(Im)possibilities: Exhibition Curation at the National Museum of the American Indian and the Decolonizing Agenda
AuthorDawson, Charlotte Grace
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PublisherThe University of Arizona.
RightsCopyright © is held by the author. Digital access to this material is made possible by the University Libraries, University of Arizona. Further transmission, reproduction, presentation (such as public display or performance) of protected items is prohibited except with permission of the author.
AbstractIn its 18 years of operation, the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C. has continued to attract the attention of researchers and non-specialist audiences alike. Researchers have characterized the museum as a grand experiment in “New Indian Museology” on a national stage, some even suggesting that the institution represents a decolonizing museum (Shannon 2014, Smith 2005). In this thesis, I describe how the NMAI has articulated their “New Indian Museology” and engaged with decolonial praxes through an analysis of their object-oriented displays. In focusing on the physical collections on display for public consumption, this research contributes to decolonial studies of the museum which did not systematically analyze material collections themselves which, “are in fact at the core of the NMAI in profoundly contradictory ways” (Ronan 2014:133). I situate the institution’s strategic goals, mission statements, and methodologies in the context of the actual work that they produce (the exhibitions themselves) to assess how the exhibitions do or do not meet the goals of the institution and the aims of decolonization. Through qualitative content analysis of object display labels and associated texts, I argue that while museum staff activate some elements of decolonial museology (e.g., including narratives of Indigenous persistence and resistance, allowing for Indigenous self-representation, thematic exhibitions), they are unevenly distributed across displays and embedded within colonial modes of knowledge production that are continually upheld in museum displays and the institutional structure. Though the museum continues to rework its curatorial ambitions and strategies, its very status as an institution created and funded by the settler nation-state to manage an enormous colonial object collection inhibits its ability to fully engage with decolonial praxes to create a “Native Place” (NMAI 2004 Strategic Plan).
Degree ProgramGraduate College