The Brooklyn Museum‘s exhibition Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains which opened mid-February “focuses on the tipi as the center of Plains culture and social, religious, and creative traditions from the early nineteenth century to the present.” Museum staff collaborated with a team of Native and non-Native curators, scholars, and artists to develop the exhibition. There were some great pictures of museum staff erecting tipis in the museum’s Great Hall.
But Tipis got a decidedly critical review from the New York Times’ Ken Johnson. Johnson writes:
Beyond some basic historical context, the exhibition offers no revelatory perspective on its contents. That might be partly because, as the organizers, Nancy B. Rosoff and Susan Kennedy Zeller (both Brooklyn Museum curators) point out in their catalog preface, part of the planning process involved focus groups and visitor surveys “to determine the level of visitor interest in and knowledge of the tepee and Plains culture.” They also invited a team of American Indian scholars, artists and tribal members to vet their plans. The result is an exhibition that speaks down to its audience, assuming a low level of sophistication, and that does as little as possible to offend or stir controversy.
Last week, Brooklyn Museum curator Nancy Rosoff responded:
In the wake of prevalent popular misconceptions and stereotypes, Native American participation was central to our goals in organizing the exhibition. The perspectives of our Native consultants—who have firsthand experience of tipi traditions and protocols, of languages and stories that belong to oral traditions, and of tipi arts and designs that have been passed down over generations—enriched the project immeasurably and were crucial to giving an accurate and sensitive presentation of Plains objects. Native involvement in the exhibition was a privilege for our Museum not an obligation.
But Wall Street Journal museum critic Lee Rosenbaum wrote in her recent examination of American Indian exhibitions:
Because tribal authorities consulted by Brooklyn Museum curators Nancy Rosoff and Susan Kennedy Zeller strongly objected to public exposure of artifacts imbued with a warrior’s power, you won’t find any historic shields displayed in that museum’s deeply informative, child-friendly temporary exhibition, “Tipi: Heritage of the Great Plains” (to May 15). By contrast, one of the stars in the permanent collection at the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Mo. (reviewed here last year), is a rawhide Arikara shield from North Dakota (c. 1850) bearing the image of a buffalo bull.
Brooklyn had to settle for a contemporary “shield”—a brightly colored glass circle by Marcus Amerman, Choctaw, decorated with images inspired by Lakota warrior Rain-in-the-Face’s magisterial buffalo-hide shield, shown in the large photomural on the opposite wall.
When a museum is displaying the art and artifacts of a particular culture, I think it is crucial to involve members of that culture in the planning and interpretation of the exhibits. But is there such a thing as being too sensitive to their wishes? Does entertainment and education ever trump socio-cultural appropriateness?