Museums tell scary stories

Screen Shot 2018-06-02 at 1.24.35 PMA while ago, I was in the DC area by myself, and I had half a day with nothing to do, no one to meet, and no plans in sight. So I walked a lot, but I realised later I hadn’t walked as great a distance I’d imagined—I just wasn’t used to walking around with a duffel bag full of clothes and an extra pair of sandals that were packed in the hope of warmer weather. I saw all the cherry blossom trees, bereft of flowers. Small mounds of pink petals lined the walkways. It was supposed to be spring, but the wind told me she didn’t think so.

I walked some more and came across the National Museum of the American Indian. I went in and spent exactly fifteen minutes looking at the displays. The effort is evident here—all the information is in the voice of Native Americans. But it was still unsettling to see entire cultures reduced to photo-opportunities for tourists. And the visitors weren’t really helping matters. They let their kids run about, they made peace signs and clicked selfies in front of objects that might still hold meaning for someone, somewhere.

I came out and called my brother. I told him I was feeling weird. Imagine if our country was full of white people, and our people had to tell their stories for a tableau in a museum? He asked me to lighten up and shared a story about a friend’s mother who’d visited a museum in Portugal. She had apparently picked up a fight with a manager there, for the stolen artefacts displayed with pride, and for having the impudence to declare that they’d saved the heathens from themselves. I don’t know how true this is, but I quite like the picture of an Indian aunty arguing with authority figures in Portugal.

Recently, I read a book of poetry by Joy Harjo, titled Conflict Resolution for Holy Beings. This is unusual, because I almost never read poetry. I’m terrified that I will not understand it, and most times, my fear is validated. But it happened to be one of the categories for Book Bingo, and my dislike for unchecked boxes overtook my fear of poetry.

Joy Harjo’s poems moved me. They are not to be consumed at once, because her pain is immense. It is the pain of a poet in exile, it holds the sorrows of a Native American woman without a Home, and the sorrows of all those who came before her. She speaks of a way of living that is at peace with the natural world, as opposed to the modern American society, which takes, consumes, discards, and destroys. Her poems tell difficult truths, but they are always filled with music and beauty.

She says this about museums:

Imagine if we natives went to the cemeteries in your cities and dug up your beloved relatives, pulled off rings, watches, and clothes and called them “artifacts,” then carried the bones over to the university for study so we could understand you. Consider that there are more bones of native people in universities and museums for study, than there are those of us living.

And in Talking with the Sun, she says this:

After dancing all night in a circle we realize that we are a part of a larger sense of starts and planets dancing with us overhead.

When the sun rises at the apex of the ceremony, we are renewed.

There is no mistaking this connection, though Walmart might be just down the road.

I think I will be returning to Joy Harjo’s words, though I can’t say the same about the museum.


4 thoughts on “Museums tell scary stories

  1. When I read about any American history (north or south) and how Europeans saved them from themselves, I can’t help but think about how India held on to its roots. Sure, they did force-feed their culture into India too and India wasn’t perfect either. But at the end of it, it appears India remained India.

    As a child I hated history classes. I felt that unlike other subjects which were about knowledge, history was just instruction in Jingoism. And it was. Now I believe that History should have been a more diverse subject. Why were we never taught about Australia or Africa or South America? We should have been taught a lot more than we were.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I loved history, but I suspect that was mostly due to the wonderful Mrs. Almeida, who always made it interesting. When I was twelve, I wanted nothing more than to be an archaeologist. 😀 I realised later that what I know as History was full of gaps and gaping holes. But I still maintain that our history (or social studies) was at least a bit more inclusive than what is taught in America.


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