Museum Current: “The Power of Place: Public Art and Indigenous Representations”

By Alex Hull, class of ’21

On Wednesday, March 17th, Jami Powell, Associate Curator of Native American Art at the Hood Museum of Art and Native American Studies Lecturer at Dartmouth College, joined the McMullen to speak about her role as the first curator of Native American art at the Hood, misrepresentations of Native and indigenous peoples in art, and the responsibilities that museums have in dismantling these harmful misrepresentations. Powell mentioned that one of her main goals is to “disrupt the false binaries we have of Native American people” (Powell). This is a challenging project to undertake since so many of the representations she speaks of persist widely throughout our culture, despite progress being made in how we see Native peoples. These false binaries in American art, media, and even history are not only incorrect, but are actively harmful to indigenous individuals and communities. Powell says, “the power relations embodied within these images are deeply entangled and omnipresent within many of the spaces we occupy each day.”

Powell spoke about her own experience as a member of the Osage Nation, as an anthropologist, and as a curator. Citing her own experience as both a visitor and curator, she noticed many microaggressions against indigenous people in museum settings. During her time at the Field Museum in Chicago, she raised concerns about the depictions of Native peoples through the way the art was presented and was ignored by museum staff. She went on to speak about the harmful representations of indigenous people at Dartmouth, where she is currently employed. A series of murals named the Hovey Murals, tell the fictitious story of the founding of Dartmouth, based on a Dartmouth drinking song, in which a white settler paid an indigenous tribe with barrels of rum for the land that the college would be built on. The University realized that these murals contradicted the values it wanted to uphold as an educational institution, so the murals have been removed and will soon be placed in the Hood Museum of Art, where they can be viewed and studied from a place that acknowledges their history, as well as their false and negative depictions of Native Americans. 

Walter Beach Humphrey (Elkhorn, Wisconsin, 1892–Glens Falls, New York 1966) Hovey Murals (the first panel), 1938, mural, oil on canvas adhered to wall. Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College. Image courtesy Dartmouth News.

Powell then spoke of the role and responsibility of museums in dismantling harmful representations of indigenous people in art. Museums are upheld in our culture as institutions of knowledge and education; people trust them to provide the public with true, valuable information. The art that museums showcase and the perspectives they display shape the way that their visitors view art more broadly. Historically, art museums in the United States have perpetuated harmful images of indigenous people, and people of color are now responsible for engaging in action and conversation that works to display history accurately, that gives a space for artists of color to showcase their work. Therefore, museums should be taking on the responsibility of thinking about and changing the way they display art and the artists they choose to represent. An example of a museum currently self-reflecting on its history and collection is the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York. In the Great Hall, the museum has installed a diptych by Kent Monkman, titled “mistikôsiwak,” which translates in English to “Wooden Boat People.” This piece challenges the artistic canon and art history itself, as Monkman reworks depictions of indigenous people in the Met’s collection.

Kent Monkman (First Nations, Cree, born Saint Marys, Ontario 1965) mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People): Welcoming the Newcomers, 2019, acrylic on canvas,11 × 22 ft. (335.3 × 670.6 cm). © Kent Monkman, image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.
Kent Monkman (First Nations, Cree, born Saint Marys, Ontario 1965) mistikôsiwak (Wooden Boat People): Resurgence of the People, 2019, acrylic on canvas,11 × 22 ft. (335.3 × 670.6 cm). © Kent Monkman, image courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

Powell says, “It’s not always about taking things down, museums should be about celebrating the creative expression and knowledge…that comes from populations around the globe” (Powell). The Hood Museum of Art changed the spatial layout of the museum, placing the African and African diaspora art in the front rooms, before the European art. Also, some exhibitions have been combined temporally and geographically, with pieces from different places and time periods being placed near each other. These actions are essential to disrupting the traditional Eurocentric focus of museums, allowing for new ways of seeing art, and giving a voice to those artists who have been silenced in the past.  

References: 

Powell, Jamie. “The Power of Place: Public Art and Indigenous Representations.” Lecture, Boston College, Chestnut Hill, MA, March 17, 2021. 

Humphrey, Walter Beach. Hovey Murals. 1938. Oil on Canvas. Hood Museum of Art, Dartmouth College. 

Monkman, Kent. Welcoming the Newcomers. 2019. Acrylic on canvas, 132 x 264 in. (335.28 x 670.6 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York. 

Monkman, Kent. Resurgence of the People. 2019. Acrylic on canvas, 132 x 264 in. (335.28 x 670.6 cm). The Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.

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