Museum of Natural History to Update Exhibit That Has a ‘Sometimes Problematic’ Past

The Northwest Coast Hall as it looks today. Photo via AMNH.

By Carol Tannenhauser

“I want to thank the people responsible for the work that is going to be done here with a prayer song blessing this collection and those who work here and who visit,” said Chief Kwaxalanukwame’’ Namugwis/Bill Cranmer, of the ‘Namgis First Nation, Kwakwaka’wakw.

He shook a ceremonial rattle and began to chant, his words resounding in the immense, dark, cool Northwest Coast Hall of the American Museum of Natural History, the museum’s oldest gallery, opened in 1899 – and barely touched since.

That is about to change. On Monday morning, museum officials stood with representatives of the First Nations communities of the Pacific Northwest – British Columbia, Alaska, and Washington State – to announce plans for a major renovation of the hall, along with the conservation and preservation of nearly 1,000 artifacts. Museum conservationists have already started on six of the 78 massive totem poles, which are as iconic as the museum’s dinosaurs and planetarium.

A totem pole that the museum is working on now. Photo by Carol Tannenhauser.

“With an eye on both history and the present, we are pleased to be enhancing this important and magnificent hall to reflect the living cultures of the Pacific Northwest,” said Ellen V. Futter, president of the museum. “We are particularly gratified to be working with First Nation communities, deepening the museum’s collaboration with indigenous communities as we prepare to enhance and enliven the gallery’s exhibits and presentations.”

The collaboration dates back to the late 19th century when the renowned anthropologist Franz Boas, then curator for the museum, teamed with George Hunt – the chief’s great grandfather – to amass the collection. “They not only collected the masks and the poles,” said the chief, “they collected the history that goes with them, preventing those pieces and the history of those pieces from dying.”

Ellen Futter and members of First Nations communities. Photo via AMNH.

“This collection is of landmark importance to New York City and the world for its communication of First Nations ideas and practices and for its central values of cultural tolerance and mutual respect,” said Peter Whiteley, the current curator. “In renovation, we now seek to enhance these sensibilities with current perspectives, not ignoring the sometimes problematic history of collecting that affects this hall and all others of the period.”

The museum has been criticized for its exhibits on Native Americans before. “The current state of display at the American Museum of Natural History is embarrassing and ineffective in communicating the complexity of non-western art,” Indian Country Today wrote in 2013. “…its collections are a product of an era much different than the present day. It’s time that they reflected the wishes of their creators and also current aesthetic and ethnic discourse.”

Another First Nations elder at the ceremony said, “Someone asked me, ‘Is it hard to see these objects of yours in this museum?’ I said, ‘Yes.’” But he added, “I came here to thank this great institution for the way it takes care of our ancestral artifacts.”

He told the story of the “repatriation” – return to its own country – of a canoe prow from the museum by the Raven Beaver House of Angoon, Alaska.

“When Angoon was destroyed in 1882, they gathered up all our canoes and set them on fire, and they set our village on fire,” he said. “The canoe prow, which was taken care of by this great institution – it survived! When we saw it here, we repatriated it, and about half the people in Angoon came down to the boat that brought it in to welcome it home.”

He began to drum and chant a song of gratitude and unity.

The redesign of the hall has been entrusted to the wHY architectural firm, which Futter said is known for its “exquisite sensitivity in working with historic spaces.”

Said Founding Partner and Creative Director Kulapat Yantrasast, “As I was listening to the remarks and the songs, I felt every object in this room resonate… and I felt, as an architect, how can we make that happen? How can we make that magic? Our first task is to really listen and engage, convene and explore. We want to bring in a refreshed way to honor and celebrate the cultures here – not just for the objects in this great hall, but the living cultures, the people whose cultures are represented in this room.”

To that end, the next major step in the renovation process is an interdisciplinary “convening” the museum is hosting later this fall of Native and non-Native scholars, curators, artists, conservators, and others, to consider exhibition design, interpretation, and approaches to conservation and reinstallation.

The Northwest Coast Hall restoration project has a total budget of $14.5 million and is expected to be completed in 2020, during the celebration of the museum’s 150th anniversary.

NEWS | 9 comments | permalink
    1. geoff says:

      missing from this article is the word ‘repatriation’.

      none of the museum’s northwest coast artifacts are from people whose culture has died. they are still living, in place, and still expressing their culture in the same way they did when Boas was ‘amassing the collection’.

      that was the same time that native families were being rent asunder, the children confiscated, placd in residential schools, denied family visits, punished for speaking their own languages (in British Columbia alone, there are more than 200), all of which led to the pitiful state of much of the native population today, in Canada.

      on the prairies, one in four native young teenage girls attempts suicide.

      no british columbia native tribe ever signed a treaty. their conflict is ongoing.

      oy veh. we have a long way to go.

      • Sarah says:

        I genuinely don’t know the answer to this: are they seeking repatriation at this time? It sounds as if there were several representatives from those cultures there, and they have been invited to participate in the renovation plans. There may be reasons to prefer to keep the items here (e.g., a desire to see their cultures communicated and honored in such a high-profile setting, or even just concerns about the expenses of preservation and display back home). But maybe this is just the best they think they can get under current laws…I sincerely don’t know.

    2. Phoebe says:

      Thanks, geoff. That was well worth your time to write! It gives us a lot to think about, which is good.

    3. M Davis says:

      If they dare paint over those beautiful murals, then burn the place down.

    4. Denaliboy says:

      I have lived in Alaska for 40 years, much of that time as a faculty member and administrator at various University of Alaska campuses. If you care about the preservation and educational programs related to these wonderful artifacts, the last thing you would want is to repatriate these items. Corruption is endemic to many, if not most, of local and statewide Native organizations. Thank god fir AMNH

    5. Marilyn Schiffmann says:

      I volunteer at the AMNH and it will be wonderful to refresh this exhibit and give it the recognition it duly deserves.

    6. Ruth says:

      I am hoping that the renovated exhibit will
      provide a more complete history, including
      the viewpoint of members of the First Nations
      who are living and teaching their traditions
      today. These people have so much to teach
      us newcomers to the continent.
      Perhaps the exhibit will include
      videos made by members of today’s
      First Nations communities, giving
      their point of view and their interpretation of both their ancient and their recent history. Natural History is an ongoing
      process, so we should also be learning
      how these lives and cultures are happening
      today. Today, after all, is tomorrow’s history.
      I am also hoping that a more engaging exhibit will encourge us here in the “lower 48” to study First Peoples’s values
      and culture, and to contribute in whatever
      way we can, to helping them maintain and
      enhance their cultures and values.
      These people deserve to benefit from
      modern technologies without sacrificing
      the history and culture that gives them
      their identity and quality of life.
      That history has to include what they
      have suffered and survived. This is
      true for the immigrants who have
      contributed to the growth of Canada
      and the United States, and it must also
      be true for the people who preceded
      us here and who survived despite our
      worst behavior.

    7. reb says:

      I think you’re a little misguided, geoff. The AMNH is working with those communities and didn’t necessarily steal all those objects. Some may have dubious backgrounds but the current administration is cognizant and working towards a future together with the first nations. Here’s a great example: