Field Museum looks back on its history in new exhibition

When asked what has changed in the Field Museum’s halls dedicated to the Native American collection, Doug Gere replied: “Oh my God, what hasn’t changed?”

Kiel is an assistant professor at Northwestern University and a citizen of Oneida, Wisconsin. They are part of an advisory committee that has been directing the Field Museum’s four-year hall renovation. Kiel said the old halls demonstrate what not to do in a museum.

“It used to be a hallway of mannequins displaying traditional clothing,” says Kiel. “People will see a range of traditional tools and arrows and spoons, you know, bison in a glass case.”

These exhibitions have remained relatively unchanged since they opened to the public in the 1950s.When WBEZ visits the old hall 2018which museum staff called a “misrepresentation” and said there were inaccuracies in how the objects were presented.

exist Native Truth: Our Voices, Our StoriesOpening Friday, Kiel said the exhibition was completed “a full 180 times”, changing the museum’s relationship with Aboriginal people in the process.

native truth

The new hall is organized around the five truths on the wall. One said: “Our ancestors linked us to the past, present and future.” Another: “The land shaped us.”

“What’s being told in the old halls is a fact of life,” said Ala Cavalli, the Field Museum’s emeritus curator of North American anthropology. “But it’s not really about how the Aboriginal people themselves made sense of their own stories.”

The museum invites guest storytellers to curate exhibitions, sometimes showing their own work alongside works from the Field collection, Varley said. Some are displayed in the blue circular gallery in the middle of the hall. The museum plans to periodically rotate the items in these galleries.

Field Museum's new exhibit on Aboriginal
The Field Museum’s new permanent exhibit, Native Truths: Our Voices, Our Stories, opens May 20, 2022. Jay Young / Field Museum

Tori Lee, exhibition developer at the Field Museum, said it was a direct response to the old hall, which had remained almost unchanged for decades.

“We designed it so that the museum, you know, is constantly being forced to change and create new relationships with people,” Lee said.

The exhibit also frankly acknowledges the Field Museum’s own role in harming Aboriginal communities. A new work by artist X presents holograms of 25 objects the Field Museum owns but little is known about because past collectors have not properly recorded them.

“I think his intent was…in the end, do these things belong here?” Valley said. “Or do they belong to the people whose ancestors created them. If they go home, could this virtual representation eventually take their place?”

One of the five truths on the museum wall says: “The practice of museum collections and exhibitions has deeply hurt Indigenous communities. This exhibition marks a new beginning.”

There is more work to be done

The guy who doesn’t necessarily think it’s a fresh start is Anthony Tamez-Pochel.

Tamez-Pochel is an Aboriginal Cree, Sicangu Lakota and Black and a member of the Chi-Nations Youth Council. Tamez-Pochel initially said that, as one of the museum’s community partners, the committee was excited to bring a young person’s perspective into the renovation process.

But they eventually pulled out after they found out that Chicago Blackhawks owner Rocky Wirtz was on the Field Museum’s board. The Blackhawks logo is a Native American caricature, which Tamez-Pochel says is detrimental.

“We don’t work with people who actively oppose Indigenous communities,” Tamez-Pochel said.

Some who have stuck with the process admit to their initial uncertainty about working with the Field Museum.

“It’s hesitant to work with institutions, museums, institutions of higher learning,” says Jason Wesaw, a citizen of the Potawatomi Pokagon Band and a contributing artist to Turtle Clan.

But this time, Wesaw said museum staff reassured him about the renovation’s intentions.

“I really feel from the staff and staff that they are trying to empower us,” he said. “Our stories will help them reach the broad global audience they can reach.”

Field Museum's new exhibit on Aboriginal
The Field Museum’s new permanent exhibit, Native Truths: Our Voices, Our Stories, opens May 20, 2022. Jay Young / Field Museum

Keel said the Field Museum has an opportunity to provide a deeper narrative that fills in the gaps in Native American history taught in schools.

“The old exhibition was dark, drab, and dull,” says Kiel. “[It] Like a time capsule, locked in the past, also silent. Now the exhibitions there are… more dynamic. It’s full of stories. “

information: Native Truth: Our Voices, Our Stories Friday at the Field Museum (1400 S. DuSable Lake Shore Dr.; 1400 S. DuSable Lake Shore Dr.;; click here ticket information).

Lauren Frost is the producer of WBEZ. Follow her @frostlaur.

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