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Our Lives

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

Jennifer A. Shannon

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.

2014. 288 pp., color plates, figures, notes, references, index, 7 x 10

Contributors: Jennifer A. Shannon

Awards: 2015 New Mexico-Arizona Book Award Finalist

Download an excerpt.

“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

Our Lives is part ethnography, part museum exhibit review, partly a historical record, and collectively groundbreaking. No single text elsewhere does all that Jennifer Shannon has accomplished and with such eloquence. . . . Like a jazz composition, this book moves from aspect to aspect of museum management, public relations, collaboration, and long-term work in many Native communities. Her first chapter on her methodological approach and a survey of the field of critical museology proceeds so practically that I immediately knew I would be assigning it to my students. To my surprise, though, I felt the same way after reading each chapter. . . . I look forward to assigning the book myself because few other texts will demonstrate so richly and in such fine detail the messiness of collaborative curating and the ethical mandate to continue such work.”
—David Shorter, David Shorter, UCLA, Museum Anthropology Review, Spring-Fall 2015

“Shannon gives us a thoughtful contribution to postcolonial discussions of conquered and colonized peoples’ efforts to regain at least some measures of sovereignty. . . . The book is an elegy to a vision of America’s First Nations participating as equals in telling the continent’s cultural geography and history. It hasn’t happened yet. Shannon, Lonetree, Atalay, and many others will not give up.”
—Alice B. Kehoe, Marquette University, Current Anthropology, April 2016

“Shannon’s critical analysis of exhibit development processes and authority is a significant contribution to the future of indigenous museology, and it renews discussions about the development of community-responsive exhibitions. It is an important addition to readings for museum professionals exhibiting the cultures of indigenous people, as well as those developing community-curated exhibitions of any kind. Her detailed analysis of the process and the outcome will inform museum professionals, communities, academics, and audience members as they move toward a more inclusive and ethical future.”
—Valerie Verzuh, Museum of Indian Arts and Culture, American Anthropologist, September 2015


  1. Anticipation
  2. Our Lives
  3. Bureaucracy
  4. Expertise
  5. Authorship
  6. Exhibition
  7. Reception
  8. Reflection

There are no working papers for this book at the present time.