Written by Mike Murawski, Director of Education & Public Programs, Portland Art Museum; and Deana Dartt, Curator of Native American Art, Portland Art Museum
In 1989, the Portland Art Museum brought together a group of about twenty people to discuss the museum’s Rasmussen Collection of Northwest Coast Native American Art. Gathering in the museum’s basement, the group included museum staff, art experts, anthropologist and historian James Clifford, and a group of Tlingit elders accompanied by translators. Objects from the collection were brought out one by one, presented to the elders for comment with the expectation that they would tell museum staff about how each object was used or by whom they were made. Instead, as Clifford recounts:
“the objects in the Rasmussen Collection, focus for the consultation, were left—or so it seemed to me—at the margin. For long periods no one paid any attention to them. Stories and songs took center stage” (“Museums as Contact Zones,” p. 189).
Rather than providing historical details and context that could be easily converted into research files or didactic labels, the session brought forth voices, songs, dances, ongoing stories, and lived experiences that challenged the museum with alternative perspectives on these objects as well as a potential way of decentering the museum’s authorial voice. Instead of envisioning ways to bring these voices and stories into dialogue with the collection, the Museum bid the group goodbye and archived the audio and video footage of the consultation.
Twenty-five years after these ‘conversations in the basement,’ the Portland Art Museum is actively working to re-address many of the issues around interpreting its Native American collection. This post highlights a new interpretation project—being prototyped as part of the museum’s Object Stories initiative— that has gathered stories from Yup’ik tribe members in southwestern Alaska to share these voices and stories directly with museum visitors both online and in the galleries.
Framed by larger challenges facing museums in the 21st century, the Portland Art Museum has been involved in a broader process of rethinking how it relates to its public audience and exploring strategies to be more relevant to its community. It was out of this ongoing thinking that the Object Stories initiative was born in 2011. Since its inception, Object Stories has evolved into an educational platform for engaging audiences and bringing community voices into the process of interpreting the collection. By capturing, honoring, and sharing participants’ stories, Object Stories aims to demystify the museum, making it more accessible, welcoming, and meaningful to a greater diversity of communities. This initiative also allows the museum to explore how new media and other technological innovations can contribute to more genuinely inclusive engagement with audiences and communities.
Scholars have questioned how a museum’s voice might be changed from monovocal (single voice, often an institutional “voice from nowhere”) to a more polyvocal (many voices, without much sense of hierarchy).
“In this scenario, museums are encouraged to give up some of their control and their authorial voice to allow the public or specific communities to speak for themselves and be heard in a public space.” (“One Voice to Many Voices?”, 164)
Connecting Collections with Communities: Yup’ik Stories
Early in 2013, education and curatorial staff at the Portland Art Museum collaborated with Alaskan artist and photographer Katie Basile to record a series of “object stories” with native Yup’ik elders, artists, and youth. During several visits to the southwest Alaskan communities of Quinhagak, Kotlik, and Bethel, Basile captured stories from these individuals that reflect upon objects of personal significance as well as selected Yup’ik masks and dance wands from the Museum’s collection. For this project, Basile used a new iPad app designed for the Object Stories project to allow for recording stories outside the walls of the museum.
As part of the larger initiative to generate knowledge and interpretive resources with the Native community in the public spaces of the museum, these Yup’ik stories have been exhibited in the Arctic Native American Art gallery through an iPad listening station adjacent to their related objects. Bringing together personal object stories and collection-based stories, the museum is offering visitors a layered and nuanced learning experience as the Yup’ik tribe members share their personal and cultural perspectives. The organic, first-person narratives presented here allow for an emphasis on individual Native voices and begin to disrupt the stereotype of a “community voice” that assumes a single “Native” way of being, thinking, and art-making.
The content developed during this pilot Yup’ik storytelling project has proven so meaningful that the Museum plans to expand the model to targeted communities, utilizing the connections and expertise of Native artists to record community members’ stories as part of the Object Stories initiative. First-person narratives by origin community members will then be available to museum visitors through iPads, online collections, and other digital strategies.
Bringing Back the Story
In 1989 (pre-NAGPRA), the Portland Art Museum was bold and progressive, if only somewhat ethnocentric, to secure NEH funding to bring Tlingit tribal members to the museum to help the institution tell a more meaningful story of the ancestral objects as it redesigned the Native American galleries. While motives were pure and collaboration was intended, the museum stood between the objects and the stories. The museum attempted to serve as the bridge for the visitors between the ancestral object and the descendent storyteller. However, the stories and objects out of context required much more interpretation than time allowed, so the tapes sat idle with museum staff clueless about any connection to the collection the stories were intended to enliven. Museums have continued to mediate the connection between story and object. We hope to step out of the way.
Object Stories allows people to bring story back to objects disembodied from their cultures and their people. We hope that through this work we can reunite the ancestors with (while introducing museum visitors to) the energy, language, and living traditions of Native people. Initiatives like Object Stories have the potential to transform museums from “sites where knowledge is transmitted to passive audiences to potential forums or contact zones where new voices and visibilities are raised and new knowledge(s) actively constructed” (Viv Golding, Museums and Communities, 25).
In many ways, the Object Stories platform challenges the museum, its audiences, and its communities to consider the complex types of exchange and dialogue that might occur with its collections beyond the traditional experience of passive, didactic looking. This platform is enabling us to facilitate, and then share, the dialogue between the maker and the viewer and through a process of shared authority and unmediated connection may transform the way museums see, utilize, and present Native American art.