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Our Lives

Collaboration, Native Voice, and the Making of the National Museum of the American Indian

Jennifer A. Shannon

Our Lives2014. 288 pp., color plates, figures, notes, references, index, 7 x 102014. 288 pp., color plates, figures, notes, references, index, 7 x 10

In 2004 the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) opened to the general public. This book, in the broadest sense, is about how that museum became what it is today. For many Native individuals, the NMAI, a prominent and permanent symbol of Native presence in America, in the shadow of the Capitol and at the center of federal power, is a triumph. At the grand opening, the museum’s main message was “We are still here.” This message was most directly displayed in Our Lives: Contemporary Life and Identities, one of the NMAI’s inaugural exhibitions and the main focus of this book. Ultimately, this is a record of the sincere efforts—and conflicts and achievements—experienced by those who planned, developed, and constructed the NMAI’s inaugural exhibitions. It is a narrowly focused account of a particular kind of curatorial practice called “community curating.” It is also an account of many different people struggling to do their best under the weight of a monumental task: to represent all Native peoples of the Americas in the first institution of its kind, a national museum dedicated to the first peoples of the hemisphere.

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  • 2015 New Mexico-Arizona Book Award

Contributors: Jennifer A. Shannon

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  • “In this eagerly awaited text that serves as the first sole-authored scholarly book focusing exclusively on the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, Jennifer Shannon provides an in-depth analysis of the development process for the Our Lives exhibition, one of three inaugural exhibits that opened on the National Mall in 2004. Being present at the creation of the gallery and working closely with both NMAI staff and community collaborators during the process provided her with important firsthand knowledge on the discussions and negotiations taking place behind the scenes. Shannon takes the reader on an illuminating journey through these deliberations, and she provides thoughtful analysis on the process and final outcome. The book is methodologically rigorous and engagingly written. It should be required reading by scholars and practitioners alike, and by anyone interested in understanding the complex process of developing community collaborative museum exhibitions in the twenty-first century. This is museum ethnography at its finest and Jennifer Shannon’s work makes an important and timely contribution to the fields of anthropology, indigenous studies, and museum studies.”
    Amy Lonetree, University of California, Santa Cruz, author of Decolonizing Museums: Representing Native America in National and Tribal Museums
  • “Comingling the anthropology of museum culture with the opportunity for intervention into the heart of the Smithsonian Institution's role as official interpreter of American culture is the principal hallmark of Jennifer A. Shannon's Our Lives: Collaboration, Native Voice, and the Making of the National Museum of the American Indian. Shannon's direct engagement with the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) as a contract researcher from 1999 to 2003 turned into a research opportunity for her to complete an anthropology dissertation. Her research focus is about a particular NMAI inaugural exhibition titled Our Lives: Contemporary Life and Identities wherein she reflects on the meanings of and endeavors toward collaborative curatorial authorship. This critical examination of the newest national museum on the National Mall in view of the U.S. Capitol, while central to the focus of Shannon's thesis of it being a "symbol" of Native presence in America, also is, in my view, a challenge to the symbol of federal power exercised over Native peoples for four centuries. "Throughout," writes Shannon, "I argue for the politics of expertise as a different way to understand the representation and reception of Native peoples and their knowledge in museums." There is a before-and-after quality in Shannon's critique, which follows the NMAI grand opening in 2004 and which guides her expose specific to the museum's role as representative of Native peoples in the Americas. The challenge for Shannon throughout the book is a continual separation of her roles as a former NMAI staff member and in her return as an ethnographic researcher to study the outcomes of her own and her former colleagues' energies and vision(s) in producing the Our Lives exhibit.

    Shannon's key role as a member of the curatorial team comes into sharp focus when she depicts the original plan by NMAI to nurture and incorporate the idea of "community curators" or "co-curators" to co-develop and possibly co-direct the inaugural exhibit. This principal effort by NMAI at the outset would unfortunately be abandoned soon after the museum opened to the public for the very reason that museums were created, to privilege the Western-trained museum professionals and stakeholders concerned with efficiency. This becomes the context for and perhaps why Shannon's study provides new insight as to how this particular museum experiment at the NMAI proved too daunting to be continued as a key tenet of its museum protocol.

    Singular issues outlined by Shannon in my close reading of her narrative were twofold: first, the inexperience of Native museum professionals, working for the first time on a national event of great magnitude, was not only a test of their expertise but of their own experience while still trying to remain objective in their working with Native community partners; and second, the Native professionals hired by NMAI had to be mediators, liaisons, and representatives of Native communities and the NMAI simultaneously (p. 92). Time would resolve these issues, but the positions taken by NMAI's non-native executive managers and the Native Exhibit Department professionals demonstrate the crux of the story, which was the dissolution of the practice of shared authorship in exhibit curating. The focus returned to the time-honored tradition of the museum's history in dealing with "Native people as object" by redirecting its concern for serving the non-Naive museum visitor (p. 97). In fact, after reading Shannon's composite study and in answer to her question-"Who Killed Curatorial?"-it is clear that it died of natural causes, and along with it the hope for displays representing the highest ideals and visions of a Native American past with images and voices speaking of a Native future. Shannon considers the outcome of committee work and consensus with Native communities to have resulted in authentic voices of Native communities that represented a composite impression of Native peoples. By the time of this publication, a majority of the NMAI museum professionals who produced the Our Lives exhibit had left the museum. Shannon honors their commitment and service by telling their story poignantly.

    Shannon's field research at two native communities featured in the Our Lives exhibition, the urban Native community in Chicago and the Kalinago Nation located on Dominica Island in the Caribbean, also represents the NMAI's original curatorial stance, which was to promote lifelong relationships with Native communities through sharing their knowledge in the spirit of reciprocity. The NMAI story from my perspective is vulnerable to becoming analogous to the classic "Indian problem" that seeks to lessen the grotesque and hidden history of Indians in the Americas by giving preeminence to window-dressing Native lives today.”
    Beverly R. Singer, University of New Mexico, in the Journal of Anthropological Research, vol. 71, 2015.

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