Special Considerations for Reviewing Tribal Museums

In response to requests for tools to help you better conduct reviews, Peer Review staff are developing a series of short articles focused on certain types of museums that often require special considerations when being reviewed. This article focuses on key issues when working with tribal museums and was developed with input by several peer reviewers. You can make suggestions for additional article topics and/or offer to help write one by e-mailing peer-review@aam-us.org.

The word "museum" conjures a variety of emotions and expectations. The word embodies authority and ownership of culture. This creates a double-edged sword, especially when working with any ethnic-specific museum. On the one hand, much of that authority and ownership has been previously derived from people outside that ethnicity. There is a history of museums collecting materials from Native Americans, including ancestral remains. While there has been progress towards healing these relationships, especially since the advent of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), these activities affect how tribal groups view museums. At the same time, today a museum can be a gateway opportunity for people towards possessing and developing these concepts for themselves.

When reviewing any museum from a non-dominant culture, it is important to be aware of several things:

The Concept of "Decolonization"

This idea focuses on empowering the native voice to be front and center. Going to a museum on federally recognized tribal land is the equivalent to visiting a sovereign nation and should be treated with the same amount of respect.

Organizational Etiquette

Utilize your primary contact to help you better understand the etiquette of the organization, especially about social expectations. Sometimes these guidelines are posted on the tribe’s website. Also, be aware of the importance of family in tribal matters. Positions may be filled by family members. However, this is not the same for all tribes. Again, talk with the primary contact to get a better grasp of how the organization is structured; about elections and how they affect museum operations; and to note any sensitive political issues or histories.

Mainstream vs. Tribal Museums

During her workshops with tribal museums, peer reviewer Jill Norwood of the National Museum of the American Indian discovered foundational differences in the perceptions of the museum operational concepts between mainstream and tribal museums, which she illustrates in the chart below. In mainstream museums, the debate continues over whether the institution should function more as a protected temple or a community-based forum. Many mainstream museums have shifted towards inclusive and participatory practices, much as what happens in the operations of community-centric tribal museums.

Operational Area
Mainstream Museums Tribal Museums
  • preserve
  • store
  • kept from public
  • protected but used by practitioners
  • academic
  • scholarly
  • elite
  • local
  • community-centric
  • expensive
  • focused on what audience desires
  • free
  • affordable
  • focused on community
  • exclusive
  • restrictive
  • inclusive of community and protected from "outsiders"

For MAP Reviewers:

  • During any review, it is often best for the reviewer to step back, listen and be patient. While you are being sent to a museum because of your expertise, sometimes it is better to be a sounding board for the organization as opposed to simply showering them with ideas. Listening will also help you determine if your recommendations are achievable. Does the museum have the interest and capacity to tackle the suggestions you want to make?
  • When reviewing an ethnically specific museum, consider directing the conversation towards what the organization is trying to achieve, instead of focusing on the word "museum." Provide guiding questions. What are their end goals, and who do they see as their intended audiences? Would they prefer to be an organization more geared to tourists or a cultural center for locals? What do they see as being the best methods of achieving those objectives? Operating as a museum may not be the best option.

Additional Resources

  • Advocacy Brief: Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act  (American Alliance of Museums). Enacted in 1990, NAGPRA provides a process for museums and federal agencies to return certain Native American cultural items to lineal descendants, culturally affiliated Indian tribes and Native Hawaiian organizations. Museums have invested significant resources to work in close collaboration with federally-recognized tribes in this area.
  • 20 Years and Counting (American Alliance of Museums). Museum magazine looks at the 20th anniversary of NAGPRA and the administrative and financial issues surrounding repatriation. The article includes a summary of the legislative act and an exploration of federal agency compliance.
  • National NAGPRA (National Park Service). The National Park Service (NPS) assists in the implementation of NAGPRA. The National NAGPRA program: develops regulations and guidance for implementing NAGPRA; provides administrative and staff support for the Review Committee; assists Indian tribes, Native Alaskan villages and corporations, Native Hawaiian organizations, museums and Federal agencies with the NAGPRA process; maintains the Native American Consultation Database; provides training; manages a grants program; and makes program documents and publications available.
  • Caring for American Indian Objects: A Practical and Cultural Guide (ed. Sherelyn Ogden). Invaluable information and advice to anyone who wants to preserve these objects. Twenty-one contributors, fourteen of whom are American Indians, discuss general aspects of museum care, explain techniques for particular materials and address important cultural considerations. American Indian people have applied tribal methods to the care of their cultural items for generations. This book does not propose to replace these techniques, but rather offer caregivers, conservators and collectors helpful information on standard museum practice to assist in slowing deterioration.
  • Sacred Claims: Repatriation and Living Tradition (Greg Johnson). The first book to analyze how religious discourse is used to articulate claims under the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). Johnson argues that Native representatives used mainly religious language to persuade non-Native audiences that human rights principles apply to cultural remains.
  • Spirited Encounters: American Indians Protest Museum Policies and Practices (Karen Coody Cooper). This book provides a foundation for understanding museums and looks at their development to present time, examines how museums collect Native materials and explores protest as a fully American process of addressing grievances. Now that museums and American Indians are working together in the processes of repatriation, this book can help each side understand the other more fully.

Alliance staff thanks the following peer reviewers for their assistance with this article: Scott Carrlee, curator of museum services, Alaska State Museums; Chris Carron, director of collections, The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis; Cinnamon Catlin-Legtuko, President/CEO, Abbe Museum, Bar Harbour, Maine; Robert “Skip” Drake, retired, Minnesota Historical Society; and Jill Norwood, community services specialist, National Museum of the American Indian, Washington, DC.