonization, so these three main methods employed go against general practice.
I’ll be splitting up these methods into smaller sections so make sure you check back for the other parts!
Final Methods: In-Gallery Measures
In addition to the prior two points, there were a series of in-gallery measures that the curatorial team employed that made the viewing experience even more exciting and continued to push settler colonialism out the gallery doors. These included the use of medicine baskets, labels in indigenous languages (or none at all), and stipulations regarding admission and photography throughout the galleries.
Admission & Photography
Admission was free for Native peoples “granting open access to them… By providing free admission to Native peoples, museum staff are breaking down financial barriers; as an organized action that seeks to remove previously constructed obstacles of accessibility, the inclusion of free admission can be considered a form of social action.” Working within the same vein of accessibility, photography was prohibited of certain objects. “Instead of keeping resources and access from Indigenous communities, allowing photography reproduces those works in a way that provides access to all.” However, if a Native community does not approve of photographing their material culture, then photography is prohibited. This is one way of “instituting ‘one of the most dominant expressions of self-determination… visual sovereignty” “Self-determination, as it is most general, ‘is the right to participate in the democratic process of governance and to influence one’s future—politically, socially, and culturally’.” This means that Native communities have authority over what is and is not shared with the public. It is our duty as museum professionals to honor and respect that as we do our work. We need to work hard to understand the best we can that somethings don’t get an object label because the cultural/ spiritual/ historical context that surrounds an object is knowledge that isn’t to be shared.
When you first enter the exhibit space, you are introduced to medicine baskets. The wall label above tells you that, ‘out of respect for Native visitors who may wish to practice traditional honoring rituals, we have these medicines available” and thanks non-Native visitors to respect “the protocols of Native people.’ The medicines and basket-materials differed depending on where the show was being held. It traveled from Mia in Minneapolis, to the Frist Art Museum in Nashville, to the Renwick Gallery in Washington D.C., and finally to the Philbrook in Tulsa. Each location, being the ancestral homelands of an Indigenous community, would have different traditions of basket making, using different materials and having different medicines. The exhibition used this history to create an experience specific to the location, being respectful of the traditions that take place on that land. Each basket was handmade by a living weaver, which “recenters these [community] connections and becomes tools for a reclamation of these objects as for and by Native communities.”
The last in-gallery measure “taken by the curatorial team works to reclaim and celebrate Indigenous languages”. Traditionally, labels are used to interpret what object is on display, to make its importance to the show known to the public. “The labels that were used in the “Hearts of Our People” exhibition were very different, though. ‘The artists in this exhibition represent more than fifty communities and cultures from all over North America.’ It was essential to the curatorial team for visitors ‘to experience [the artists’] voices in their Native languages’.” There were over 100 labels translated into over thirty indigenous languages; if the language was unknown or didn’t have an orthography – a written component—labels noted such history and circumstance. Some artists and communities approved English labels, were others did not want labels at all, as ‘some Native communities don’t share their languages with outsiders’. In addition to translations, the information provided on those labels broke another traditional museum method: attribution. No longer were women makers referred to as “unknown”. Instead, they were noted as a woman from an Indigenous Nation, as many of the makers in Native communities know who their creatives are. “The simple—yet majorly impactful—action of removing ‘unknown’ from an object label reminds visitors that these artists are not unknown, attributing all to Indigenous women whose identities, though not known individually, have not been lost to time.”
Wrapping It Up
These methods decenter settler colonial methodologies implemented in museum work by recentering Indigenous communities, women, and kin at the center of the conversation about them, by making it an exhibition by them. These methods respect Native community protocols, traditions, and cultures, many of which operate in direct opposition to “usual” museum praxis. As museum workers, we must do better to be respectful of other cultures and work with the community to make sure we do it right. Now more than ever, with the world watching for any negation of propriety or lackadaisical action regarding communities of color, racism, sexism, etc., we have to show our communities that we are willing to put in the work to make sure our spaces are welcoming.
Sarah Hixson (she/her/hers) is an aspiring curator and educator focusing on DEAI and indigenization work and incorporating activism into museum practices. If you have questions for Sarah, please comment below or send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org.
 Hixson, “Transforming the Museum Space”, pp. 36  Hixson, “Transforming the Museum Space”, pp. 37  Jolene Rickard, “Diversifying Sovereignty and the Reception of Indigenous Art.” Art Journal 76, no. 2 (2017): pp. 82  Photograph of wall text, courtesy of Katie Delmez from the Frist Art Museum, Nashville, TN  Hixson, “Transforming the Museum Space”, pp. 40 Hixson, “Transforming the Museum Space”, pp. 40  Hixson, “Transforming the Museum Space”, pp. 40  Minneapolis Institute of Art, “Why We Translated an Exhibition’s Labels into Dozens of Native Languages,” Minneapolis Institute of Art, 2019, https://new.artsmia.org/stories/why-we-translated-an-exhibitions-labels-into-dozens-of-native-languages/.  Hixson, “Transforming the Museum Space”, pp. 40