Museum of Natural History’s Renewed Hall Holds Treasures and Pain

Crafted of wood, iron, plant fiber and animal sinew, the model of 10 men paddling a canoe would strike most viewers as a beautiful object. But to Haa’yuups, head of the House of Takiishtakamlthat-h of the Huupa‘chesat-h First Nation, on Vancouver Island, Canada, it also holds a mystical power. A spirit canoe, it represents the ripple of invisible oars in the water — a sound that people of his community report hearing after they have purified themselves through fasting and bathing.

When the Northwest Coast Hall at the American Museum of Natural History reopens to the public on May 13, after a five-year, $19 million renovation, the spirit canoe — which was not previously shown — will be one of more than 1,000 artifacts on view. Organized by Haa’yuups and Peter Whiteley, the curator of North American ethnology at the museum, the redesigned exhibit expresses the perspectives of the 10 nations whose cultures are on display: placing an emphasis on the spiritual and functional purposes of the objects for the people who made them, and incorporating testimony from community representatives about government repression of their culture.

The Northwest Coast Hall was the first gallery to open at the museum. Inaugurated in 1899 by Franz Boas, a giant of anthropology who conducted extensive field work in the Pacific Northwest, it embodied what was at the time cutting-edge thinking. At other museums, notably the Smithsonian Institution in Washington, Indigenous people were regarded as “savages” who needed to be “civilized.”

In radical contrast, Boas presented non-Western artifacts as the fruits of various sophisticated civilizations. There wasn’t just one culture toward which all people were advancing. He popularized the idea of “cultural relativism,” in which societies exist as parallel universes, with beliefs and behaviors that are products of their environments. “It had a revolutionary quality,” Whiteley said. “Until then, ‘culture’ couldn’t be pluralized. Boas wanted to place people and objects in context.”

But yesterday’s revolution can come to seem retrograde. In the renovated hall, contextual labeling for the cultural artifacts has been amplified to portray the viewpoints, in the voices of Indigenous people, of the communities that made and used them. In a presentation of Haida carvings, for instance, there is a discussion of the End of Mourning Ceremony, which is held to release the spirit of the deceased a year or more after death. To this explanation is added a pungent commentary: “When missionaries arrived at our shores, they forced our Ancestors to adopt Western burial practices. Despite this, many of our traditions around death, mourning and remembrance have endured and are still practiced today.”

Notwithstanding these curatorial interventions, some critics argue that the very idea of storing masterpieces of colonized societies in an anthropological museum is outdated. Haa’yuups is one of them. “I still believe that that material belongs to us and it will never be given its true value in any other setting than our own Houses,” he said.

Since 1998, the museum has returned 1,850 objects that hold singular importance to American Indigenous people, guided by the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990. But communities are seeking more. In a statement this week, the museum said it was in discussions with the representatives of Indigenous nations and “pursuing a process for limited repatriation as we explore multiple ways of continuing our relationship.”

Haa’yuups said he knows that a large-scale restitution is unlikely to happen anytime soon, and so he accepted the museum’s invitation to participate in the renovation project. Consultants from nine First Nations were enlisted as well.

“I wanted the treasures to be contextualized in a rich way and seen as the wealth of our people that had been stolen away,” Haa’yuups explained. “I wanted to see every bit of background in the display cases filled with words of the people who lived there. The single most important thing we could do is feature somehow the variety of belief systems that existed on the Northwest Coast and underline the particularity and similarity between them.”

Public institutions are increasingly responsive to charges of post-colonialism and racism. In January, the museum removed from its front steps a bronze statue of Theodore Roosevelt astride a horse and flanked by a Native American and an African, both bare-chested. In another gesture, it is in planning stages for mounting in the rotunda a land acquisition plaque that acknowledges that its building stands on land that once belonged to the Lenape. (The Metropolitan Museum installed such a sign a year ago, after adding its first full-time curator of Native American art, Patricia Marroquin Norby.)

The physical alterations to the Northwest Coast Hall, made in collaboration with the architect Kulapat Yantrasast of the firm wHY, are subtler. The transitions between eight alcoves and four corner galleries that represent 10 nations were opened up. “It’s not a radical departure,” said Lauri Halderman, vice president for exhibition. “It’s down in the details.” Formerly bordered on three sides, the alcoves have been reconfigured with walkways that ease visitor circulation and, on a conceptual level, reflect the porosity between these communities.

“They’re all fishing cultures that depend on the same economy,” Whiteley said. “It is unlike any culture anywhere. Because of the abundance of fish, it is a sedentary culture.” (Typically, a sedentary culture is agricultural, and communities that depend on hunting and fishing will migrate to follow their prey.)

The different nations were interconnected in complex patterns of trade. The showstopper in the Northwest Coast Hall is a 63-foot-long canoe, which has been returned to this gallery, suspended from the ceiling, after being on display elsewhere in the museum for over 70 years. Carved from a single red cedar log around 1878, it is the largest Pacific Northwest dugout canoe in existence. Its hybrid origins are still in dispute. The Haida, whose land encompassed cedar forests, probably shaped it and decorated the prow and stern with designs of an eagle and killer whale. Then the craft was acquired by the Heiltsuk people, perhaps as a dowry, and there it was adorned with sea-wolf imagery and carved benches. One of the earliest pieces to enter the collection, in 1883, the canoe was embellished for exhibition in 1910 with figures representing Tlingits on their way to a potlatch ceremony. Colorful, yes, but the wrong native people. In 2007, they were removed.

Looming majestically in the hall are wooden crest poles, carved and sometimes painted, most of which were brought into the gallery during a previous renovation in 1910. In all, there are 67 monumental carvings, including house posts and other sculptures, ranging in height from 3 to 17 feet. The gallery also boasts headdresses, woven baskets, feast dishes and ceremonial curtains and panels.

A changing exhibition will showcase contemporary creations that extend artistic traditions; in the first rendition, sneakers, skateboards and basketballs are among the featured objects. “There are very different ways of being an artist in the modern world, and we thought we should show some applied art,” Halderman said.

In the ongoing process of discovery, representatives of Indigenous cultures have reviewed items retrieved from the museum’s storerooms and found extraordinary treasures that were never on public display. To exhibit them, the showcases were redesigned, because the old ones were so shallow that they functioned best to hold fish hooks. (Boas was partial to fish hooks.) Along with the “spirit canoe,” one previously hidden beauty is a finely woven conical hat from the late 18th or early 19th century that represents in semiabstract style men in a boat who are hunting whales.

One artifact on exhibit in the Northwest Coast Hall is a beaver canoe prow that is a replica of the original, which was repatriated in 1999 after a delegation of tribal elders recognized it among a group of objects that the museum kept in storage. Garfield George, head of Deishú Hít, or the End of the Beaver Trail House, Raven moiety, Deisheetaan clan of Angoon, in Alaska, was one of the Tlingit visitors at that moment of discovery.

In October 1882, the U.S. Navy bombarded Angoon in a punitive act of retribution. “They gathered all the canoes and chopped them up and burned them,” George said. But one canoe, which was probably out to sea at the time, survived. “It was called ‘The Canoe That Saved Us,’” he continued. Before the full onset of winter, sailors using that canoe were able to gather timber to build housing and construct new boats. “Later on, the hull of the canoe cracked and they cremated it like it was a human being,” George said. “But they never mentioned what happened to the prow.”

No one knew whether it even still existed. But it was documented in century-old photographs.

When they spotted its distinctive profile, the elders fell silent in reverential awe. Since its return to Alaska, at dedication ceremonies for a new or renovated house, the prow is on display. “We bring it out at every potlatch,” George said. “It’s on a post and it faces our guests. It is one of the first things people see when they come in. We say, ‘Our beaver prow is going to steady your canoe, when you go through what you’re going through now.’”

In a ceremony on May 4, representatives of the different nations in traditional dress, consecrated the Northwest Coast Hall. For some, it is a bittersweet duty. In the eyes of people whose animist religious beliefs endow power and spirituality to boulders and trees as well as to people and beasts, the confinement of cultural artifacts in a museum is akin to incarceration.

Haa’yuups compares it to the exhibition of orcas in a marine theme park. “We don’t need to have killer whales in captivity and we don’t need to exhibit dance robes and rattles in museums,” he said.

But he acknowledges that the legacy of Boas and his successors is a complex one. “Without a doubt he is one of the major thinkers who brought people to where they are today,” he said. “Boas in mounting the exhibit was particularizing people and was adamantly anti-racist. He argued that different cultural groups could feel the same emotions and experience what other cultures experience. Yet he thought it was OK to steal things from the Northwest Coast and bring them for exhibit. He was a brilliant man and I have enormous respect for him. But he did things wrong. He was human. I want to look at that aggressively.”