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Field Museum rethinking exhibits amid cultural responsibility, social unrest

The Field Museum, which sat for decades in the shadow of Grant Park’s Christopher Columbus statue, aims to renovate it’s Native North America Hall (scheduled to reopen in Fall 2021) with the assistance of an advisory board consisting of 12 Native American community leaders.

The exterior of The Field Museum of Natural History at 1400 S Lake Shore Drive in Chicago.
The exterior of The Field Museum of Natural History at 1400 S. Lake Shore Drive in Chicago.
Field Museum

No museum staffer wants to have the “Killmonger” conversation from the 2018 film “Black Panther,” in which they find themselves having to answer for not including voices from marginalized communities in how artifacts are displayed.

The Field Museum, which sat for decades in the shadow of Grant Park’s Christopher Columbus statue, aims to renovate its Native North America Hall (scheduled to reopen in Fall 2021) with the assistance of an advisory board consisting of 12 Native American community leaders.

“It’s a combination of a long process of rethinking how we work with communities and then how we co-curate with Native people to create that exhibit to let the voices of people from other cultures that we’re dealing with come through,” said Jaap Hoogstraten, the Field Museum’s director of exhibitions.

The museum is working with Native American communities, along with 75 collaborators from all over the globe in showcasing their culture in an honorable way. This includes going through “outdated” exhibits that hadn’t been updated in 60 or 70 years, said Hoogstraten. Some of the Native American tribes the museum reached out to include the Navajo, Hopi and Potawatomi, among many others.

“Many, many museums have done projects like this, and often have gone wrong at some point and that needed remediation,” said Hoogstraten. “We feel that one reason that happens is that Native voices are brought on too late.”

The Field Museum’s conservation team cares for 300 deinstalled cultural materials in their Regenstein lab.
John Weinstein/Provided Photo

Native American groups have been critical of the Field Museum for decades citing exhibition cases such as “Indians of the Chicago Region” as an example of problematic representation. Native American groups have bristled at the fact that Chicago Blackhawks chairman Rocky Wirtz is a museum board of trustees member. The team’s continued use of their mascot is viewed as racist.

“The museum is talking to Native [American] people and hiring Native [American] people to be a part of this process, so I think that just gives a lot of hope to people, but at the same time there’s also skepticism because of the way the museum has handled things in the past,” said Debra Yepa-Pappan, a citizen of the Pueblo of Jemez, a federally recognized tribe located in New Mexico and the museum’s Native [American] community engagement coordinator for the Native American Exhibition Hall.

“Apsáalooke Women and Warriors,” a temporary exhibit carefully curated via a collaborative effort, features war shirts, elk tooth dresses, and cradleboards, among other cultural material, re-opened to the public this summer after the pandemic forced a temporary shut-down to in-person museum visitors.

The Field Museum isn’t the only institution having ongoing conversations about exhibits amid worldwide social unrest. Oxford University’s Pitt Rivers Museum recently announced its efforts to “decolonize” its collections by removing human remains and its famous collection of shrunken heads.

And the NFL’s Washington Football Team dropped the team’s name in July after decades of criticism.

“There’s a lot of changes in the museum world where Native people are increasingly in curatorial positions,” said Oneida Nation of Wisconsin citizen and museum advisory committee member Doug Kiel. “One of the most important aspects of this new exhibition at the Field Museum, I think, is the way in which it will reorient visitors to understand that Chicago is an indigenous place.”