Museums Introduce Us to Indigenous Peoples and their Culture

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Traditionally Authentic

Indigenous art is highly valued and highly desired around the world for it explores unique cultures unlike our own. For many years, museums and universities have made efforts to preserve the integrity and quality of indigenous art by displaying them to the public. Museums and universities distort ideas of authenticity about indigenous cultures by educating non indigenous people about other cultures but they also create their own ideas about tradition.

Tradition is termed as the passing of customs, beliefs or tangible representations of one’s culture from generation to generation while authenticity is defined as the quality of being authentic.

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Simply put, tradition in relations to indigenous art is the passing of certain artistic styles and stories as well as the art itself down generations while authenticity is ambiguous because everything is authentic. Anyone can create art that is considered authentic simply because it exists. This brings up the issue of tourism and how the line between genuine traditional art and profitable representations of indigenous art are blurred. One such example is a painting of a Maori woman wearing a sacred hei-tiki pendant (HAVC 80 Lecture 5 Colonialism Pacific).

These hei-tiki pendants were part of the Maori people of New Zealand and were believed to be associated with fertility and were often given to the newly wed woman to help them conceive. These pendants were typically handed down from generation to generation. The painting was created by Bohemian artist, Gottfried Lindauer, who was famous for his artwork depicting the Maori natives. His work was considered traditional because it was commissioned by some Maori chiefs so he was able to accurately capture their facial tattoos, clothing and the essence of their culture. In contrast however, there are those that create their own authentic work depicting the Maori natives but it lacks the traditional feel. One example shown in section was an image of a Maori woman wearing a hei tiki pendant but it was a plastic key chain (HAVC 80 Section). Even though the pendant was accurately crafted, it was created for the sole purpose of making a profit and this is where tradition and authenticity clash.

Museums and universities play an interesting role in helping preserve and support the continuity of indigenous art. Museums help educate non indigenous people about indigenous cultures by displaying genuine traditional art. By educating on their artistic styles and their past, they also help preserve the quality and integrity of the cultures’ craftsmanship for they showcase it in safe, healthy conditions which prolong the life of the work. Otherwise, a lot of the art in the world today would degrade or be locked away from the curious world. Universities help preserve the cultures’ tangible heritage through a different, objective approach in the sense that they focus on giving an unbiased look into what traditional indigenous art really is. Not just the physical art itself but how they were created, why they were created and who created them.

Some evident benefits of museums and universities showcasing indigenous art is that it gives the public direct exposure and education of the culture. Native Americans for example tend to be portrayed as ignoble savages in the media like in one scene in Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest, directed by Gore Verbinski. In one of the HAVC lectures, we watched a scene where the natives were carrying Jack Sparrow’s friends to be sacrificed by fire while Jack himself was depicted as their chief (HAVC 80 Lecture 4 Colonialism America). One might believe the natives representation in the film to be traditional yet it portrays them as primitive. It may be authentic but not that does not mean it is accurate.

The crude paintings on their body and silly feathers just reinforce the idea of Natives being considered underdeveloped. Realistically however they were resourceful and were masters of their land, especially when it came to hunting and putting every part of the animal’s body to use. On the other hand however, there can be implicit complications of putting aboriginal art in the hands of museums. One such issue is that the ethnographic institutions have power over the canon, meaning they can decide what art they display and how they do so. This gives them the ability to fabricate their own ideas about the other cultures’ traditions and how they should be represented. For example, if they were to only display art that was considered primitive or derogatory like the Professor Darwin 19th century cigar box label (HAVC 80 Lecture 3 Colonialism Africa) people would only take in what they are being shown. This being said, the museums have the power to decide how cultures are represented.

Authenticity and tradition are similar in concept but different in practice. Tourist art, museums and universities all play a part in representing the tradition of the African, American and Oceania cultures. All are considered authentic but how traditional they are depends on their intentions and their knowledge of the cultures themselves. Universities and museums help educate the world on indigenous art and their styles but they also have the power to fabricate their own representations of the aboriginals’ traditions. Good intentions and deep cultural knowledge is how the indigenous cultures will be properly preserved and represented, as learned in HAVC 80, taught at University of California, Santa Cruz.

The Lesson by Joane Schubert

In the artistic work, The Lesson, created by Joane Cardinal Schubert, there is a room set up like a classroom. In the room there are desks and chairs and black walls covered in writing. The walls are lined with heartbreaking stories and one side is dedicated to teaching how the oppression of natives came to be. It starts with the natives living a happy and prosperous life until Christopher Columbus arrives with his men. The lesson outlines how the natives offered them help and food but in return Columbus subjected them under his power, made them do his bidding and established rules and laws that he made them obey. It outlines how they were not allowed to express their beliefs and slowly their way of life and tradition were taken away from them. On the other wall there are sad stories written in chalk like “Helen Betty Osbourne…strangled, raped, stabbed with a screwdriver.” Visitors are invited to add more stories. This artistic display was very popular in Canada and the US and was showcased many times. To summarize the exhibition, Joane Schubert addressed the conditions and events of her time, drawing from her family history, her own personal experience and her Metis and Kainai ancestry.

Diary of a Victorian Dandy by Yinka Shonibare

In the five part image narration, Diary of a Victorian Dandy, created by Yinka Shonibare, this specific image depicts a black man, Yinka himself, lying on a bed surrounded by white men and women at 3 am. The image examines the notions of race and social class by ironically displaying the black dandy as superior over his white companions. Yinka’s purpose in creating this piece was to emphasize the fact that despite being black, one can transcend the social norms of their society.

Typically black people were not favored by the Victorians which led to them focusing on the interests of only white people. Yinka however reverses the roles in his photos and shows the black dandy as being the superior one in his work while the white men and women are looking up to the black man. It proves an interesting contrast in this particular 3am orgy image as blacks were considered primal in relation to the Victorians. This was believed because the British had made many technological advancements while the black people did not. Getting back to the image though, all the white people seem to have an instilled sexual urge in their eyes while the black dandy seems unfazed by it all. This proves ironic as the white people are the ones acting the most primal while the black man is the most composed despite temptation. Essentially he is saying one’s primal nature is inherent within all human beings, and is not linked with racial superiority in any way.

Fred Harvey Trading Company

The image is one of a mileage chart created by the Fred Harvey Trading Company. The company was founded by Frederick Henry Harvey in 1876 and it was a family run hotel chain located along Atchison and Santa Fe. During this time, the Santa Fe Railway was struggling through difficult new terrain and train cars were typically overcrowded and lacked proper food. Fred Harvey opened a railroad restaurant that offered good food to travelers along the railway and soon his business became increasingly popular. One big reason was that Fred’s resting houses were located on Native American land so visitors came searching for Native mementos. The new railroad cut directly into the grazing grounds and hunting routes of the Plains Natives which hurt them but increased American tourism along these routes. Coupled with proper resting grounds run by Fred Harvey’s Trading Company, more and more people flocked, increasing American interest in the Native Americans way of life. Perhaps more than any single organization, the Fred Harvey system introduced the New America to Americans.

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Museums Introduce Us to Indigenous Peoples and Their Culture. (2021, Oct 20). Retrieved from