Indians under glass

The Indian exhibit currently underway at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City takes an unexpected turn.

The Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky
assumes a soft approach.

There’s an Osage pipe, a beaded dress from the turn of the century, a parflesch and a ghost dance drum.

Each tells a story from a softer gaze than we typically see in exhibits directed by outsiders.

But this exhibit recruited insiders—folks informed by American Indian ways-of-knowing, some Indian by blood quantum—to present and describe the artifacts.

Pity that the objects are just objects in glass cases.

I visited the Met last week with a clutch of visitors to behold items like a magnificent quillwork that retains its hue after decades, decorating a woman’s animal-skin dress.

We see hand-drawn images of Sundance from South Dakota and a note that describes how the ceremonies were quashed by government authorities and how, little by little, tribal people brought back the traditions.

But the exhibit by its very nature separates the spectator from the object.

The cradle board and headdress are lovingly described but we don’t see the baby and we don’t see the warrior.

The exhibit praises the skill of the artisans, showing life before and during settlement. Stories of disease and destruction are mentioned quietly in text, with an emphasis instead on craft and art.

But the sight of the untouched drum and the unworn moccasin reminds me of a vibrant period now gone.



Image of Shield with Guardian Spirit (1850) from the exhibit


About Cynthia Coleman Emery

Professor and researcher at Portland State University who studies science communication, particularly issues that impact American Indians. Dr. Coleman is an enrolled citizen of the Osage Nation.
This entry was posted in american indian, authenticity, framing, Indian, Indian relocation, Metropolitan Museum of Art, native american, Native American Heritage Month, native press, Native Science, Osage, Plains Indians: Artists of Earth and Sky, propaganda, repatriation and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Indians under glass

  1. I am reminded of Lacan’s “presence of an absence”… I so often am.

    Liked by 1 person

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