An Ethnography of "Our Lives": Collaborative Exhibit Making at the National Museum of the American Indian

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In September of 2004, the National Museum of the American Indian opened in Washington, DC next to the United States Capitol. Based explicitly on a commitment to collaborate with Native peoples, this museum presents the grandest experiment to date in ethical relations and exhibition strategies regarding the indigenous peoples of the Americas. This is an ethnography of the making of two "community curated" exhibits in the "Our Lives: Contemporary Life and Identities" gallery, which featured eight communities from the Arctic to the Caribbean, including the urban Indian community of Chicago and the Kalinago community of Dominica. This account is based on two years of fieldwork, formal and informal interviews, and participant observation through volunteer work in the museum and in these two communities.

  The community curating process and its product, "Native voice," give the NMAI its legitimacy and symbolic capital as both a Native institution and an ethical museum.  Taking seriously NMAI references to Native community members as "co-curators," this is also an ethnography of "experts," focusing on bureaucratic practice, the collaborative production of "Native voice," and the performance of both cultural and professional identities.  By foregrounding the politics of expertise in collaborative work, the debates, decisions and compromises that are inaccessible in the finished exhibition are revealed, as well as the impact this work had on the lives of its producers both in the museum and in Native communities.

  Although community curating was seen as essential to fulfilling the museum's mission, it was also at the center of ideological differences among museum departments that were founded in different interpretations of best practice and thus espoused different forms of agency: translation versus advocacy.  Although collaboration was generally praised as a process and founded in theoretical critiques of representation, reviewers criticized its product as undiscriminating and lacking "scholarship."  Ultimately what this ethnography of collaboration reveals is the contested nature of expertise, identity, Native authority, and anthropology in the museum and in Native communities alike, as well as the impact of the audience (whether real or imagined) on both the practice and the future of community curating at the NMAI.

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National Museum of the American Indian; Indigenous Representation; Collaboration; Anthropology of Experts; Urban Indians of Chicago; Kalinago (Island Carib)


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