This was the word of welcome spoken by the Shinnecock Nation representatives as they greeted a group of revered elders from the First Nations in the Pacific Northwest, select guests, and the media at the American Museum of Natural History on Monday morning, when the Museum announced that the Northwest Coast Hall would undergo a multi-year endeavor to update and restore the Hall’s exhibits. 

The work is scheduled to be completed in 2020, in time for the Museum’s 150th anniversary celebration, and the amount that has to be done in this period is staggering. There are approximately 1,400 artifacts that need to be assessed and restored, including six totems that have been on open display for 100 years. For those managing the technical restoration of these items, fluctuating humidity and prior treatments represent some of the larger obstacles that conservationists will need to overcome. Utilizing cleaning techniques applied to modern paintings, researchers hope that they can undo some of this damage.

This history of the Hall is significant. It was conceived of and designed by Franz Boas, who is often recognized as the father of anthropology, and his collaborator, George Hunt, who worked together to collect cultural artifacts and document the experience of Native Northwest Coast life. They collected over 9,000 artifacts. When it opened in 1899, the Hall was the first of it’s kind. Its arrangement maintained that cultures should stand on their own and not be compared beyond themselves, which was a radical break from the established belief that culture existed on a spectrum that could be traced from primitive to advanced. As the first gallery in what would grow to be the Museum, it contained a promise for the ethos of the Museum. But this history was rightfully secondary to the words, prayers, and songs shared by the elders who will help guide this project over the coming years.

Kaa-xoo-auxch/Garfield George (head of the Raven Beaver House of Angoon/Dei Shu Hit “End of the Trail House,” Tlingit) told the gathered audience that it was hard to see the artifacts in the Hall as they were but he was heartened by how well preserved they were, which ultimately is a service to the people to whom they belong. To emphasize this point, he spoke of the repatriation that of a canoe bow that had occurred some years prior. Canoes are significant to the Tlingit. They are treated as living beings, and when a bow is cracked, it is honored and cremated. In an act of colonization, the canoes of his people were purposefully destroyed and it was believed that they were lost forever. The canoes were remembered in stories told at potlatches. It was an emotional moment when he learned that one canoe still remained and it was at the Museum. Kaa-Xoo-Auxch said that the canoe’s homecoming was momentous with many people journeying over great distances to welcome it home. 

While this preservation work is important, Kaa-Xoo-Auxch noted that the placards containing information for the public could do a better job at explaining the artifacts and their significance. And for Haa’yuups/Ron Hamilton (head of the House of Takiishtakamlthat-h, of the Huupach'esat-h First Nation, Nuu-chah-nulth, artist, and cultural historian) the coming work represents a chance for the First Nations to help author and own the public understanding of their history. For over 100 years, the Hall and its displays have been unchanged. He viewed this partnership as a chance to help scholars and researchers, and ultimately the visiting public, to move beyond a surface understanding of the artifacts and a better understanding of their meaning to the people who created and loved them. Where the records are technical and impersonal, Haa’yuups hoped that the public placards will better illustrate the relationships maintained between the artifacts and their owners, as well as tell the story of their significance. And in this work, he hopes that there would be a recognition of Native scholars too—for who better than to guide the discussion?

In the spirit of Franz Boas, Jisgang/Nika Collison (Ts'aahl clan of the Haida Nation, curator of the Haida Gwaii Museum at Kay Llnagaay) stressed that while this Hall would be a single house to hold these belongings, their owners were still individual peoples. The sharing and restoration of these items will hopefully allow us to better understand and recognize our shared history. Speaking softly but with an undeniable resonance, Jisgang said this collaboration with the Museum was not a reconciliation with the greater public, but a means to that reconciliation could be achieved thru an acknowledgement of grief. That is, we need to work together to hear and tell the histories that will surface in this work. As a group, we need to own this history and only then can we begin to dismantle some of what has been done to the integrity of the First Nations.

The First Nations representatives spoke their own words of thanks and welcome to the Shinnecock leaders as they acknowledged their reception. It was poignant to watch these leaders first greet and honor each other before turning to the other members of the audience. And a compelling reminder of the history embedded in the artifacts of the Northwest Coast Hall and the experience of the Museum itself. The Museum is the means by which these stories will be told. History has made it a necessary tool of preservation, but involvement of these individuals suggests that 2020 may be a hallmark in how exhibits of natural history are managed. 

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