Criticized for Failing to Consult Indigenous Groups, the Art Institute of Chicago Has Postponed a Show of Native American Artifacts

The show, originally scheduled for late May, features 900-year old artifacts that some say were stolen from burial grounds.  

Art Institute of Chicago, Chicago, Illinois. Photo: Education Images/UIG via Getty Images.

The Art Institute of Chicago has postponed a planned exhitbiion of Native American pottery after academics and Native American communities raised concerns about how the show was being organized and where its objects came from. The news was first reported by the Chicago Tribune.

The show, titled “Worlds Within: Mimbres Pottery of the Ancient Southwest,” was to bring together around 70 artifacts from around 1100 AD that were made in present-day New Mexico. But as the planned opening date of May 26 drew closer, outside parties cited two distinct problems: that the exhibition was being put together without any indigenous input, and that the works on view are funerary objects taken from burial grounds.

In December, the museum convened a one-day symposium for scholars who, according to Heather Miller, executive director of Chicago’s American Indian Center, were “very adamant that this was not a good idea” for the museum to proceed with the show, according to the Tribune. “We left pretty discouraged and we’ve all been talking about it ever since,” she said.

Another scholar, Patty Loew, director of the Center for Native American and Indigenous Research at Northwestern University, said the objects in the show were not artworks. “If someone dug up your great-grandmother’s grave and pulled out a wedding ring or something that had been buried with her, would you feel comfortable having that item on display?”

The museum has now decided to delay the show until it can better bring an “indigenous perspective, scholarly and curatorial,” to the project, James Rondeau, the Museum’s president and director, told the Tribune. “I think that ultimately for us has been the crucial realization that our ability to reflect back what we were learning needed to be done in multiple voices, not just our voice.”

Bowls painted in the Mogollon, Mimbres style, 10th century, AD. Photo: Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images.

Bowls painted in the Mogollon, Mimbres style, 10th century, AD. Photo: Werner Forman/Universal Images Group/Getty Images.

Information about the show has been pulled from the museum’s website, and a new opening date has not yet been given.

Adding to the confusion, the show’s originating curator, Brian Just of the Princeton University Art Museum, withdrew from the project altogether in February, and the show will no longer travel to New Jersey. Another planned venue, the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, did not respond immediately to artnet News about whether the show would still be staged there.

The Mimbres people lived in the southwest United States between 1000 and 1130 A.D., and are known for their black and white ceramics. These pieces, which are associated with funerary rites, are incredibly rare today as most known Mimbres sites were looted over the course of the last century.

The majority of the show’s artifacts belong to Ed Harris, a Chicago-based music publisher. Since the 1970s, he and his wife Betty, a museum trustee, have amassed what he estimates to be “probably the best collection of this material that exists.”

“They didn’t want to do a show that was just half-baked,” Harris Told the Tribune. “They wanted to do it right. James and I made a decision to put off the show until we can face these issues.”

“I think our message is positive,” said Rondeau. “I think this is: We’re trying our best and we need to do better. And I’m very eager to embrace a position of being perhaps in the forefront of saying that some of the points of reference here for how to deliver best practices, how to really create and speak within that ethical framework, that those paradigms are shifting and we need to shift with it.”

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