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Early Years at the Children's Museum: Continuing the Salvage Paradigm

Written by Joan Lester

In 1963, I graduated from UCLA with an M.A. in "Primitive Art" and a major in the so-called traditional arts of Native Americans. By the time I graduated, I had been indoctrinated into the anthropological and art history paradigms that guided scholarly work at that time. These included the recognition of the outside scholar as expert; the freezing of descriptions of Native American cultures in a timeless and static “ethnographic present”; the presentation of American myths as true history; the belief that “pure Indian artifacts” had been collected and preserved by anthropologists and placed in museums to preserve the record of Native cultures (often referred to as the “salvage paradigm”); the rejection of art made for sale (tourist art) as tainted and impure; the anticipated ultimate demise of authentic Native culture, and the implicit disconnect between the Native past and the Native present.

After moving to Boston, I began work as an anthropology assistant at The Children's Museum and continued to participate fully in these paradigms. Convinced by my schooling that Native cultures had disappeared or at best, were only remnants of what they once were, I taught only about the ethnographic present, worried about “gaps” in the collection, inappropriately purchased and handled sacred objects, and was largely unaware of the ongoing continuity of Native cultures throughout Indian America. Like so many others trained to work in these late nineteenth century mindsets, I could not know that this Western-created view of Native cultures would, in less than two decades, begin to be rejected by the new art historians, interpretive archaeologists, post-modern anthropologists, mainstream museum professionals and most importantly, by the non-vanishing, no longer silenced voices of Native people.

Next: An Assumption of Indian Extinction