Indigenous Curation and the Anthropological Project (fwd)

John W Norder (jwn@UMICH.EDU)
Thu, 2 Mar 1995 19:43:35 -0500

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Wed, 1 Mar 95 08:37:05 EST
From: Philllip E. Minthorn Jr. <MNHAN144@SIVM.SI.EDU>
Subject: Indigenous Curation and the Anthropological Project

*** Resending note of 02/15/95 08:11

Indigenous Curation and the Anthropological Project
Phillip Minthorn, Jr.
Repatriation Office, NMNH
Smithsonian Institution, Wash. D.C.

Native communities and museums have reached an unprecedented level
of interaction. Transformed in the process is the way anthropologists
and museum professionals view and treat Native American material
culture, particularly views of the enduring cultural status of objects.
Clearly, this is a departure from earlier 'salvage' efforts, whose bulk
transfer of intellectual and cultural property into the public domain
has had a lasting and profound effect on Native communities. No matter
how benign or intrusive the anthropological project has become, its
cumulative impact across time and space, spanning generations of human
survival and persistence, is only now beginning to be surpassed by the
collective efforts of Native communities to reconcile the past with the
future through self-determined strategies of cultural renewal and

The vast cultural inventory of the Native material world now housed
in various western repositories is eloquent testimony to the larger
historical realities and colonial processes in which anthropology
participated as Native lifeways and culture became disenfranchised. It
must also be acknowledged, however, that museums have made important and
timely contributions to the continued revitalization of Native culture.
Museums have helped preserve endangered material culture through time,
building unique collaborative partnerships in the exhibition and display
of objects, ensuring access to sacred materials, and even repatriating
objects prior to the enactment of the Native American Graves Protection
and Repatriation Act in 1990. While these alternate views may appear in
opposition, their collaborative force continues to inform much of the
current discourse that now surrounds Native material culture. However,
as Native communities and museums begin to establish cooperative and
responsive relationships, a mutual recognition of opportunities for the
cultural exchange of ideas and information on the nature and meaning of
objects is achieved. This has led many museum curators to reexamine the
nature of museum curation as a primary method of preservation as many
Native communities begin to assert alternative methods of preservation
and treatment herein described as aboriginal or indigenous curation.

Curation as Concept

The term curation derives from the Latin word curare, `to take care
of'. By extension, then, when we reference the term curation when
speaking of museum collections we intuitively mean `to take care of
objects' and those who care for them as `curators'. A more recent
definition is presented by Murdoch who distinguishes curation as
embodying two main principles: 'documentation and care and access'
(1992:18-19). As important as this definition is in clarifying the
essential elements of curation, its meaning and broader application
beyond the boundaries of the museum is of limited utility when we try to
elicit explanation across culture as to why we do the things we do when
we care for objects. While I do not presume to offer a definitive
statement on curation, I do wish to `bridge the gap' so to speak by
presenting an alternative statement, in same sense as Handler has
proffered, in that our relationship with objects are ultimately social
ones (1993:33-36). Presently, the following definition of 'curation' is
offered: curation is a social practice predicated on the principle of a
fixed relation between material objects and the human environment.

Within this context, the curation of accumulated objects can be
described as an asymmetrical assertion of power whose function is to
stabilize, legitimate, and sanction their continued presence in space.
Of particular interest to us, then, is the specific forms these cultural
orientations have taken with respect to the curatorial project and its
ordering of the material world.

Described by some as kind of `symbiosis' (Lurie 1988), the specific
conditions that have existed between Native communities and museums are
beginning to reveal something far more complex and enduring than
previously imagined. Understandably, it is a process that has been
largely determined by the transfer and possession of cultural objects
(if not, sometimes, the very native person himself, i.e. either dead or
alive) as property and as resource.

As Native worlds became fashioned in the public consciousness, the
emergent cultural object in western institutions quickly succumbed to
new symbolic orders and attributes. For example, while much can be said
about classification and representation in museums, its common
acceptance as a means to codify and authenticate material culture
becomes inherently ethnocentric. By distancing ourselves from the
`other' but yet possessing its exotic object, a reduction occurs where
the autonomous vehicles of meaning and their attendant expressions are
neutralized and subsequently replaced with `objectified, institutionally
sanctioned bodies of knowledge' (Nespor 1989). Thus, object identities
are created and recreated both as a matter of convenience and

However, as a site where cultures intersect, the mobilization of
these intrinsic meanings and expressions often loom larger than life
when originating cultures assert claims of authenticity and authority.
More often than not, indigenous claims tend to be counter-hegemonic
since they often arise out of multiple cultural contexts that originate
outside the boundaries of the museum. As a result, the exclusive domains
of property, representation, and control that constitute the common,
everyday function of the museum are directly challenged, thus calling
into question traditional museum policies and practice.

Clearly, then, as the emergent dialogue suggests, many contemporary
Native peoples maintain a distinctive non- Western view of their
material culture. It includes the perception that many of these objects
have enduring symbolic qualities and attributes that are of immense
value to present day communities. Of equal importance is the notion that
certain objects are imbued with power or possess sacredness and have the
capacity to mobilize community histories, ritual, and cultural
institutions. It suggests that certain objects, aside from the normative
importance of their physicality and form, are locales of transcendent
meaning and purpose. As a consequence of these larger issues, use claims
pertaining to the appropriate disposition of sacred materials are being
consistently and distinctly articulated thus suggesting that the care
and handling of culturally sensitive objects are just as important, if
not more so, as to its present or future status as potential objects of

The crucial dilemma that Native peoples face is the fact that some
of these sacred materials such as medicine bundles and other ceremonial
objects are no longer in their possession but are now housed in museums.
It is these collections that are of most concern since they are a result
of originating power transfers and in many instances remain "full of
power" and potency. In addition, Native communities are now required to
divulge sacred and esoteric forms of knowledge in order to substantiate
their claim or to ensure the appropriate disposition of such objects,
often without the guarantee of the protection of that knowledge.

Without question, then, the removal of sacred materials from the
Native community constitutes a tremendous loss because it has been both
intrusive into Native religious life and further limits the ability of
traditional religious practitioners to maintain the necessary ritual
control, maintenance, and appropriate care of such collections to the
benefit of Native communities. Inadvertent, unnecessary handling of
sacred materials and permanent preservation are now commonplace
occurrences in the museum.

Fortunately, the situation is now beginning to change. With the
passage of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of
1990 as well as the greater responsibilities museums are taking in
recognizing the very real relationships Native communities have with
their sacred material culture, intercultural communication and
collaboration are now being established that are immensely beneficial to
Native and non- Native alike. Further, Native communities, including
traditional religious practitioners, have greater freedom to institute
traditional forms of curation that are sometimes analogous to
museological practice, but which take into account ritually sanctioned
relationships and the potential meanings they can have for us who are
now living in the present. More importantly, true cultural renewal will
now be a real possibility.

References Cited

Handler, Richard 1993 An Anthropological Definition of the Museum and
its Purpose. Museum Anthropology. Vol.17, No.1.

Lurie, Nancy O. 1988 Relations Between Indians and Anthropologists. In
Handbook of North American Indians. Vol.4, pp.548-556.

Murdoch, John 1992 Defining Curation. Museum Journal. March, pp. 18-19.

Nespor, Jan 1989 Strategies of Discourse and Knowledge Use in the
Practice of Bureaucratic Research. Human Organization. Vol.48, No.4.

This article appeared in the February issue (Vol.5 No.3) of the Committee
of Anthropologists in Environmental Planning and is reproduced here with
permission of the author. The article was taken from a paper presented
by Phillip Minthorn at the AAA Mettings in Atlanata, GA. A full, revised
version of the paper is now being prepared for publication in 1996.