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Museology and Indigenous Art

Today’s post comes from Emily Whicheloe, class of 2014 and a student in Molly McGlennen’s course, “Decolonizing the Exhibition: Critical Approaches to Contemporary Indigenous Art.”

Kananginak Pootoogook (Inuit, Cape Dorset, Canada, 1935–2010) Untitled (Successful Walrus Hunt), 2009  Colored pencil and ink 48 x 96 inches Reproduced with the permissions of Dorset Fine Arts Photo courtesy of the Marion Scott Gallery
Kananginak Pootoogook (Inuit, Cape Dorset, Canada, 1935–2010)
Untitled (Successful Walrus Hunt), 2009
Colored pencil and ink
48 x 96 inches
Collection of Edward J. Guarino
Reproduced with the permissions of Dorset Fine Arts
Photo courtesy of the Marion Scott Gallery

Decolonizing the Exhibition: Contemporary Inuit Prints and Drawings from the Edward J. Guarino Collection is the result of a semester-long process of research and curation of contemporary Inuit prints and drawings from the Edward J. Guarino Collection by students enrolled in an American Studies class of the same name taught by Professor Molly McGlennen at Vassar College. The process of creating this exhibition spanned the past three months and included study of foundational theoretical texts related to Native American Studies methodologies as well as more specific research related to Inuit culture and art. Through this process we have learned to question and rethink the dominant histories we were generally taught in school as well as form an understanding of the worldviews of Cape Dorset Inuit peoples.

The history of the United States’ and Canada’s relationship with Indigenous peoples and their nations is essential to understanding the 500-year-long project of colonialism and its mission in either annihilating or assimilating Indigenous nations. Despite this, Indigenous peoples across the Americas have protected their cultural ways — with visual culture an enduring force in this continuance and resistance. Historically, museums have been a site of contention in these fraught inter-cultural relationships for a number of reasons. First, a disproportionate number of objects they have exhibited were acquired illegally or unethically from Indigenous nations. Second, Indigenous objects have typically been displayed in glass cases with little regard for the cultural contexts in which they were created or used. These actions contribute to a false narrative that Indigenous peoples are either entirely homogeneous or are “pre-historical” communities that no longer exist.

With this exhibition we want to challenge the notion that Indigenous peoples are merely historical entities of sameness. Two key concepts that have provided a framework for our understanding of Indigenous art and museology are decolonization and sovereignty. Decolonization is related to the process of breaking down and re-thinking structures of power and dominance that were and are used to oppress Indigenous peoples. For example, colonial thought privileges the written tradition of the west over the oral traditions of Indigenous nations. To counter that, we highlighted the rich complexities of Inuit stories and worldviews to inform our understandings of some of the artwork. The concept of sovereignty addresses a people’s right to self-determine their cultures and their futures. These ideas have been important in shaping our perspective on how the works in the exhibition resonate beyond the community’s borders toward global issues and concerns.

Beyond theory, Decolonizing the Exhibition also considered use of space in the museum. Unlike the National Museum of the American Indian or the Mashantucket Pequot Museum, the Frances Lehman Loeb Art Center is not an Indigenous space. While we cannot fully reconcile the works on view with the four white walls and sharp corners of the exhibition space, we have expanded on the standard wall label to include more contextualization for each print or drawing, as well as quotes from the artists, in order to avoid stereotypes and center Inuit artists’ perspectives.

When viewing this exhibition, it is important to keep in mind that there is not one “Indigenous worldview,” because every tribe is different. Inuit communities are varied geographically and have different colonial histories and relationships, yet meaningful commonalities between those communities emerge through their art, which contributes to a larger and robust Indigenous narrative.

The exhibition will run from December 4, 2013, through February 2, 2014. For an extended gallery and wall labels, please visit

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