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?