Ever since the Field Museum’s exhibition on Native Americans first opened to the public in the 1950s, it had remained mostly unchanged—and inaccurate. Curators displayed pieces of clothing backwards, mixed up pairs of moccasins and showed artifacts upside-down. They wrote labels and descriptions that focused more on Europeans than on Indigenous people themselves. Above all else, they attempted to tell the story of Native American culture and history without actually consulting any Native American people.
Even the museum’s own staff members called the displays “outdated,” “old-fashioned” and “misrepresentative,” as WBEZ’s Lauren Frost reported in 2018; one exhibition developer put it more plainly when he described the exhibition as “racist.”
Now, after nearly five years of collaboration with Native American community members representing 105 tribes, the Chicago natural history museum is unveiling a new replacement, and permanent, exhibition that aims to right these wrongs. “Native Truths: Our Voices, Our Stories” is not only “by Native people, but for Native people,” Debra Yepa-Pappan, a citizen of the Pueblo of Jemez and the museum’s Native community engagement coordinator, tells Native News Online’s Kelsey Turner.
“Native Truths” marks a complete rethinking of the museum’s approach to communicating the past, present and future of Indigenous people. Using roughly 400 artifacts, it tells the long story of Native American history and culture, but also emphasizes modern-day challenges facing Indigenous people, like climate change and tribal sovereignty. Contemporary art is another big focus, with displays highlighting everything from Lakota hip-hop to multi-generational California basketry.
Importantly, the exhibition also acknowledges that the Field Museum itself has hurt Native American people. Museumgoers pass by the phrase “You are on Native land” as they enter the exhibition space and, a little farther inside, see the words: “Museum collecting and exhibition practices have deeply harmed Native communities. This exhibition marks a new beginning.”
Nearby, a display created by the artist X shows holograms of 25 artifacts in the Field Museum’s collection that curators know almost nothing about because past staffers did not properly document them. “Native Truths” also raises questions about the ethics of collecting, housing and displaying Native American artifacts at all.
“Ultimately, do these things belong here or do they belong back home with the peoples whose ancestors made them?” Alaka Wali, the museum’s curator emeritus of North American anthropology, tells WBEZ. “And if they go home, is this virtual representation something that can eventually, you know, stand in [the artifacts’] stead?”
Beyond artifacts, art and displays, organizers also thought critically about the physical exhibition space within the museum’s Native North America Hall. They decorated the walls with copper, rather than stainless steel, because of the metal’s significance to Great Lakes tribes, reports Native News Online. Menominee Tribal Enterprises, which is owned and operated by the Menominee Indian Tribe of Wisconsin, donated the wood used to make the space’s floors and benches, per the Chicago Tribune’s Hannah Edgar.
Responses to the new approach have so far been positive since the exhibition’s soft opening the weekend of May 14-15 and more formal launch on May 21, but some issues remain. W. Rockwell “Rocky” Wirtz, who owns the Chicago NHL hockey team whose racially insensitive name and logo have faced scrutiny in recent years, remains the chair of the Field Museum’s board of trustees, prompting members of some Native groups to drop out of the exhibition creation process in protest.
Still, the museum’s leaders and the exhibition co-creators believe “Native Truths” is a first step in the right direction. “Our country is at a precipice at thinking about how to come to terms with the horrendous ways it has treated our people, how to address that history, and how to ensure that it never happens again, says Meranda Roberts, a postdoctoral researcher, citizen of the Yerington Paiute Tribe, and one of the co-curators for the exhibition, in a statement.
The museum wants to see the collaborative exhibition development process become a model for other cultural institutions, and plans to take a similar approach to revamping other outdated and inappropriate exhibitions.
The exhibition’s creators also recognize that all cultures—including Native ones—evolve and change over time. To that end, the exhibition, too, must be “living and thriving,” as Yepa-Pappan tells the Chicago Tribune, and some of its modular spaces will incorporate new content every 18 months or so.
“Just because the exhibition is open now, that’s not the end,” Yepa-Pappan says. “That’s the beginning.”