Art Saturday: Smithsonian Museum Of American Native Artwork
The books of descriptions are in poor lighting, as are the displays themselves, to keep from bleaching out the designs on the ancient ceramics.
Last week, I featured several ceramic pieces from the Smithsonian’s Indian Museum and some information about them, and ceramics. This week I’m putting in a few from the collection and the wall that displays them, to give an idea of the way you see them on the top floor of the museum.
As you will notice, the matching of figures with their descriptions takes some painstaking work and if you visit the museum, be prepared to spend time and effort to work out what you’re seeing. The vast collection has passed into Smithsonian handling after years of collection and study, and has been open to the public since 2004 on the Mall in D.C.
The National Museum of the American Indian is home to the collection of the former Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation. The collection includes more than 800,000 objects, as well as a photographic archive of 125,000 images. It is divided in to the following areas: Amazon; Andes; Arctic/Subarctic; California/Great Basin; Contemporary Art; Mesoamerican/Caribbean; Northwest Coast; Patagonia; Plains/Plateau; Woodlands.
The collection, which became part of the Smithsonian in June 1990, was assembled by George Gustav Heye(1874–1957) during a 54-year period, beginning in 1903. He traveled throughout North and South America collecting Native objects. Heye used his collection to found New York’s Museum of the American Indian, Heye Foundation and directed it until his death in 1957. The Heye Foundation’s Museum of the American Indian opened to the public in New York City in 1922.
The collection is not subject to the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. When the National Museum was created in 1989, a law governing repatriation was drafted specifically for the museum, the National Museum of the American Indian Act, upon which NAGPRA was modeled.In addition to repatriation, the museum dialogues with tribal communities regarding the appropriate curation of cultural heritage items. For example, the human remains vault is smudged once a week with tobacco, sage, sweetgrass, and cedar, and sacred Crow objects in the Plains vault are smudged with sage during the full moon. If the appropriate cultural tradition for curating an object is unknown, the Native staff uses their own cultural knowledge and customs to treat materials as respectfully as possible.
The long history of our native population contains many chapters of desecration and abuse, which the Smithsonian facility has tried to avoid. Respect for native worship and practices developed slowly in this country’s progress, and is welcome in this exhibition.