The Natural History Museum of Utah is seeking out the stories behind its collection
The Natural History Museum of Utah is working with tribal leaders, elders and Indigenous artists to learn more about items housed in the museum’s collection.
The project is funded by a grant from The National Endowment for the Humanities’ “A More Perfect Union” initiative. The museum’s curator of ethnography, Alexandra Greenwald, said these conversations can sometimes span multiple days. Staff will pull items from the museum’s collection for the visitor to look at and talk about.
“Whatever they want to talk about, sometimes we'll ask clarifying questions,” Greenwald said. “It's just a lot of talking and storytelling and looking at objects and hearing from them and learning from them.”
There are some items in the museum’s collection that curators have not been able to associate with a particular tribe. The interviews have helped determine whether, for example, a basket was most likely made by a Paiute basketmaker or a Navajo basketmaker.
“Regardless of how these things were collected, oftentimes they were collected without the deep cultural knowledge that comes with an object,” Greenwald said. “How was it made? What went into gathering the resources that made it? What does it mean?”
When Glenna Begay, a member of the Black Mesa Weavers, visited the museum with her daughter, Greenwald brought out a rug for her to look at. Begay identified it as one she had made and the museum had misattributed.
In addition to making sure items are attributed to the correct artist and tribe, Greenwald said the museum receives more insight into what certain items mean and how they should be handled.
For example, Begay was uncomfortable with having her rug on public display, but was comfortable with the museum sharing pictures of her work.
“So, hearing from people about how we have unwittingly done things wrong and not respected their cultural preferences, and then solving the problem in a way that makes them feel comfortable,” Greenwald said.
Sam Minkler, a photographer and member of the Navajo Nation, visited the museum over the summer with some of his family, including his aunt Rena Lane who is a Navajo weaver. Minkler acted as a translator because she does not speak English.
Lane, who recently turned 100, talked with the museum staff about weaving and also sang for them. Minkler said it was a great opportunity for museum staff to learn from someone who was born before all Native Americans were granted citizenship in 1924.
Minkler said his family was not focused on advising the museum on what to do and what not to do but had a high-level conversation about the art. In general, Minkler wishes museums across the country featured more Native art.
“Maybe if we understand each other’s work and art and how to treat it more reverently, we’d be getting along a lot better,” Minkler said.