When asked what has changed about the Field Museum’s hall dedicated to its Native North American collection, Doug Kiel replied, “Oh my God, what hasn’t changed?”
Kiel is an assistant professor at Northwestern University and a citizen of the Oneida Nation of Wisconsin. They are a member of an advisory committee that has been guiding the Field Museum through its four-year renovation of the hall. The old hall, Kiel said, showed what not to do in a museum.
“It was previously a hallway of mannequins, exhibiting traditional clothes,” said Kiel. “One would see an array of traditional implements, arrowheads and spoons, you know, a bison in a glass case.”
The displays had sat relatively unchanged since they opened to the public in the 1950s. When WBEZ visited the old hall in 2018, museum staff called it “misrepresentative” and said there were inaccuracies in how items were presented.
In Native Truths: Our Voices, Our Stories, which opened Friday, Kiel said the exhibition has done “a complete 180,” changing the museum’s relationships with Native peoples in the process.
The new hall is organized around five truths spelled out on the walls. One says: “Our Ancestors connect us to the past, present, and future.” Another: “The land shapes who we are.”
“What was told in the old hall was facts of a kind,” said Alaka Wali, curator emeritus of North American Anthropology at the Field Museum. “But it wasn’t like really getting to how Native peoples themselves understand their own story.”
Wali said the museum invited guest storytellers to curate displays, sometimes showing their own work alongside pieces from the Field’s collection. Some of the displays are in blue circular galleries in the middle of the hall. The museum plans to rotate what is in those galleries regularly.
Tori Lee, an exhibition developer at the Field Museum, said that is in direct response to the old hall, which stayed almost the same for decades.
“We’ve designed it so that the museum, you know, is constantly forced to change, and to build new relationships with folks,” said Lee.
The exhibition also candidly acknowledges the Field Museum’s own role in hurting Native communities. A new work by the artist X shows holograms of 25 items that the Field Museum owns and knows little about, because past collectors did not properly document them.
“I think his intent is… ultimately, do these things belong here?” said Wali. “Or do they belong back home with the peoples whose, you know, ancestors made them. And if they go home, is this virtual representation something that can eventually, you know, stand in stead?”
One of the five truths on the museum walls says: “Museum collecting and exhibition practices have deeply harmed Native communities. This exhibition marks a new beginning.”
Still More To Do
Someone who doesn’t necessarily see this as a new beginning is Anthony Tamez-Pochel.
Tamez-Pochel is First Nations Cree, Sicangu Lakota and Black, as well as a member of the Chi-Nations Youth Council. Tamez-Pochel said at first, the council was excited to bring a youth perspective to the renovation process as one of the museum’s community partners.
But they ended up dropping out after they found out that Rocky Wirtz, the owner of the Chicago Blackhawks, sits on the board of the Field Museum. The Blackhawks’s logo is a caricature of a Native American, which Tamez-Pochel said is harmful.
“We’re not going to work with someone who is actively working against the Native community,” said Tamez-Pochel.
Some people who stuck with the process admitted their own initial uncertainty about working with the Field Museum.
“There’s a sense of hesitancy in working with institutions, museums, places of higher learning,” said Jason Wesaw, a contributing artist who is a citizen of the Pokagon Band of Potawatomi and is Turtle Clan.
But this time, Wesaw said museum staff put him at ease about the intentions of the renovation.
“I really felt a sense from the staff and the personnel that they were trying to empower us,” he said. “That our stories were going to help them reach this broad global audience that they have access to.”
Kiel said the Field Museum has an opportunity to provide a deeper narrative that fills in gaps in the Native American history taught in schools.
“The old exhibit was dark, and drab, and dreary,” said Kiel. “[It] was a time capsule of sorts, locked in the past, and also silent. And the exhibit that’s there now… is much more vibrant. It’s alive with stories.”
Lauren Frost is a producer for WBEZ. Follow her @frostlaur.