Indy Behind the Scenes: Eiteljorg Museum of American Indians and Western Art Walking Tour

Eiteljorg Museum Sign

Public Domain image.

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.

Where to Find Me At NCPH

NCH program cover

NCPH 2017 Program Cover

Next week I’ll be heading to Indianapolis for this year’s National Council on Public History conference. The agenda is filled with great sounding panels, roundtables, and workshops.  I’m really looking forward to connecting with other public history professionals and digging into some public history.

I haven’t selected which panels I’ll be attending during the conference but there are a number of events that I’m helping facilitate as part of my role on the membership committee. There are also a number of broader conference events that I definitely plan on participating in. If you’re interested in connecting during the conference I will be at the following events:

  • Membership Committee Twitter Chat (Wednesday April 19, 11:30am-12:30pm) *Virtual – join the conversation using the #ncph2017 hashtag.
  • First Time Attendee and Mentoring Connection Meetup (Wednesday April 19, 5:30-6:00pm)
  • Opening Reception (Wednesday April 19, 6:00-8:00pm)
  • New Member Welcome (Thursday April 20, 7:30-8:30am)
  • NCPH Business Meeting (Thursday April 20, 1:00-1:30pm)
  • Indy Behind the Scenes: Eiteljog Museum of American Indians and Western Art Walking Tour (Friday April 21, 8:45-10:00am)
  • Public Plenary: Making LGBTQ History American History (Friday April 21, 6:00-7:30pm)
  •  2nd Annual Great NCPH Canuck Gathering (Friday April 21st)
  • Awards Breakfast (Saturday April 22, 8:00-10:00am)

You will also likely find me at individual sessions focused on archives, Wikipedia, podcasting, and Indigenous history.

Professional Organizations and Finding Your Niche

soda.hotglue.meOne of my service gigs currently involves sitting on the membership committee of the National Council of Public History (NCPH).  If you’ve followed my blog for awhile you probably know that this is one of my favourite professional organizations and that their annual meeting is something I really look forward to.  I’ve served on the membership committee for a couple of years now and recently started acting as the co-chair of the committee.

As a committee we’ve been working on a handful of projects this year many of which revolve around making sure new members feel welcome to NCPH as an organization and to the annual meetings.  Professional conferences where you don’t know anyone can be intimidating – but they can also be amazingly rewarding experiences.  The first NCPH conference I attended was in 2012 in Milwaukee.  I went solo but knew other Western Public History alumni and students would be there.  Despite only knowing a few people at the conference it was a hugely welcoming experience where I felt like I belonged.  Granted, part of this had to do with my love of the NCPH meeting format and the flexibility of the sessions.  But it also had a lot to do with people just being helpful.

Conferencing, networking, and putting yourself out there can be exhausting – regardless of how many times you’ve done it.  As a new NCPH annual meeting attendee I found the mentorship program helpful in orienting myself with the conference. It also took me a little bit to find my group – archivists and museum professionals who define themselves as public historians.  But they existed and were welcoming.  I think that’s another reason I love NCPH there is a such a range of professionals who attend from community historians to academics that you’re bound to find your niche. NCPH also encourages technology usage during sessions – so if you’re on twitter that can be a great way to connect with other attendees.  I personally love the “Hey, I know you from twitter” moments.

What were your experiences as a new conference attendee or new member of a professional organization?  Did specific events make you feel welcome at a conference? I would love to hear other people’s perspectives on first time conference attendance and building relationships within a professional organization.

National Council on Public History: Milwaukee Bound

Milwaukee Art Museum

I recently found out that I’m going to be able to attend at this year’s National Council on Public History (NCPH) conference in Milwaukee, Wisconsin.  I’ve been thinking (read: dreaming/wishing) about this conference for months now, so I’m a tad bit on the excited side that I’m going to be able to attend.

This year’s conference theme is “Frontiers of Capitalism and Democracy” and is being held in conjunction Organization of American Historians (OAH).  The complete conference program can be seen here.

This will be my first time attending a NCPH conference.  The NCPH meeting brings together professionals from museums, archives, universities, historical societies, secondary schools, and many other walks of life.  I’m looking forward to a wide range of sessions, participating in a local history tour, and networking with people from a variety of backgrounds.  I’m also hoping to meet face to face a number of people I have been digitally talking to and working with over the past few years. 

Suggestions of any must see sights while in Milwaukee?

Chief Vann House: Conflicted Interpretation and Restoration

Tiya Miles article, “Showplace of the Cherokee Nation: Race and the Making of a Southern House Museum”, that recently appeared in The Public Historian, volume 33, issue 4, presents an intriguing examination of the role racial perceptions can play in heritage interpretations.

Miles’ work focuses on the Chief Vann House State Historic Site in Georgia.  This particular heritage site is the former residence of Chief Joseph Vann, who was a predominant plantation owner in Georgia until his family was forced to leave under the 1830s federal Indian Removal bill. 

Throughout “Showplace of the Cherokee Nation” Miles describes the 1950s restoration efforts of the Vann House and highlights the ongoing tensions in interpretation viewpoints. Miles illustrates the ongoing tensions between the desire to portray a  local heritage indicative of high class Georgia and the government desire to frame the House in ‘Indianness.’  These contrasting notions of focal interpretation points resulted in an interpretation that Miles describes as reflecting “the dual themes of Native American material culture and antebellum plantation culture.  The home was decorated with antiques befitting a well-heeled planter family, but the attic was reserved for display of Indian artifacts such as arrowheads.” (p.29)  Since no single narrative could be decided upon, the two prominent narratives were intermingled.  Both the local heritage advocates and the state government believed that the House had tourism potential, but they differed greatly on what they thought the prime attraction was — Indianness or Southern plantation heritage.

The Vann House site is not unique in its struggle of historical viewpoints.  History is often contested and there is always more than one way to tell the same set of events.  I am interested to know how the Vann House site currently functions as a house museum, do the interpreters address the ongoing struggle of viewpoints? Miles also notes that during the 1950s no thought was given to representing the slave presence that once drove the work on the plantation.  It would be interesting to see if this heritage is now represented in the House’s displays.

What are additional examples of struggles of historical interpretation coming to the forefront in heritage sites?

Photo credit: J. Stephen Conn