A museum is a community/knowledge/culture center that originates from a European society practice that was first done in a part of the Mediterranean and spread from there.  I see the foundations of this practice as a means to satisfy the human need to covet.  Oxford languages defines “covet” as a verb that means to “-yearn to possess or to have (something).”  To covet is the first step of collecting, and as the practice of coveting and collecting developed through historical museum practices, Museums started to connect to another basic human need, the need to explore.  Both the practice of coveting and exploring are universal human needs/tendencies that developed and where practiced all over the globe.  A prime example of this is the art of taxidermy, that was practiced in many diverse cultures and places.  A foundational practice that enabled the first forms of up close study, appreciation and collection of wildlife, taxidermy was developed in many different cultures.  Even here in Alaska, taxidermy was practiced by the Koyukon Athabascan peoples to collect and admire some of their favorite birds, like the Common Loon (Make prayers to the Raven, R.Nelson P. 85).

Understanding what needs a museum meets is key in understanding what a museum historically was, what it is now and what it should be.  As an individual with Indigenous ancestry, I cannot be unaware of the damage and harm done by the process of coveting, collecting and exploring things that were not given with consent or context for how they would be used.  Recognizing and addressing that harm is something that many institutions are moving towards, and it is an essential process that is needed if museums are to truly be meant for everyone.  Now even more than ever there is a greater understanding between performed and practiced equality.  While it would be wonderful for museums to exist without these historical wrongs, some museums still perpetuate damage and harm to living peoples and cultures through misinformation, stereotypes, disconcert for cultural/religious practices and lack of consultation/representation of the living peoples who are represented in their collections.

What I want a museum to be is a place where we can develop our relationships with history, the natural world and/or diverse perspectives/expressions of living and being on this planet and beyond, while also making space for living peoples to learn, grow, heal, educate, speak and create.  Key points to doing this ethically would be: equitable representation, multi-perspective historical context, and active consent/acknowledgement.  Museums speak to needs and desires we all have, as an Alaska Native Artist, I have dreamed of a museum that makes space for historical cultural objects to be touched by elders, for cultural practices to take place along side or with our historical objects and for the creation of new cultural objects to be in place with the study of the historic ones, so that we may study the masterpieces of our cultures.  I want there to be a museum that aims to aid not only the preservation of our cultures but supports the survival, development and adaptation of our culture as well.  If museums meet a need that we all share as human beings, why shouldn’t they so with regards to the feeling, wishes, rights or traditions of all of us?

Q: How should museums serve the living peoples whose cultures/identities/ancestries are represented in their collections?

4 Thoughts to “Suna Museum?”

  1. Michael Hubert

    Erin, thanks for sharing your post. lately I have had a lot of discussion about this topic. I feel the right way is to reach out to those people and see how they can better educate the museum on their cultures. make them a part of the process. I recently interviewed a artist for a project and when the museum and the group of people came together they really made things work. they had traditional blessings/ceremonies and members of the community come in and this was all before they even started to work on the pieces. it was really wonderful to see. so I think museums really need to brings those people in and make it a joint effort and plan.

  2. Angela Linn

    Thank you for your heartfelt and insightful post Erin. Your point about coveting is a great observation – collecting objects and placing them in cabinets/museums was also viewed as a way to control people viewed as “the other.” By arranging those objects into exhibits and cabinets that made sense to the Western/Europeans who were the collectors, they showed their power and prestige. Modern museums who are attempting to follow ideals of a less-authoritarian style of curation, exhibition, collecting, and even preservation, are working to learn from the source / descendent communities where people are willing to share those lessons. I think it’s an exciting time to be working in and around museums – the new ways we can serve our communities for whatever needs they decide they want from the collections!

  3. Barbara Long

    Good evening,

    Thank you for your insightful post. As long as human beings have been on this Earth, they have coveted each other’s belongings regardless if it was land, physical items, spiritual ways, and yes, even individuals. This has opened Pandora’s box. Early on people have been driven by this insatiable need to explore and presumably become wealthy and/or have something that no-one else can get their hands on. I believe that museums offer a collaborative learning experience for all who walk through their doors. Sadly, there are others who hoard a culture’s spiritual and traditional items. I hope that as time progresses, people would return what is not rightfully their items. Still yet, museums have in some cases protected items that would have otherwise been destroyed or looted by their enemies and others. I would like to thank you for sharing!


  4. Becca Ray Turner

    I agree with you on letting Native Elders to be able to touch the different artifacts Andy record what the they have to say about the item they are holding. Having the Elders to tell the story behind behind the object in their own language would be excellent.

    Thanks some much for bring up about the Elders.

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