Opinion | Patricia Marroquin Norby on Nuance and Repatriation

Posted in museums, opinion pages by Editor on April 26, 2023

2021–22 entrance to The Met’s long-term exhibition Art of Native America: The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection.

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From Hyperallergic:

Patricia Marroquin Norby, “We Need More Nuance When Talking about Repatriation,” Hyperallergic (19 April 2023). Norby, the Met Museum’s curator of Native American Art, reflects on the lesser-discussed everyday challenges of repatriation work.

. . . The Met and I were both keenly aware that my appointment [as its first curator for Native American Art three years ago] was a milestone moment for the museum and the field. This curatorial position came about because of the promised gift of a prominent Native American collection of works from Charles and Valerie Diker. It’s a collection that had already been well-researched and exhibited at numerous institutions nationwide including the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, the Seattle Art Museum, and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art. The gift and landmark curatorial role propelled significant changes at The Met, specifically, foregrounding the voices of Native peoples and presenting their historical and contemporary creative expressions to an international audience in a world-class institution. More important, but less visible to the public, were the much-needed collaborations with Native American source communities regarding the items currently in The Met’s care.

As the museum began exhibiting Native American collections in its American Wing for the first time, we also began working more collaboratively with source communities as exhibition advisors, co-curators, authors, and installation contributors. We listened. We learned. We are still learning.

Native American and Indigenous museum collections necessitate a commitment to long-term relationships with source communities. These relationships have provided some of the most meaningful experiences of my career. When I joined The Met, I emphasized the importance of meeting the needs of Native American communities. I worked to prioritize Indigenous voices in our exhibitions, programs, and collections care. As a woman of Purépecha descent, I understand feeling marginalized. I also understand the simultaneous sense of connection and loss toward items that embody cultural ties to my maternal ancestral community on view in museums. Such experiences are magnified in a historically colonial institution like The Met. . . .

As connections with source communities grew, some colleagues shared their surprise at how repatriation attitudes regarding specific items can differ. Some tribes seek repatriation, while others favor a co-stewardship approach or prefer that works remain at the museum. Community needs are diverse, yet very specific. One commonality across communities and cultures is the desire for a say in how and if works are publicly presented, and how they are cared for. The founding director of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington DC, Richard West Jr., said it best: Indians love and hate museums because “they have our stuff.” For many Indigenous peoples, museums can awaken inner tensions and traumatic histories. For Indigenous museum professionals, these painful pasts are always present. . . .

The full essay is available here»


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