Field Museum will transform its aged Native North American Hall in the next three years, working to develop the new exhibits with Native Americans as "community partners," the museum announced recently.
It is a "much, much needed renovation," Field president and CEO Richard Lariviere said. "This project intends to correct the way the museum tells the Native American history by doing so through the lens and voices of Native Americans."
The hall will remain open throughout the three-year overhaul, with fall of 2021 as the targeted completion date, but some of the artifacts in the Chicago natural history museum's rich collection have already begun to be taken down.
"I think it's going to be one of the most exciting projects the museum has ever undertaken," said Alaka Wali, curator of North American anthropology. "The challenge is to bring out our spectacular collections, but contextualize them in a way that connects the past to the present and the continuity of the Native American experience."
The current displays date mostly back to the 1950s and in addition to being relatively stodgy in their presentation of materials by contemporary museum standards, they treat native peoples as parts of the past.
"What you see in their current exhibits, it really puts native peoples in historical context," said Heather Miller, executive director of the American Indian Center in Chicago. "It does not really signify to visitors that we're still a thriving people here in Chicago and Illinois."
Marcus Winchester, cultural director for the Pokagon Band of the Potawatomi, said, "It's essentially just old beadwork, old baskets, stuff like that just pinned up, and it has whatever tribe it's attributed to. But it doesn't tell the stories about who we are as a people, and it doesn't get into the meat and potatoes."
Another key issue, Winchester said, is that museums organize by chronology, but for his people time is a continuum, where "there is no beginning and no end," he said. "A lot of indigenous academics and professionals are encouraging museums to get away from the chronological timeline."
Miller and Winchester were among the native representatives who took part in a land recognition ceremony recently that is part of the museum working to correct its record with regards to Native Americans.
In the museum's new outdoor northeast garden, richly planted with native species, Lariviere stood at a portable dais and announced that "in order to create this bright future and to become the inclusive, forward-looking institution that we aspire to, we must honor and acknowledge the nations that were the first stewards of this land."
He unveiled a new plaque in the garden stating: "The Field Museum resides on the traditional homelands of the Three Fires Confederacy: Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi. The area was also a site of trade, travel and healing for more than a dozen other native tribes."
Miller, whose center on the North Side of Chicago has been working with the museum on cultural issues for decades now, and Winchester, as representative of the closest Potawatomi group, in southwest Michigan and northern Indiana, both spoke at the ceremony.
"It was a wonderful expression of the Field Museum's commitment to working with native communities and making a positive change in the way they portray history," Miller said afterward.
Adrien Pochel of Chicago, of Cree and Lakota heritage, sang two native songs, accompanying himself on hand drum. The second, he said, was a contemporary song about the strength of Mother Earth and the life-giving power of water created during the recent fight to stop the Dakota Access Pipeline that would carry crude oil across traditional tribal lands from North Dakota on a southeasterly route to central Illinois.
And Maritza Garcia, a dancer of Choctaw heritage in a bell-decorated "jingle dress," performed a traditional Ojibwe dance. (The bells, Winchester later explained, signify rain and its healing powers.)
"It means a lot for such an influential museum in the United States to put themselves out there and acknowledge indigenous people as traditional land owners," Winchester said after the ceremony.
In his five years as cultural director he said he's seen more museums reaching out to tribes. "They want to make sure they get Native American input," he said. "Some are better than others. Some just want to ask Native American tribes for one last checkmark. That certainly isn't the case for the Field Museum, from what I've seen."
Development of the museum's new exhibits will take place over the next year or longer, museum specialists said, and will always include Native American scholars and community members as co-curators.
Among the goals that Wali outlined are to employ Native American workers in the hall who can help interpret the exhibits, to make a presentation that better melds past and present and to create a more dynamic hall, where material is rotated in and out more frequently.
"We can't do that without collaboration with the native community," she said.