In the coming years, the Field Museum’s Native North American Hall will be transformed. Museum staff and Native American community partners are working together to renovate the hall, which has many displays that have stood largely unchanged since the 1950s. The renovated hall, slated to open in late 2021, is representative of efforts on the museum’s part to engage with Chicago’s Native community and to better represent their stories. “It’s not just a new exhibition—it represents a whole new way of thinking,” says Curator of North American Anthropology Alaka Wali.
This new way of thinking is evident in the diverse team working on the exhibition. “The Field Museum has established a new collaborative process that will allow the exhibition to be informed by Native American scholarship,” says Jaap Hoogstraten, Director of Exhibitions. “We have established an advisory committee of scholars and museum professionals from across the country and from diverse tribes and nations,” explains Hoogstraten.
Visitors to the new hall can expect to see cultural material from the Field’s collections as well as pieces from contemporary Native communities. The exhibition is being conceived of with spaces for rotational displays. “A visitor who comes when the exhibition opens in fall 2021 could return a few years later to find new stories being told,” says Hoogstraten. “The exhibits will always be co-curated by Native American scholars and community members, so visitors will encounter unique perspectives and learn from multiple knowledge streams about the history of Native Americans and contemporary concerns and ways of life.”
“For too long, our histories have been interpreted though an outsider’s lens. This renovation, in which indigenous people are participating, provides an important and long-overdue opportunity for us to tell our own stories,” says Patty Loew, a member of the advisory committee who is of the Bad River Band of Lake Superior Ojibwe. Loew is the director for the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research and a professor in the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University.
The team also notes that the exhibition itself is just part of the Field’s efforts to bring Native voices to the museum. Debra Yepa-Pappan, Community Engagement Coordinator for the renovation project, and her colleagues work to connect Native people with their ancestors, relatives, and the collections housed at the museum, and the museum recently hosted a land acknowledgement ceremony to recognize that the Field resides on the traditional homeland of three Native American tribes: the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi. “Land recognition ceremonies are important because they acknowledge both this region’s Native history and the vibrant Native American community alive today,” says Yepa-Pappan, who is Korean and a tribally enrolled member of the Pueblo of Jemez.
Of all the aspects of the renovation project, Wali says that she’s most excited about the museum’s efforts to hire Native American staff to inform the hall’s content and tell their story. “The Native presence at the Field Museum is growing, and our new Native staff are bringing fresh ideas and fresh ways of thinking,” says Wali. These new staff include community liaisons, like Yepa-Pappan, anthropologists, collections, and conservation staff who care for the objects in the museum’s collections.
“Visitors will gain a deeper understanding of Native peoples, histories, and contemporary life within the Chicagoland region,” says Eli Suzukovich, Field Museum research scientist and descendant of the Little Shell Band of Chippewa-Cree. “The voice, narratives, and perspectives of Native peoples and Indigenous nations that call this region home will serve as anchors for the new hall.”
Work on the exhibition will be ongoing for the coming three years. The hall will remain partially open to visitors throughout the renovation, and they’ll be able to watch the displays slowly transform into a dynamic experience informed by diverse voices.
“I’m excited about the opportunity to talk about Native history and about natural history from a Native perspective, and to reimagine the hall from that angle,” says Meranda Owens, a post-doctoral scholar working on the exhibition and a person of Northern Paiute and Mexican-American heritage. “Since the hall hasn’t been updated in sixty years—apart from recent additions of contemporary artwork—guests have had no exposure to the various ways Native communities have survived and how they are living today. We are still here; our knowledge and our lives matter. I want visitors to walk away from the new hall understanding that and wanting to know more about our people.”