Where should Native American art be displayed? It’s a controversial question that has dogged the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Its answer, historically, has been to place it in a wing with other indigenous art from Africa, Oceania and the Americas. But that’s about to change, reports ArtNet’s Sarah Cascone, with the integration of nearly 100 newly donated works into the museum’s American Wing instead.
The move marks the first time Native American art will be displayed alongside artworks by those of European descent in the American Wing, Cascone reports. The decision was made when Charles and Valerie Diker, who own one of the country’s largest and most significant private collections of Native American art, donated 91 pieces of art from various places and periods to the Met. In a press release, the museum says that the new pieces will be displayed alongside 20 other previous donations by the Dikers with a “major exhibition” in 2018.
As The New York Times’ Grace Glueck wrote in 2004, the Dikers have long advocated for museums to consider Native American art alongside other American masterpieces like those of Rothko and Miró, whose work they also collect.
For years, art by Native Americans wasn’t typically included in art museums. Instead, pieces were considered for their ethnological not aesthetic merits and were shown in natural history museums.
“When Native American, Pacific, and African art and artifact is lumped in with natural history exhibits, it sends a message that these groups are a part of the "natural” world,” writes Katherine Abu Hadal for Indian Country Today. “That the art they produce is somehow less cultured and developed than the western art canon. It also sends the message that they are historical, an element of the romantic past, when in reality these peoples are alive and well, with many traditions intact and new traditions happening all the time.”
Even when Native American art is displayed in art museums, it is often segregated into its own section instead of being integrated with other American works—and many museum collections don’t include much historic or contemporary art from Native Americans at all. Sylvia Yount, a Metropolitan Museum curator in charge of the museum’s American Wing, tells The New York Times’ Randy Kennedy that visitors from other countries often wonder why Native American art is absent from the wing.
“They go through and expect to see Native American work here. Because often where they come from, indigenous art is part of the narrative of a nation’s art, in a way that it’s not in the United States. We’re really behind the curve.”
In the release the museum states that acquiring more Native American art is a top priority. Will the move prompt other museums to reconsider the context in which they display art? Perhaps. But even if it doesn’t, the chance to view Native American art in the American Wing at a major museum will make an impact.