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Story 08: Working Together To Get It Right

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Story 08 Introduction

Written by Mike Spock

After working with Native collections at The Children's Museum for five or six years, I left the museum to continue graduate studies at Harvard. There I met and studied with Native American students. I began to understand that what the Native people felt about museums was enormous rage. The rage was about, "You who are not Native have made decisions about what to exhibit. You've made decisions about who we are, who we were and how to interpret us. You're speaking for us, and we are not represented. At all. Then I went back to The Children's Museum and explained to Mike Spock that everything we had ever done was wrong.

His reply:

"Fix it."

It was the spring of 1976. Joan Lester asked to come in, thought there was something I ought to know. She was apologetic—not for what she was about to confess but that she had not shared it with me earlier. What Joan wanted me to hear was that, with the permission of Phyl O'Connell, the head of Collections, the Native American interns had reburied the ancient Massachusetts skeleton that had been in our collection for many years. Where did they bury it? Joan didn't know, as she had, at their request, not accompanied them. Apparently it was somewhere on the museum grounds, wrapped in a deerskin. What would the collections inventory record say? She had figured that out: the card would acknowledge that it was in "deep storage" and no longer accessible. The bones, collected on a university dig many years before, were given to the museum before my time. The burial also played a part in my inaugural exhibit.

Our first exhibition was something of an experiment: it displaced the old glass cases with direct experiences with everyday and less familiar objects. What's Inside? included a see-through telephone and toaster you could manipulate, a cut-in-half baseball, toilet, live gladiolas to dissect, wildlife in a drop of pond water, and what it looked like inside your mother when you were inside her. The centerpiece was a realistic cross section of a city street that featured a manhole you could climb down, buried trolley car tracks and cobblestones, water, sewer and gas lines, an old colonial wooden water main and then a real Indian burial from our collection. What's Inside? was a great success and gave us the courage to move ahead with interactive exhibitry from then on.

But, there were seeds of a deeper problem lurking within our successes. Growing up in New York, the Egyptian and Peruvian mummies on display made the Metropolitan Museum and the Museum of Natural History two of my favorite haunts. Inside their wrappings were real dead people. The mummies allowed me to confront death and speculate about my own mortality.

So, not too many years later, while poking around for ideas surrounding the theme of What's Inside?, the Indian burial seemed just the thing to evoke and explore similar feelings among out visitors. I grew to rely on primitive, sometimes dark, memories like these as one of the sources for our sometimes unconventional ideas. Wasn't it a lucky break that we had an authentic burial in collection storage?

On the other hand, my memory of the exchange about the reburial of the bones was emblematic of so many issues Joan and I navigated over the years. If not always quite as dramatic, each marked a turning point when Joan had come to realize that an earlier assumption we shared no longer held water, that once admitted it could not be ignored, and that if something had to be done, precedent might not be a guide to action. Joan, her collaborators and mentors in the native community, and the museum would have to invent a new and sometimes unconventional approach to bringing programs and policies into line with our goals and values, while also honoring Native American concerns.

We eventually came to understand that displaying and even having Native American remains was wrong, dead wrong. While in 1974 I might be excused as not knowing any better, in 1976 when Joan and her co-conspirators decided that the remains must be returned to the ground, ignorance was no longer an excuse. The only question was how to address the problem and what to do with the bones. There were no precedents—NAGPRA (Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act, 1971) was fourteen years away.

The solution Joan and her interns came up with would of course still be viewed as beyond the limits of conventional museum and scientific practice. At the very least the decision today would be made in the full light of day and formally endorsed by the director and the board. After some resistance, but with great care and good will by the stakeholders, national guidelines and procedures for the return of human remains would later be worked out. Following these policies, the decision to rebury the human remains would probably be the same (although they would now be returned to the Wampanoag nation for burial). Joan's instincts were right, dead right, even though the rest of the world had to catch up with her and the interns.

The spine of this chapter is built around the introduction to Joan Lester's1998 doctoral dissertation. Joan's narrative, amplified by illustrations and commentary by her and others, charts her thirty-five-year journey from student (she still is) to teacher (she has always been) to personal and professional enlightenment. Like the story of the covert reburial, her essay is full of revealing anecdotes, significant insights, profound decisions, and important things to remember and pass on. Deeply anchored in her values, it is pure Joan: personal, honest, open, tentative, consistent, and stubbornly persistent. From the start we see her examining assumptions, finding out what she needed to know, and discovering and admitting what she thought she knew but didn't. You will also see that Joan never stopped there: understanding always led to action. And in action she changed herself and us and the profession—and the way we see, understand, and act among each other.

Next: A Radical Difference