Story 08: Working Together To Get It Right

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The Columbus Exhibit

Written by Joan Lester

In 1985 when Mike left the museum to take a new position at The Field Museum in Chicago, and Phyl O'Connell retired, life changed. Although the program continued, its credibility and full-scale support within the institution slowly waned. There was no one left in top management who had grown with us and understood our ever evolving mission.

By 1990 the board was looking to us to respond to the hoopla about the Columbus Quincentenary. Although there was only modest support for this at the museum, a private donor stepped forward with funding, and we were able to develop extensive exhibits and programs. It was an exhilarating time with all our efforts focused on deconstructing and reconstructing the Columbus myth. Paulla developed a Pow Wow exhibit, Linda organized a major Pow Wow on the Boston Common, and the Native American Board and myself co-created an exhibit that we called Columbus: Through Native Eyes.

The Through Native Eyes exhibit represented still another significant evolution in our relationship with the Advisory Board. Two board members, Carol and Earl Mills, and their children, Mishonaquis and Cuppy, agreed to be the spokespeople for the Native community. Their faces, photographs and words appeared in every exhibit section. The exhibit was set up so that visitors could literally look through a pair of their eyes "to see" the story as they saw it and to read their words describing Columbus' treatment of Taino people, the indigenous inhabitants of the Caribbean islands who Columbus first encountered. In addition, I spoke in my own voice, acknowledging the need to revise the myth and then placing the issues in a broader context: Who gets to write history? Are we humans essentially cruel? Is conquest continuing today?

We were all totally unprepared for the fallout that followed these endeavors. Everyone questioned why we had been allowed to present such a biased view. The Children's Museum Director was ready to agree to an FBI request to remove a "Free Leonard" bumper sticker from Paulla's Pow Wow exhibit. (Many Native Americans still advocate for the release of Leonard Peltier, an Anishinabe-Lakota member jailed for killing two FBI agents during a conflict on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in 1975.) Paulla and I vociferously objected and it fell to me to write a letter explaining why a Peltier bumper sticker, present at every Pow Wow, belonged in the Pow Wow exhibit. We did not receive a reply and the bumper sticker was not removed.

Next: The Tomah Joseph Exhibition