Students in Notre Dame’s Department of American Studies recently got an inside perspective on the complexities of creating and maintaining Native American museum collections in a course called Collecting Indians.
The fall 2011 class was taught by Scott Stevens, a member of the Akwesasne Mohawk Tribe and the director of the D’Arcy McNickle Center for American Indian and Indigenous Studies at the Newberry Library in Chicago. Founded in 1972, the McNickle Center works to improve the quality of research about Native American culture, as well as provide a forum for historians, professors, and scholars in the field.
“We are delighted to have Scott Stevens teaching this unique class,” says Professor Erika Doss, chair of the Department of American Studies. “Museums, archives, and the history and management of cultural heritage collections is a large area of interest among many of our students.”
Stevens, a visiting adjunct professor, says he wanted to offer students a set of tools for analyzing how Native Americans are represented in museum collections.
“In order to do that, we need to be aware of the history of museums and their intended purposes,” he says. “Once we learn to discern the key differences between different types of museums, we can better assess their respective engagement with indigenous cultures.”
Understanding the philosophy behind museum curatorship, Stevens says, is key to an American Studies education.
“The past is always contested territory,” he says. “We hear it invoked in everything from politics to marketing. Museums are often showcases of competing notions of the past. For that reason, we should all learn to engage museums critically—we need to ask who founded these institutions and for what purpose, but also should be aware of what we want from such institutions.
“American Studies seems to me the best place for such investigations because of its genuinely interdisciplinary nature,” he says.
Students have responded to Stevens’ course with great enthusiasm, Doss says. “Indeed, several of our American Studies majors are planning to pursue post-graduate studies in museum studies—and we are hoping to be able to offer the course again.”