My Trip to the Native American Voices Exhibit at Penn Museum

On Wednesday, March 12th, 2014, I visited the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology in order to explore their Native American Voices exhibit. My goal was to learn whatever I could about Native American history and culture, in order to supplement my ongoing research.

While at the museum, I took extensive notes as I studied the exhibits and observed the museum patrons. In an attempt to recreate the scene and express what I learned, this post will include images of my fieldnotes, transcriptions from those notes, a detailed scene showing my experience, and a reflection on what I’ve learned.

Fieldnotes

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Transcriptions

  • I arrived at the museum at about 1:00 PM.
  • I parked in Section 2S (I made sure to take note of this so I wouldn’t get lost trying to find my car later on).
  • Upon entering the Native American Voices exhibit, the first thing I became aware of was the voices speaking from above. They were Native American voices (no pun intended), speaking quotes about their history and culture.
  • Glass cases lined the walls. Each contained a variety of Native American clothes, artifacts, tools, weapons, clay pots, and so on. I was particularly struck by some modern things, like a picture of a video game cover for “Grand Theft Auto St. Clara Pueblo.”
  • Touch screens stood before each case offering more information. Each one had pictures of each item in the case. Touching the appropriate image brought up information about the selected item. You could also sort the items by the four primary exhibit categories: “Continuing Celebrations,” “Local Nations,” “New Initiatives,” and “Sacred Places.”
  • At the center of the room sat a virtual fire pit: a camera mounted above projected an image of a crackling fire onto the floor below. The fire was surrounded by four red benches. Most of the other museum patrons sat here at some point, and whenever they moved past, a sensor read their arrival and started playing a video (in place of the fire) depicting various aspects of Native American History.
  • One of the patrons stopped and looked at the fire, then said, “I was hearing those noises [from the virtual fire pit], I thought there must be some heat somewhere in here.” Yet the sound was disjointed; it came from above, while the image of the fire was down below.
  • The museum patrons passing by stop to listen to the voices coming from above: “We are still here,” “Today, we are getting stronger,” “Know that we are still here,” then, echoed over and over by many voices, “We are still here.”
  • Several patrons stop to read the writings above some of the display cases. I note the writings, “Native American communities mark the seasons with important public celebrations that help renew and strengthen their identities.” I’m immediately struck by the use of present-tense; these are, as noted, “Continuing Celebrations,” not just historical ones.
  • When I notice this, I begin looking more closely at some of the clothing on display. A woman passing by points at a t-shirt in one of the glass cases and comments on how different it looks to her. I read the plaque, and see it’s from 2010, and is hanging right next to a serape from 1860. In other cases are a blanket from 1994, a dress from 1880, a blouse and skirt from 2013, a “jingle powwow” dress from 2013, moosehide boots from 1900, and a painted buffalo robe from 1882.
  • Most of the museum patrons I observe pass through the Native American exhibit on their way elsewhere, only taking a few moments to glance at the displays. This exhibit is limited to a single room, about 30′ x 60′. The rest of the museum is dedicated to other parts of the world: South America, Africa, Japan, China, Egypt.
  • I trail after some of the other patrons and wander through the rest of the museum. The biggest thing I notice is that the Native American exhibit is by far the most modern, from the touch-screen displays to the inclusion of clothing and artifacts from the 2000s. It’s a blend of historical and modern artifacts (video game art, t-shirts. Even one of the modern dresses is a mix of modern and traditional design.
  • The other exhibits in the museum are almost exclusively ancient. Most say nothing about the modern day.
  • Native American exhibit is also the most political: it speaks of modern day politics and activism, such as the American Indian Religious Freedom Act, the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, the works of modern authors and professors of law, the Iroquois Nationals Lacrosse team, and so on.

Scene

I woke late and scrambled to get out of bed. The “Native American Voices” exhibit would only be at the Penn Museum for a short time, and I didn’t want to risk missing it before it was removed and replaced with something new. It was early afternoon on a brisk spring day when I arrived at the museum, located in the middle of Philadelphia. Banners hung from street lamps in front of the old stone building, advertising the various exhibits on display. I was only there for one exhibit, though the museum had a variety of others that were part of its permanent collection.

I parked my car in the multi-level parking garage, and made sure to write down which section I was parked in so I wouldn’t get lost trying to find my car later on. I then promptly got lost trying to find my way out of the parking garage, and spent several minutes heading up one ramp and down another before I found the exit. Eventually I made my way outside, then circled around to the front of the museum and headed for the main entrance.

My first thought upon entering the museum was that it didn’t seem very Native American. The museum had cold stone floors and dark walls, and looked, well, very museumy. I wandered up to the front desk, looking around. Nothing jumped out at me at first indicating the exhibit I was here to see.

I waited behind a middle-aged couple while they paid for admission and collected their museum map from the plastic holder on the desk. After spotting the map, I grabbed one, along with a few other information pamphlets. One of them had information on the Native American Voices exhibit.

20140313_232730The couple in front of me left and headed to the side, then the man behind the desk told me, “It’ll be $15.00.”

I pulled out my wallet, and spotted a sign behind the man indicating a discount for students with ID. I offered the man my Rowan University ID and he said, “Okay, $10.00.” After I paid, he asked me if I was here to see anything in particular.

“The Native American exhibit,” I said. He told me it was immediately to my left. I turned, surprised that I had missed it, then headed through the broad doorway and into the exhibit.

The first thing that struck me were the voices. They came from speakers set above my head, and spoke with Native American accents. “We are still here,” one voice said.

Several other museum patrons passed by: an old man in a white raincoat with his umbrella tucked into his belt; a young Asian couple, the man wearing an expensive-looking camera on a strap around his neck; a college-aged girl with purple highlights in her hair. They wandered through the exhibit, peering into the glass cases that lined the walls. Each case held a display of Native American artifacts, along with small plaques identifying each item.

“Today, we are getting stronger,” said a voice from above.

I walked past the first glass case, which held a large feathered headdress alongside a pair of lacrosse sticks and a jersey from the Iroqouis Nationals Lacrosse team. Beyond that case was a set of four red benches, surrounding a virtual fire pit that was projected onto the floor by a camera above. The sound of the crackling fire filled the room. I sat on one of the benches to get a feel for the room. The illusion of the fire pit was slightly broken by the fact that the sound came from above while the image of the fire was below.

“Know that we are still here,” another voice said from above.

The Asian couple walked around the outer wall, the man snapping pictures of the artifacts on display. The man in the raincoat walked by me and commented, “I was hearing those noises,” he gestured to the fire, “I thought there must be some heat somewhere in here.”

Many voices from above echoed one after another, “We are still here.”

When the man walked past, his motion triggered a sensor from the camera above. The fire pit was replaced with a short video showing various images of Native American lands, villages, and figures. Several different voices narrated the video, describing their lives in these lands, and how they changed when the Europeans arrived. “We are the first people to inhabit this land,” they said. “We lived in thousands of communities.”

They spoke of oppression, “For centuries, efforts were made to wipe out our heritage, our religion. Our native languages were not to be spoken. Our traditional clothing was not to be worn. Our hair was deemed unsuitable, and cut. Our children were taken away from us. They were taught being Indian was bad. Everywhere, being Indian was not something to be celebrated. But our ancestors survived. And today we survive.”

Several museum patrons stood around and watched as the video began speaking of today’s efforts, and the ongoing fight of the Native American people. “We are reclaiming our sacred lands. Each year, we hold hundreds of gatherings and ceremonies, celebrating our heritage.”

The voices in the video continued to shift, from man to woman, from young to old, as many different people contributed their voice to the video.

“The objects that surround you hold our histories. They tell our stories.”

“See our faces as you explore our preserved histories.”

“Hear our voices in our cultures and arts that still thrive today.”

Then, all of the voices echoed together, “Know that we are still here,” before the video faded, and the virtual fire pit returned.

With the video complete, the museum patrons continued their wanderings. Some lingered at one display or another, tapping the computer touch-screens before each display to learn more about the individual objects in each case. Others continued on, through the next doorway, into an exhibit that showed another part of the world, and a different part of history.

The artifacts on display in the room ranged from the ancient to the modern. A t-shirt from 2010 hung alongside a serape from 1860. A dress from 1880 hung alongside a blouse and skirt from 2013. Pipes, clay pots, and tools from hundreds of years ago hung alongside a piece of art mimicking the style of the Grand Theft Auto video games, depicting Grand Theft Auto, St. Clara Pueblo.

Most of the museum patrons didn’t linger long in this one room. They continued on through the rest of the museum, into rooms displaying artifacts from South America, Africa, Egypt, China, and Japan. The other rooms all showed ancient stone carvings, recreations of old temples, mummies and burial chambers, and statues and art from long ago.

After wandering through the museum for a time, I eventually return to the Native American exhibit. I was struck by how much smaller it was than the other exhibits in the museum. Many of the others had huge stone sculptures and more permanent displays. The Native American exhibit held only small, personal artifacts, and they would only be here until May. Yet it was also the most modern of all the exhibits; not only was it one of the only exhibits to show artifacts from as recently as 2013, it was also one of the only to use computer interfaces for information and to have a video exhibit.

These thoughts lingered with me as I passed through the room on my way back out. A few groups of new patrons had arrived, and were seated around the virtual fire pit. When I walked past, my movements triggered the sensors and started playing the video once again. The newcomers sat quietly and watched, listening to the voices playing from above. I left, pondering the significance of an exhibit that connects the past and the future.

Perhaps, I wondered, it had a deeper meaning. The Native American people are still struggling today to hold on to their culture, their language, and their traditions. Their past isn’t just a part of history; it’s something that was taken from them, and that they’ve struggled for years to reclaim. While I’m not deeply familiar with the histories of many of the other countries whose artifacts were on display in the museum, I do know that those countries still thrive today. Modern day Egypt, China, or Japan might be vastly different from the countries they once were, but they are nations that still exist. For the most part, the same can’t be said for the Native Americans who struggle to this day to be recognized fully under law. Maybe that was why that one exhibit, out of all of them, showed the past and the present side by side.

Reflections

There were ups and downs to this outing. The upside is that I was able to take my time and take detailed notes. One of the suggestions listed in Writing Ethnographic Fieldnotes is that a researcher needs to figure out when to withdraw from their observations in order to sit and jot some things down (p. 48). Since the museum patrons I was observing were wandering around, I found it pretty easy to slip back to the virtual fire pit, sit on a bench, and take notes on what I’d seen. Though in retrospect I realized that I should have taken more notes on the people around me; the descriptions of the museum patrons noted above were done mostly from memory, since I didn’t think to write down any details about the individual people. Though, Fieldnotes (p. 51) does say that a researcher will often work from such “headnotes” in order to construct a detailed account.

I made a conscious effort to avoid (as best as I could) depicting the specific emotions of any of the museum patrons, particularly in regard to the Native American voices in the video and what they said. I wanted to portray specific details, rather than generalizations (Fieldnotes, p. 58), and to avoid attaching my own meaning to anything (Fieldnotes, p. 131). The only exception to this was at the end, when I expressed my final thoughts upon leaving the scene. In those final moments, I wanted to express my “end-point” perspective (Fieldnotes, p. 105) and reflect on the thoughts I had after my experiences. My hope is that these final thoughts will help develop my future research. I feel like the “past and present combined” aspect of this topic is a very important one, not to be ignored.

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2 thoughts on “My Trip to the Native American Voices Exhibit at Penn Museum”

  1. Excellent post! I love how insightful and informative you are when it comes to the pieces at the museum and what you took away from it. Thanks for sharing!

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