Patricia Baudino was a contributing author to the volume of the Journal of Museums and Social Issues we guest edited a year ago. In this piece, she discusses research she’s been conducting as part of her internship at the Indian Arts Research Center (IARC), which examines the exchange of information between the IARC and local source communities. She highlights the transformational potential collaboration holds both on institutional policies and practices. The IARC sets a fantastic example for institutions interested in new collaborative methodologies, access-gaining practices, and promoting Indigenous research agendas.
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Collaborations in cultural institutions create and share connections that allow us to better understand our human experience. Chances are, you’ve encountered collaborations before. You know that for much of the past twenty years, collaborations in the museum world have often involved exhibition processes, repatriation concerns, or public programming (Scott and Luby 2007). However, where I work at the Indian Arts Research Center at the School for Advanced Research, collections-based collaboration is proving transformative. These collaborations are reprioritizing museum goals, reconnecting source communities with cultural materials, and reestablishing source community control over objects and knowledge.
The Indian Arts Research Center (IARC) is a research collection with approximately 12,000 Native American-made objects. The collections include pottery, textiles, jewelry, paintings, and basketry; the majority comes from Southwestern Native tribes. The IARC has a lengthy history, as does its larger institution, the School for Advanced Research. (If you would like to know more about the history of SAR, click here: http://sarweb.org/?history.) In 2012, reflecting the values they hoped to nurture, IARC staff changed their guiding principles to foster collaborations, listen and observe, and respect all cultures. Collections-based collaborations now happening at the IARC find their roots in these values.
Collection-based collaborative work (re)connects descendant communities with cultural objects. I define collections-based collaboration as mutually constructed goals between cultural institutions and communities (or individuals), to gain deeper understandings of the knowledge and connections possessed by the objects in a collection. Respecting the nuanced histories of objects deepens a museum’s understanding of collections while opening a dialogue with source communities about control, access, and culture.
At the beginning of IARC’s history, a condescending and often patronizing attitude informed collection practices. Many collectors and staff acted from a preservationist belief that their intervention was necessary to maintaining “traditional” artistic standards in Native communities (Babcock 1990; Jacobs 1998). Today at IARC, descendant communities are an essential source of knowledge and a vital partner in contributing to the growth and use of the collections. This era of respect and collaboration has reorganized traditional hierarchies of knowledge and power, inspired indigenous-centered collections care, and created sites for community sharing and cultural support.
IARC embarked on collections-based collaborative work with Zuni collection reviews. During this five year process, the IARC and the Zuni collection review team created a respectful, more complete understanding of IARC’s Zuni collection. The project had several long term goals for success: review the entire collection of Zuni items, correct inaccurate information within IARC records, and establish protocols for staff and research projects. Along with these goals, the collection reviews established a working relationship of trust and reciprocity between IARC and Zuni Tribe.
The Zuni collection reviews started in 2009 as a project to assess the “Pseudo-Ceremonial Pottery Collection”. After reviewing the seventy-eight pieces in the collection, the advisors determined that the majority of the pots were not actually used for special ceremonies nor were they old; potters made them look worn, altered design patterns, or left out attributes found on ceremonial pots. Thanks to the expertise of cultural advisors and this collaboration, the records now show Zuni potters created pseudo-ceremonial pots to sell to collector and museum markets in the 1900s, protecting Zuni ceremonial pots from collection or theft. This simultaneously guarded Zuni cultural traditions and filled collector’s needs for “ritual” art. The collection of items now has a more complete record to share with community members and researchers, telling an empowering story of Zuni ingenuity and survivance.
The collection reviews also added Zuni names for objects, creating more dynamic, layered, and Zuni-appropriate records. Before the collection reviews, staff recorded the term for Zuni wooden carvings as katsinas, a Hopi term, in the database. Advisors shared the Zuni word for these carvings, kokko, as well as specific Zuni names for each individual kokko. Records now reflect proper Zuni names, acknowledging and paying respect to the objects and the Zuni worldview.
The collection reviews established protocols for staff, research visits, image requests, and collections care. The protocols ensure that the IARC respects Zuni wishes regarding object care and access. Protocols include handling, storage and photography instructions for objects. Researchers now must provide written permission from designated Zuni cultural advisors to view or photograph a restricted piece. Protocols honor Zuni beliefs and rules about their own culture, giving some control of the objects back to their community.
The IARC and Acoma Tribe will embark on collaboration next. Engaging multiple descendant communities and their cultural objects, collections-based collaborations create a more holistic representation of knowledge in the collections. The process is correcting information, privileging source community knowledge, and establishing foundations for respectful, reciprocal relationships between the IARC and local Native communities.
Collections-based collaboration brings healing to cultural institutions. It encourages ideas of mutual benefit, as the very nature of collections-based collaborations fosters understanding, respect, and changes in institutional priorities. This is hard work. It means taking risks, as both sides of the dialogue must open themselves up to uncertainty, pain, and vulnerability. Establishing trust and respect plays a large role. Museums have to dare to let go of control (even sometimes of objects), and approach collaborations with a preparedness to work with open minds and respect. Descendent communities have to open themselves up to trusting the motives of institutions that have hurt their people and cultures in the past. Starting on a path of collections-based collaboration takes courage. But courage may be the most vital of human qualities, and taking risks is essential for making serious social change.
Babcock, Barbara A. 1990. “‘A New Mexican Rebecca’: Imaging Pueblo Women.” Journal of the Southwest 32 (4): 400–437.
Jacobs, Margaret. 1998. “Shaping a New Way: White Women and the Movement to Promote Pueblo Indian Arts and Crafts, 1900-1935.” Journal of the Southwest 40 (2): 187–215.
Scott, Elizabeth, and Edward M. Luby. 2007. “Maintaining Relationships with Native Communities: The Role of Museum Management and Governance.” Museum Management and Curatorship 22 (3): 265–85. doi:10.1080/09647770701628602.
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Patricia Baudino is the 2013-2014 Anne Ray Intern at the Indian Arts Research Center at the School for Advanced Research, in Santa Fe, New Mexico. She received her MA in Indigenous Nations Studies with an area of specialization in Museum Studies from the University of Kansas in 2012. Through Native collaboration and community involvement, she helps collections express Native identities, reconnect with Native communities, and communicate issues facing Native groups. Her work with Native communities and collections examines how good collaborations change and challenge museums, including how Native peoples can take colonial and state forms of knowledge production (such as museums), and transform them into sites of power, meaning, and decolonization for Native nations. She published on article on her work with the Spencer Museum of Art’s ethnographic collection and exhibition Passages: Persistent Visions of a Native Place in last November’s Museum and Social Issues, as well as presented the work at the 2013 Association of Tribal Libraries, Archives, and Museums International Conference. She will give an expanded talk about the Indian Arts Research Center’s collections-based collaborations during a School for Advanced Research colloquium at the end of April, and moderate a panel on Indigenous transformations in art and culture spaces at the 2014 Indian Arts Speaker Series, Art in Flux, in May.