“Worlds Within: Mimbres Pottery of the Ancient Southwest,” was slated to open at the Art Institute of Chicago (AIC) on May 26th. The exhibition would display 70 pieces of pottery from what is present-day southwest New Mexico, dating to around 1100 CE. On April 2nd the AIC announced the exhibition would be postponed. According to the Chicago Tribune, such a postponement is unprecedented.
James Rondeau, the Art Institute’s president and director, explained that the institution realized that Native voices and perspectives were not being represented in the exhibition. He is quoted in the Tribune and the Washington Post saying,
“The principal thing that we have not accomplished is to have an aligned indigenous perspective, scholarly and curatorial, with the project, and I think that ultimately for us has been the crucial realization that our ability to reflect back what we were learning needed to be done in multiple voices, not just our voice.”
In December, the AIC held a Scholars’ Day attended by Indigenous scholars and community members. During this convening, hosted by the exhibition’s organizers, Native scholars had questions around the ethics of displaying the Mimbres objects that were stolen from graves. The Washington Post quotes Kati Murphy, the museum’s executive director of public affairs, who explained how Indigenous participants of scholars’ day advised that AIC consult with “Native American nations who hold connections to the Mimbres people, including Pueblo leadership.” (The present-day Pueblo population is believed to include Mimbres descendants.) Heather Miller, executive director of Chicago’s American Indian Center, is pleased with the announcement, saying she finally feels like Indigenous scholar voices and concerns are being heard.
Patty Loew, director of Northwestern University’s Center for Native American and Indigenous Research, is quoted in the Tribune saying she supports the postponement. She also makes an important point regarding consultation with communities about whom a museum is doing an exhibition. Loew said,
“It’s not fair to frame what you’re going to do and then bring in people to affirm the decisions you’ve already made… There should have been consultation and communication from the very beginning.”
An event like “Scholars’ Day,” held just a few months before the opening of an exhibition is not an example of inclusive practices. It is a weak gesture too late into the game.
Marabou is happy that the AIC has postponed the exhibition to get the right people and communities involved. Although unsurprising, it is still upsetting to think that it is not common, or even industry standard, practice for museums to consult with representatives of the cultures they are doing exhibitions about. Only relatively recently are museums actively initiating communication with cultural representatives and leaders in order to include multiple voices beyond that of an institution’s curatorial team. Yes, the AIC’s postponement was the right step. Marabou hopes that other institutions learn from AIC’s mistake and institute a practice that starts the exhibition process with all stakeholders included, from the museum to the cultures and people represented in an exhibition’s objects and narratives.
“Art Institute postpones major Native American pottery exhibit over cultural insensitivity concerns at the last minute,” Steven Johnson, Chicago Tribune, 2 April 2019.
“Art Institute delays Native American exhibit amid concerns,” Associated Press, Washington Post, 2 April 2019.