Native Truths at the Field Museum: A New Kind of Blockbuster Exhibition
If you grew up in Chicago, you might remember the old Native American Hall at the Field Museum. Dark, crowded, and devoid of helpful information, the old fashioned design of the exhibit left you feeling confused on how to navigate the hundreds of beautifully crafted objects.
Native Truths is a totally new experience. Bright, open and colorful, Native Truths is an exhibit co-created with idigenous leaders and activists from across the country.
It’s a fresh take on museum practice. Native people form the voice of the exhibit. Each creator was able to write their own text to accompany their pieces and to tell their stories. Museum text is written in the first person, rooting the information conveyed in the lived experience of each tribe and their tradition. Politics and hard truths aren’t shied away from.
Museums have traditionally housed artifacts stolen from indigenous people without their permission, and often without their knowledge. Native Truths explores this reality, discussing the difficulty of creating any sort of cohesive exhibit about native peoples when the relationships of museums to indigenous people is so fraught.
Native Truths is Complicated
Native American cultures are incredibly diverse, made even more so by forced displacement at the hand of settlers. This exhibit honors the diversity and makes it clear that no two tribal traditions and histories are the same. It disrupts the tendency of museums, including the Field, to lump all Native American artifacts and items together without care for their specific meaning and origin.
Native creators were commissioned to create new pieces of art, clothing, jewelry, baskets, and more for display in the exhibition. Many of these contemporary pieces are displayed next to much older pieces from the Field Museum’s collections that originate in the same tribe’s heritage. As a viewer, you can see the continuation of traditional practices and forms, while also noting what has evolved and changed.
Contemporary artists and creators are keeping their culture alive by learning from elders and passing their skills onto others. It’s a critical part of culture preservation, especially in the face of ethnic cleansing and family separation furthered until the 1970s through residential schools and the practice of removing native children from their families. Today, tribes are trying to come together to retain the parts of their heritage that they still have access to.
It’s Complicated is one such contemporary piece displayed in Native Truths. Co-created by Chris Pappan and Jaalen Edenshaw in 2021, this stunning pencil drawing is executed over a municipal ledger from Evanston, dated 1926. It tackles aspects of the complex relationship between native nations and museums.
Museums across America collected artifacts from indigenous people throughout the 20th century, often without permission. Museums attempted to justify this practice by insisting that they were preserving these cultures for “posterity.” However, as Chris and Jaalen note, most tribes were able to preserve their culture and heritage on their own, begging the question of who these museum collections were really meant to operate for.
Rejecting the Static Exhibit
Rather than the end goal, Native Truths reflects an ongoing process. Every few months the Field Museum team will swap out some of the core displays in the exhibit to highlight new creators, histories, and current events. This will allow the exhibit to grow and evolve, recognizing the reality that no one exhibition could ever communicate the vast, diverse, and deep history of native nations in America.
There are also plenty of interactive spaces, including a display where you can record your own beats, inspired by the music of Lakota hip-hop artist Frank Waln and a visit to a life-sized traditional Pawnee Earth Lodge. Visitors get to learn immersively and interact with the information around them when appropriate.
Native Truths is an amazing experience for a classroom, an individual museum trip, or your whole family. The exhibition marries art, history and natural sciences, focusing on the interplay between contemporary art objects and historical objects and pieces of art. Go see Native Truths today, The Field Museum is always free for Illinois teachers. Folks with EBT or WIC cards are eligible for $3 museum admission for up to six people!
Representation in art education is critical to make lasting connections with students and to show them that anyone can be an artist, regardless of background or life experience. Native Truths is an important step towards correcting the underrepresentation of Native American cultures and creators in Chicago arts education.
If you’re looking for other ways to embrace representation in art and art history, check out our coloring book and learning resource, Not (Just) Dead White Guys. A collaboration with artist Kat Sampson, this coloring book features full page coloring sheets of 24 diverse famous artists, alongside info about their lives and work!
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