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Story 08: Working Together To Get It Right

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Reconstructing the Children's Museum: Everything We've Done is Wrong

Written by Joan Lester

I left Harvard in 1971, returned to The Children's Museum and announced to the director, Mike Spock, that everything we'd ever done related to the interpretation of Native cultures and the objects in our care was wrong! His simple response: “Fix it." Spock gave me a budget, personal encouragement and sat back to watch me begin the long process of trying to deconstruct and reconstruct our approach.

As soon as I returned, I was able to retire the very popular face-painting activity. I now knew it was appropriative and inappropriate. We were using sacred images received in visions to paint children's cheeks!

Although eliminating face painting was easy, I understood that there was a much larger task ahead of us. The Children's Museum needed to totally revise its presentation of Native cultures. My dialogues and experiences with the Native students at Harvard gave me the courage to try and create a similar dialogue at the museum.

Native Cultures in New England Are Alive and Well

Guided by suggestions from some of the Harvard graduate students, I invited thirty Native American people from the Boston area to the museum to discuss how we, as an institution, might begin to change. It was an all but total failure. Distrust filled the room. What did we want from them? Were we just using them to get funding? Were “Indians in" and were we seeking to capitalize on this interest? It was April 1972 and this was the very first meeting of what would become an ongoing and critical part of the museum: a Native American Advisory Board.

Fortunately, better relations began to be established in 1973 when American Science and Engineering (AS and E), an educational publishing company, offered to publish the 1964 Algonquins MATCh Kit. Since the kit represented everything I had been taught to reject (the absence of Native voices, a frozen past, no history, a culture area and monolithic approach, and 
no contemporary existence) 
I refused. I countered with a list of conditions to which Mike lent his full support. We would revise the kit if they would agree to Native voices, 
Native approval of all con-tents, paid informants (why should Native people freely offer us their knowledge, when other consultants were paid for their expertise), money to travel to Native communities and so forth. To our great surprise and relief, AS and E accepted these conditions and our proposed budget. Now I needed to find Native people willing to work on such a project.

I had been told that there was, supposedly, an Indian community on Cape Cod. Was it possible that they were still Native? If they were, would they work with us? Teamed with Judy Battat, a staff member with a degree in anthropology, we spent much of the summer in the Native community in Mashpee, on Cape Cod, talking with and getting to know the people there. We asked questions, went to Pow Wows, hung around and even helped set up exhibits for a new tribal museum. By summer's end, the answer to my original question was a resounding yes. There was, indeed, a functioning, long-standing Native community in Mashpee, another equally strong one in Aquinnah (once called Gay Head), on Martha's Vineyard, and other smaller Wampanoag communities in the surrounding areas. And through our interest in the community and our stated desire to change how the museum presented Native people, we were able to convince seven Wampanoag people (Cynthia Akins, Helen Attaquin, Amelia Bingham, Helen Haynes, Frank James, Tall Oak and Gladys Widdiss) to come and guide us as we attempted to revise this now very outdated kit.

Next: Rethinking Curriculum: Indians Who Met the Pilgrims