Thursday, October 1, 2015

Archeology Southwest

I went to tea on Sunday.  I ate scones with clotted cream.  I ate crust-less cucumber sandwiches.  I wore my mouse shoes and a frilly skirt.  I sat next to the 92 year old man who wrote the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act. With Lady Jane by my side, I examined the relationships between museums and native tribes, while sipping tea and crooking my pinky just so.

I learned new words - geoglyph and patinated.  I listened to a man pronounce complicated-to-my-ears Hopi and Zuni and Havasupi names with nary a hitch in his delivery.  I expanded my horizons and joined a new organization and made plans for a girls' trip to Flagstaff.  It was a well-spent two hours, indeed.

Robert G. Breunig runs the Museum of Northern Arizona.  Located in Flagstaff, Arizona, it's Lady Jane's favorite museum ever.  Lady Jane does not toss compliments lightly.  After listening to Mr. Breunig's presentation, I understand her love.

The museum itself is newly housed in a building created by a committee.  Somehow, this one seems to work.  The Native American Advisors had a list of requirements.  It should face east, have circularity of form and be connected with the cycle of the seasons.  There should be as much natural light as possible, and the construction should use local materials.

It didn't sound too challenging, until Director Breunig began talking about the effects of natural light on ancient artifacts.  The collection staff were opposed.  The Advisors were adamant.  Because this is the kind of place where inclusion, consultation, collaboration, and partnership are primary values, a solar tube, opening only when someone enters the room, was installed.

Would that Congress could compromise so easily.

The native people's connection to the earth led to a living roof, satisfying the request that the building should be alive.  The earth for the native grasses growing atop the museum is local. The energy savings from 7' of earth above the collections is the 21st century rationale, but I'm going with a living building, myself.

In addition, on the equinoxes, the sunrise hits a sun icon on the front door.  Shades of Indiana Jones, eh?

Underlying all this wonderfulness was the question with which I entered the room: "Who told us this was all okay?"  Who gave this white guy permission to create a museum showcasing the other?  Mr. Breunig addressed it in his opening remark, quoted above, which endeared him to me immediately.

There was no dancing around an elephant in the room; he went at it straight on. The museum is a collaboration between the curators, the donors of artifacts, and the creators of stories and baskets and jewelry.  Their mission statement says it best:
We will not oppose each other; 
rather, we will enable one another and allow objects and people to speak.
Yet, that speaking brings up another set of issues.  Respecting indigenous knowledge means getting information from the source communities. What happens when the information a curator wants is held sacred by the tribe, to be shared with elders or initiates, but never with outsiders?  How does each side explain the need?  Mr. Breunig's discussion was fascinating.

Here's one example: The Museum created a Zuni Database, with information from NMA, UCLA and Cambridge.  They downloaded it and gave it to the Zuni.  Deal with it.  Identify it, classify it, determine who has access to it.... returning the data to the Zuni was, in some way, restoring it to its proper place.  NMA ws honoring the native perspective and giving it voice.

In a similar circumstance, the Havasupai chose from a wide array the items NMA displays.  NMA is given over to the tribes for festivals four times each year.  The Easton Collection Center is a spiritual home, housing relics still meaningful today.  It is truly a living building.

It was the most respectful discussion of individual differences I've heard in a long time.  With everything to divide them, these people came together and created a  monument to history and culture, viewed from another perspective.


  1. You said new museum grounds? Did they move or expand? It has had one of the most beautiful settings for a museum and I've been there a lot of times. I went to the link and maybe they have more rooms for exhibits now? The Heard Museum in Phoenix is really good too but I also like the Arizona State Museum on the UofA campus. I go there pretty much every trip down as well as the historic one nearby. I haven't been to the Heard or Museum of Northern Arizona for awhile but my kids grew up with photos taken in front of it :) Of course, archaeology has been a huge interest of mine for years. [I think I've mentioned before our daughter is an archaeologist although her emphasis was historic. She was helpful when I wrote that story where the heroine was an archaeologist in 1901-- when women first got their chance to be career professionals in such fields].

    1. They built a new building, which, if my internet had cooperated, I'd have shown in photos. It is circular and green and gorgeous. It really feels like a sacred space. Want to meet us there for a girls' trip sometime?

    2. would be fun sometime but I sure loved the original one


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