One of my favourite parts of every NCPH conference is the range of walking tours, museum visits, and behind the scenes tours to local heritage sites that are setup as part of the conference. This year I participated in a tour of the Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art.
This session included a guided tour through the museum’s gallery space by the curators. It also included a look at the collection storage space guided by the collections staff. The tour included a great combination of the museum’s history, challenges, current projects, and a look forward to future gallery plans.
The Etieljorg’s collection has expanded beyond the original donation of material by Harrison Eiteljorg to the museum. However its mission remains deeply connected to Harrison Etieljorg’s initial motivation, “to inspire an appreciation and understanding of the art, history and cultures of the American West and the indigenous peoples of North America.” I found the first floor of the Etilejorg a bit jarring – I was anticipating a museum focused on Indigenous history and art and was confronted with Euro-centric depictions of the American West, with many of the paintings including racialized representations of Indigenous communities.
The impression of the first floor gallery space was not a good one. I felt deeply uncomfortable in the space and imagine that this uncomfortable feeling would be much worse for anyone from an Indigenous community. While walking through this space with Etilejorg space it was good to hear that renovation plans for this gallery space are in process and the museum hopes to improve the juxtaposition of Indigenous worldviews with Euro-centric artists. One of the curators mentioned a desire to contrast Indigenous artistic representations of self with American West perspectives and the importance of providing more of an Indigenous voice throughout this gallery. I really hope that this happens and that a critical look is taken at the American West art that is being displayed.
On the other hand I thought the second floor “Mihtohseenionki” (The People’ Place) exhibition space was extremely well done and provided an excellent example of a space that is curated with participation from local Indigenous stakeholders. This space is dedicated to exploring the heritage and present day relatives of the Indigenous people connected to the land now known as Indiana. I particularlly liked the emphasis on this space of portraying Indigenous communities in the past and the present – of highlighting the fact that there are still vibrant Indigenous communities and culture in Indiana while raising awareness about forcible removable from land, diaspora, and the impacts of colonization.
One of my favourite cases in the “Mihtohseenionki” section was a case the mixed beaded moccasin artifacts with a contemporary art piece done by a local artist. The art piece was a woven basket done in the traditional style, but it was made of painted printouts of the Land Removal Act, and had painted moccasins illustrating the dispersal of Indigenous communities. The contrast of a new art piece with more traditional artifacts provided an interesting narrative on looking at the history and relatives of Indigenous communities in a holistic perspective and the need to be aware of the present and future realities of Indigenous people. Staff indicated that they hope to explore more contrasting perspectives like this in upcoming exhibit revamps.
The other highlight of my visit to the Etieljorg was having an opportunity to see their collections storage space. Suffice it to say it was downright amazing. It’s beautifully organized, has great compact shelving, and they create custom boxes for most of their artifacts. The custom build boxes and supports were really well done and and excellent example of preservation being built into the collection storage procedures.
If you’re ever visiting Indy I recommend taking time to visit the Etieljorg – even if it is just for the second floor gallery space.