27 5 / 2012
Interview By Elayne Janiak
Dr. Dartt-Newton began her tenure as Curator of Native American Art with the Portland (Oregon) Art Museum on January 2, 2012. She received her bachelors, masters and doctoral degrees in anthropology from the University of Oregon. She previously served as Curator of Native American Ethnology at the University of Washington’s Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. She was also an assistant professor of American Indian Studies at the University. She and her husband have one daughter.
Elayne Janiak: I understand that your doctoral dissertation examined the “take home” messages left with museum visitors regarding Native Americans and how these messages differed from the lived experiences and alternative histories told by Native people themselves. What are some of those “take home” messages? How are they imparted by museums? How can those messages be corrected?
Deana Dartt-Newton: Some of the most prevalent messages are that Native people are gone—at least the “real” or “pure” ones. The historic materials reflect the uncontaminated Native culture that was “replaced” by the dominant, mainstream American one. Many venues portray this in a chronological trajectory where the Indians are only at the beginning of the story—literally placed at the entry of the exhibit spaces, but left behind in every way. One way to disrupt this narrative is through multimedia presentations— of living Native peoples. Some look “Native,” others don’t. Some do “traditional” cultural practices, some don’t. I say, show it all. Talk about the actual history of place in text panels. Show maps of displacement of local people and discuss what this meant for identity and cultural knowledge for the people.
A new narrative doesn’t HAVE to be imparted in new exhibits. In fact, I argue that older museums can use outdated exhibits to discuss outdated narratives and how these narratives shaped the current perceptions of Native people.
Integrate contemporary, political, edgy, thought-provoking art by Native artists.
Ultimately, what my dissertation argues is that for museums to adequately tell Native histories they must be engaged with local Native communities.
EJ: The Oregon Historical Society, across the street from the Portland Art Museum (PAM), holds many Native American artifacts and currently has a travelling exhibit entitled “Oregon Is Indian Country” which is described as follows: ”Oregon’s Indian traditions will be illuminated by many art forms including native voices, historical artifacts, photographs and more, producing a powerful exhibition.” Should the interpretation of traditional Native American artifacts in an art museum, such as PAM, differ from the interpretation of such artifacts in an historical or ethnological museum? If so, how ?
DD-N: Coming from the perspective of Native woman and anthropologist, I think that Art museums should provide a little more context than they do—through various media. It pains me to see historic materials without contemporary works, photos, video, etc. that demonstrate the rest of the story—the continuation, innovation, preservation of cultural lifeways. The focus is different in an art museum, as it should be—on the art. But what many museum visitors do not realize is that for Native artists (many, not all), art is rooted in culture, community and place. Ideas that add dimension to a work of art (from the perspective of the artist or the artist’s culture) are important to include. Should the art museum replicate what the history museum does? No. But with an emphasis on the art form, tell a more complete story of materials, motifs, uses and continuation of the practice (even if that includes WHY some practices were discontinued or changed to adapt to an art market, etc.).
I also think that Native art collecting is a highly political act and relates to social issues that beg transparency. How did these materials come to be in the Art museum?? What influences have Native people had on collections, collecting, and the art market itself.
So—with a focus more clearly on the form rather than the function of historic materials and a discussion of continuity and change, that provides the visitor with a clear picture of “living” traditions which are often innovative and changing—Art museums have a different story to tell, but one that is equally contextualized.