The Penn Museum's "Native American Voices" Connects Past and Future

Peter Chawaga, for GPA -- Of the nearly one million objects in the Penn Museum’s anthropological collection, 160,000 come from the Americas. These specimens are the results of archeological expeditions in Pennsylvania and New Jersey and research trips to Alaska and Canada. They represent cultures native to 45 of the 50 United States, snapshots of daily life and rituals that defined the continent before European contact. But for all of their value as windows into the past, associate curator Lucy Fowler Williams saw the potential for more.

“I really pushed this idea of inviting living native people to comment and write about the importance of the objects in our collection, to try to bridge the gaps from the past,” Williams said. “This project really came out of a goal to create an understanding of what’s happening in the present and to do so with the voices of native peoples themselves, representing topics and issues that are important to them today.”

Opened in March, “Native American Voices: The People - Here and Now” rotates objects representing 85 tribes alongside multimedia and interactive digital displays featuring contemporary Native American leaders in what will be a five year exhibition.

Objects on display range from prehistoric Okvik harpoon heads dating from the year 200 to a woman’s t-shirt designed by Virgil Ortiz, a contemporary artist and Cochiti Pueblo native.

“The nature of the Penn Museum being a research institution, I think that’s one of the reasons why we can talk about contemporary issues,” Williams said. “Our collections are so large that we have several examples of clothing work, tools, that kind of thing. The show is set against the backdrop of maybe 300 or so Native American objects in the collection.”

The displays are complemented by viewing stations where visitors can select from a range of interviews with leaders in the Native American community, discussing the challenges their cultures and identities face as well as the strides they’ve made in maintaining them. There is also a virtual campfire in the middle of the exhibition room that displays an introductory video.

By combining the examples of Native American culture it has accumulated since its inception with recent acquisitions from contemporary native artists and thought leaders, the Penn Museum hopes that native voices ring loud and clear.

Image courtesy of the Penn Museum.