At the Rochester Museum & Science Center, this week you saw the “living museum” in action.
Last weekend at the RMSC, Rochester was treated to Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Days. A celebration of Native American culture — past and present — with artisans, story tellers and historians from the local community. The Days are part of our November celebration of Native American Native Month. For example, the University of Rochester is holding a series of events. Native American Heritage Month
From Dr. Richard Hamell, a nationally recognized expert in wampum art and history, we learned, contrary to misconceptions, the wampum (shell beads) of Eastern Woodland tribes was not “indian money.” Only after the European settlement of America did wampum begin to be used like currency. Instead, the beads were considered sacred objects, often woven into elaborate ceremonial belts, sometimes used in treaties (above).
One of about ten vendors, Ronnie Reitter’s table contained traditional cornhusk dolls. School children working on cornhusk projects often ask her for tips. Dan Hill and his nephew Eli, of Cayuga Creations, displayed artisanal craftwork including flutes they played upon request (often).
Perry Ground (right and below), Turtle Clan member of the Onondaga Nation of the Haudenosaunee Confederacy, retold the legend of the Flying Squirrel about a Da-nah-wah’uwsdi (lacrosse) game between animals and birds in which a squirrel switches sides by learning to fly. I realized the genesis of the name of the Rochester community art space, the Flying Squirrel Squirrel, must be derived from this Iroquois myth signifying unity.
The event created a rich and intriguing dynamic. After people met the vendors — and experienced the contemporary Native American way of being firsthand — they almost always explored the adjacent Native American collections. There they saw representations of Native American society, both pre and post contact, as they would at any museum exhibit: fixed in time and space, silent, frozen.
To learn more about this dynamic which brings the frozen past in contact with the alive present, I turned to Jamie Jacobs of the Rock Foundation who has an office in the museum (the privately owned Rock Foundation Collection is one of largest, most complete, and best documented record of Seneca lifeways), Dr. Calvin Uzelmeier, Director of Featured Content, and Kathryn Murano Senior Director of Collections and Exhibitions.
Jamie’s role at event was primarily as an educator, showcasing and interpreting artwork from the RMSC Indian Arts Project Collection to discuss cultural continuity and change over time.
Describing the art to visitors, Jamie weaved in the history of his tribe and how the artifacts fit within both traditional and contemporary Native American culture.
I wondered, what are common questions asked? The answer is telling. Jamie says people don’t know what questions to ask. Not only do misconceptions abound (like wampum as “indian money”), but many people lack exposure to Native American society, in some cases limited to buying “reservation cigarettes.”
Calvin (who you met in Whispering Dishes) placed the event within the larger context of the RMSC’s mission:
A goal for the RMSC is for people to recognize the Haudenosaunee cultures as vibrant, active and alive. So often there is the misconception of the Haudenosaunee as an extinct race/culture.
Hardly the so-called “vanished Indian” or “noble Savage.”
I first met Kathryn when she gave me a tour of the Native American collection. Not known nearly as well as it should be among the general public, the RMSC’s collection is among the best records of Haudensaunee, and particularly Seneca, material culture in the world.
At that time, Kathryn taught me about repatriation: the process by which museum and other institutions transfer possession and control of Native American, Alaska Native and Native Hawaiian human remains, funerary objects, objects of cultural patrimony and sacred objects back to the tribes of origin. (More soon from Kathryn on repatriation.)
Our conversation ranged from the Red Power movement of the 1960s and 70s to The Native American Graves Protection Repatriation Act passed in 1990 to a visit last year to the RMSC by members of the Zuni Nation to discuss the return of several sacred objects.
Having passionately devoted her career to the idea of the “living museum” (a curatorial concept that emerged from the New Museum movement begun in the 1980s), Kathryn explains why events like Haudenosaunee Days are of fundamental importance:
Most museum professionals today recognize the importance of collaborating with people from communities that are represented in museum collections and exhibits. This practice is one of many advanced through the new museology, which embraces the postmodern tenet that concepts like meaning and morality do not exist objectively, but are rather socio-cultural constructs. New museology reflects a growing sense of self-awareness in the museum field by moving toward goals of pluralism and inclusion.
Haudenosaunee Days is significant because it gives visitors the opportunity to interact directly with people from a culture that may be different from their own. The experience complements the cultural “snapshots” that visitors see on exhibit by giving voice to the insider perspectives of people living within a Haudenosaunee cultural framework today. Visitors learn that the Haudenosaunee are still here and still carrying on their traditions, albeit in ways that are responsive to the modern human condition. Through programs like Haudenosaunee Days, the objects that represent these lifeways become a vehicle through which real human connections are made, and those connections lead to better cross-cultural understanding.
As Kathryn’s words testify, a lot of (post modern) thought went into Haudenosaunee Days.
Historians are always arguing whether the past is “radically different” from the present. Whether there are “historical ruptures” that make one era unrecognizable to the next. To me, moving back and forth between the flash-and-blood vendors and educators and the frozen tableauxs in the galleries works.
On one level, it works as a reminder — just as Calvin says and Jamie teaches us – -that the Haudenosaunee are not an extinct race and culture. On another level — the heightened simultaneous experience of past and present, Kathryn’s “snapshots” — bring the Haudenosaunee “then” that much closer and further away.
For more behind-the-scenes on how local museums (and a theater and a Poets Walk) make their exhibits (and a play and a Walk).