In this “report from the field,” we write from two perspectives, as a curator and as an advisor, on the process of interpreting Native American documents in the 2016 American Philosophical Society Museum exhibition, “Gathering Voices: Thomas Jefferson and Native America.” We share insights into our curatorial and representational goals, and reflect on the challenges of interpreting Indigenous heritage and traditional knowledges in materials that have been captured in colonial collections. We show how archival documents tend to silence as much as showcase ephemeral encounters, and how power in museum environments often remains embedded within the routine structures of colonial settler institutions and practices. We critique our own exhibition by noting how, despite our best efforts, inherent tensions among Indigenous histories, decolonizing ideals, and colonial archives shaped the process and resulted in irreconcilable omissions. Yet, we argue that cross-cultural collaboration is essential when working in colonial archives. Only by inviting Indigenous people into the process can we make progress toward restoring living relationships among past voices and contemporary communities. In concluding, we offer advice on practical approaches to working with Indigenous collaborators and advisors.
Ephemeral Encounters: Reflections on Representing Jefferson and Native America at the American Philosophical Society
Margaret M. Bruchac (Abenaki) is an ethnographer, historian, and museum consultant. At the University of Pennsylvania, she is an Associate Professor of Anthropology, Affiliated Faculty in the Penn Cultural Heritage Center, and Coordinator of Native American and Indigenous Studies. She also directs a restorative research project, called “The Wampum Trail,” that focuses on the materiality, meaning, and recovery of historical wampum objects. Her 2018 research article—“Broken Chains of Custody: Possessing, Dispossessing, and Repossessing Lost Wampum Belts”—appeared in the Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society, and her book Savage Kin: Indigenous Informants and American Anthropologists (University of Arizona Press, 2018) received the inaugural Council for Museum Anthropology Book Award.
Diana E. Marsh is Assistant Professor of Archives and Digital Curation at the University of Maryland’s College of Information Studies (iSchool) and current Chair of the Native American Archives Section of the Society of American Archivists. Her current work focuses on increasing discovery and access to colonially held archival collections for Native American and Indigenous communities. From 2015–17, she was an Andrew W. Mellon Post-Doctoral Curatorial Fellow at the American Philosophical Society where she conducted research and curated exhibitions drawing upon archival collections. Her recent work has appeared in The American Archivist, Archival Science, Archivaria,andArchival Outlook,and her book, Extinct Monsters to Deep Time: Conflict, Compromise, and the Making of Smithsonian’s Fossil Halls was published in 2019 with Berghahn Books.
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Margaret M. Bruchac, Diana E. Marsh; Ephemeral Encounters: Reflections on Representing Jefferson and Native America at the American Philosophical Society. The Public Historian 1 November 2021; 43 (4): 28–62. doi: https://doi.org/10.1525/tph.2021.43.4.28
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