Ari Armstrong, Exclusives, Politics, Uncategorized

Armstrong: Denver’s nature museum struggles with the past

My family loves the Denver Museum of Nature and Science. Outside of our home, that’s probably the place where our seven-year-old has gone most often. I could give you a general room-by-room description of the museum by memory. We’ve met paleontologists and astronauts there. We celebrated when the museum announced the discovery of important mammal fossils from relatively soon after the dinosaur extinction event, something you can explore at the museum or via Nova’s “Rise of the Mammals.”

I was surprised to hear that the museum is closing its North American Indian Cultures Hall. It is doing so, it says, because the Hall “reinforces harmful stereotypes and white, dominant culture.” I’ve been to that Hall several times, and it never occurred to me that it did any such thing. Indeed, I though the Hall went out of its way to fairly and sympathetically present Indigenous history and culture. So was I missing something, or is the museum now overreacting to complaints?

Troubled history

The museum’s current administrators may have felt back on their heels since it came out a couple years ago that the institution’s first director was a member of the Ku Klux Klan. This was not terribly surprising to anyone who has read Robert Alan Goldberg’s history of the Klan in Colorado (something I’ve discussed) or a comparable work; the KKK was a large and powerful organization in the state in the early 1900s. Still, the news is disturbing, and it boiled into a dark cloud over the museum.

Here’s what the museum’s president and CEO George Sparks said in a March 4, 2021 release:

“History Colorado’s digital release of the Denver KKK membership roster and subsequent programming have received a lot of attention, which is how we became aware that Jesse Figgins, the first director of the Museum from 1910-1935, was a Klan member.

“We want to publicly acknowledge this abhorrent history as a part of our past that influenced the operations of the early Museum. For many years, we have been actively working to change systems and practices to make the Museum a more equitable organization.

“Our staff was justifiably hurt by this revelation, and we acknowledge that volunteers, members and visitors will also feel a multitude of reactions to this. We ask everyone to join us in this ongoing work to make Colorado and the Museum a place where all are respected and welcomed.”

In a release from April of the same year, History Colorado summarized, “A century ago, waves of people in Denver pledged their loyalty to the Ku Klux Klan.” History Colorado’s Dawn DiPrince said, “This historic record demonstrates the pervasiveness of white supremacy in Colorado’s history and impels us to examine how it persists today.”

Coloradans also need to face the glaring fact that government perpetrated a mass murder of Native Americans when Colorado was still a territory. As History Colorado summarizes, “The Sand Creek Massacre was the deadliest day in Colorado’s history, and it changed Cheyenne and Arapaho people forever. At sunrise on November 29, 1864, the US Army attacked a camp of mostly women, children, and elders on Big Sandy Creek in southeastern Colorado. The soldiers murdered more than 230 peaceful people.”

At the time, John Evans was “governor and superintendent of Indian Affairs,” Northwestern University notes in summarizing a 2014 study. The university continues: “The extant evidence suggests that [Evans] did not consider the Indians at Sand Creek to be a threat and that he would have opposed the attack that took place. Evans nonetheless was one of several individuals who, in serving a flawed and poorly implemented federal Indian policy, helped create a situation that made the Sand Creek Massacre possible. . . . The most significant instances of this failure were his response to the skirmishes that occurred in the spring of 1864. . . . Evans’ conduct after the Sand Creek Massacre reveals a deep moral failure that warrants condemnation. While he denied any role in the massacre, he refused to acknowledge, let alone criticize, what had happened, even going so far as to defend and rationalize it.”

Because of Evans’s ties to the massacre, Mount Evans almost certainly will be renamed. However, a proposal to rename it Mount Blue Sky hit a snag when the Northern Cheyenne objected.

The Museum of Nature and Science is not the only institution to face intense scrutiny. The Denver Post reported, “Back in 2013, when the History Colorado Center shut down its first Sand Creek Massacre exhibition due to protests from Native Americans, it was more than a local scandal and an enduring embarrassment for the museum.” History Colorado now has a reworked presentation. The Post also published a lengthy report on the Denver Art Museum’s ties to looted Cambodian artifacts.

Given the racism of Colorado’s past and the museum’s past, obviously the museum is going to take very seriously claims that its current displays are racist.

Announcing the closure

The museum emailed the following notice on May 17:

“In the 1970s, the Denver Museum of Nature & Science created the North American Indian Cultures (NAIC) Hall. Despite collaboration with Indigenous representatives during its creation and ongoing efforts by curators, conservators, and others to update and improve various parts of the Hall, we acknowledge that it remains problematic. We understand that the Hall reinforces harmful stereotypes and white, dominant culture.

“This summer, we will be closing the Hall. To acknowledge the harm we have caused, we have developed and agreed upon a healing statement in collaboration with Indigenous consultants, and with input and guidance from conversations with community members. The statement was crafted after taking into account the concerns expressed by the community, and in direct response to those concerns. . . .

“Together with Indigenous community members, we will reimagine exhibition curation, collecting, programming and conservation practices with respect to Indigenous culture, heritage and belongings. We recognize that there is more work to be done, and we are committed to working with, and for, community members as we move forward in reimagining our practices.”

See also the museum’s web page about the exhibit.

The healing statement adds: “The Denver Museum of Nature & Science acknowledges the North American Indian Cultures Hall—created by Museum staff both past and present—harms Indigenous people of North America.

“Within this space, the Museum perpetuates racist stereotypes by portraying Indigenous people in dioramas as if they exist only in the past, using inaccurate names for sovereign nations (regardless of government recognition), and displaying their belongings without ongoing consent or respectful attribution.

“The Museum is committed to healing harm and repairing relationships.

“As part of that process, Museum staff and Indigenous community partners are working to respectfully close this Hall and to reimagine exhibition, curation, collecting, programming, and conservation practices with respect to Indigenous cultural histories, heritage, and belongings.”

Exploring the Hall

Recently my family walked the Hall before its closing. My personal aim was to view it with the claims of racism made about it in mind.

Regarding the complaint about inaccurate names, it seems obvious the museum should use the names preferred by the tribes themselves. But isn’t that just a matter of updating a few posters and plaques?

Regarding the complaint about consent and attribution, I’d like to see more details about that. Offhand it seems like this could be an important problem.

What about the dioramas? Do these portray “Indigenous people . . . as if they exist only in the past”? The displays would be a problem if context did not make clear the ongoing lives and relevance of Indigenous people. But the museum does offer that context, in abundance. Or is the claim that museums should never display people in dioramas depicting times past?

I’ll convey some of what I saw in the Hall. The first thing you see before entering is a wall of Indigenous pottery showing its development from fifteen hundred years ago to the present. Then upon entering you see a video emphasizing that Indigenous people have a past and a present. For example, it shows Indigenous people as modern doctors, teachers, athletes, and more. So right away the museum works hard to show that Indigenous people exist now, not only in the past.

The Hall shows other recent creations and activities of Indigenous people, including a 1961 carved Totem pole, a 1975 artwork print, a 2014 photo of the 24th annual Canoe Journey, a photo of a contemporary canoe carver, various photos of contemporary Indigenous people, and a video about a recent dispute between the Hopi people and the U.S. Forest Service. (You can read more about this last issue at AZ Central.)

The signage beneath one of the dioramas explicitly talks about the continuing lives of Indigenous people: “The Miccosukee Tribe of Indians of Florida was officially recognized in 1962 and gained control of reservation lands near the Tamiami Trail. Now, the tribe fights legal battles against pollution and destruction of the Everglades with funds from their tourist enterprises.”

The museum intentionally tries to disrupt the notion that Indigenous people exist only in the past. One sign explains that the museum has hundreds of paintings of American Indians, some “created by American Indians themselves,” others “created by . . . Europeans and Anglo-Americans looking at the subject through their own cultural lens.” The sign continues, “Stereotypes of indigenous peoples remain today in everything from school books to Disney movies. Popular media often perpetuate romantic views of Native Americans as savage and noble, vanished and mystical.”

The Hall also discusses the recent controversies over team names. One sign says, “In February 2022, the professional football team in Washington D.C. changed its name to ‘Commanders,’ renouncing the racist name [the ‘Redskins’] and imagery the organization used for 87 years.”

If you want to judge for yourself to what degree the Hall as it now stands perpetuates racist stereotypes of Indigenous people, and to what degree it works to undermine those stereotypes, you can check out the Hall for yourself, before it closes.

Why not leave it open during renovation

During the Hall’s closure, rather than get possibly skewed information about Indigenous peoples, visitors instead will learn almost nothing about them while at the museum. Is that really better? This seems like making the perfect enemy of the good or at least the adequate.

Rather than close the Hall completely, wouldn’t it be better to keep it open even as it is renovated, with some relevant materials to explain the purpose of the transition? Letting visitors observe the transformation would be instructive—especially if the aim is to emphasize the ongoing lives and relevance of Indigenous peoples. I don’t see the upside of walling people out of this process.

People desperately need to learn the unvarnished history of our region, country, and world. Part of that history is revising, and hopefully improving, how “we” tell history. I hope the museum will find a way to make its renovations part of its educational mission.

Ari Armstrong writes regularly for Complete Colorado and is the author of books about Ayn Rand, Harry Potter, and classical liberalism. He can be reached at ari at ariarmstrong dot com.


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