Minnesota’s State Capitol, on permanent exhibit in the architecture of the Minnesota Historical Society History Center, St. Paul, Minnesota.
Part six in a seven-part series on European American/Native American War Artifacts and the Ethics of Display by Zabelle Stodola, professor of literature and cultural studies at the University of Arkansas, Little Rock. The series begins here.
Part 6: US-Dakota War Artifacts in a Wider Context
Now I’d like to widen out the significance of local (read, mostly European American) historical societies and museums making decisions about display objects from European American and Native American wars. I’ve already mentioned several of these organizations: the Fruitlands Museum, the Haverhill Historical Society, the Blue Earth County Historical Society (where the 1862 scaffold beam is in storage), and the Minnesota Historical Society.
The problem is that all these groups originated in either an overt or covert desire to preserve and reflect history, yes, but also to reinforce colonial ideology.[i] Many of the objects the institutions now own—whether they originally belonged to natives or non-natives—were collected and preserved by non-natives as curiosities, art, spoils of war, family heirlooms, trophies, or anthropological oddities and then donated to museums or local historical societies. Pity these institutions now required to make very complex and sensitive decisions about access which they may be unprepared and untrained to do. Rather than digging in their heels, they must reach out for advice and do the best they can.
Dan Spock, the Minnesota Historical Society’s museum director, acknowledges, “not only is the MHS not necessarily an expert on the events of 1862, but, given the organization’s roots, it can’t even pretend to be an unbiased arbiter.”[ii] Therefore, the museum is not trying to establish an “’official narrative’” for the war because, as Spock points out, doing so would be “kind of an anachronism.”[iii] Few places these days try to construct a master narrative of history. Instead, MHS is trying to tell many stories from many perspectives. This approach is in line with the efforts of anthropologists and art historians from the late twentieth century on who have encouraged museums and archives to contextualize native objects in particular, to consult the native nations from whom the objects were removed, and in some cases to return them to their culture of origin.
Of course native leaders themselves have also been increasingly active in demanding voice and representation. For example, Dakota scholar Gwen Westerman reiterates the needs for a range of approaches when she says, “With multiple perspectives on a story we can come closer to knowing the answers to those questions we have about our shared history.”[iv] Further, decisions about displaying European American artifacts are now being made within a wider contextual and ethical net.
Notes to Part 6
[i] For more information, see “Our (Museum) World Turned Upside Down: Re-presenting Native American Arts” (part of “The Problematics of Collecting and Display, Part 1”), by art historians Janet Catherine Berlo and Ruth B. Phillips, The Art Bulletin, 77.1 (March 1995): 6-10.
[ii] Quoted in Scott, “The No-Win War.”
[iii] Quoted in Scott,“The No-Win War.”
[iv] Gwen N. Westerman, “Foreword,” in Renville, A Thrilling Narrative, edited by Zeman and Derounian-Stodola, xiii.