Are Museums Accidentally Supporting Stereotypes about Native Americans?

Think of all the famous museums in the United States? Which ones come to mind? I would guess your list includes any of the Smithsonian Museums, the National Gallery of Art in D.C., the American Museum of Natural History in NYC, or the National Museum of American History in D.C. However, when you think of the exhibits in the museums, what do think of? Pieces by artists such as da Vinci or Renoir would probably come to mind. Rarely would people think of works by Native American artists. This is due to a lack of awareness and education about Native American art—schools simply do not offer materials or examples of this type of art. Thus, the problem arises that people grow up without a realization of the importance of Native American art. Without Native American art, we can never tell the whole story of American art simply because Native American culture is apart of American history.

I attended a lecture last week that discussed this problem, specifically in terms of how museums handle native art. Surprisingly, most museums do in fact have collections of native art; however, rarely are they displayed to the public. If a Native American art collection is shown, it is usually exhibited in an ethnographic way, lumped together with African ‘tribal’ art. This tribal art idea arose through the colonization of American—it implies that this type of art is primitive or inferior to that of Western civilizations. Furthermore, one could almost bet that the Native American art collection only includes art up until the mid-20th century, which supports the stereotypical view that Native Americans are no longer here. These Native American collections (if displayed) are usually found in the back of the museum, sending a statement that those collections are less important and supporting the stereotype of Native Americans.


With additional research about this issue, I found an interesting article that talked about how the way museums display Native American art can be demeaning. For example, at the American Museum of Natural History, Native American art can be found right next to the dinosaur exhibit. This display placement sends a message that these people are from an uncivilized, natural world; when in fact, evidence found by archaeologists (such as Cohokia artifacts) shows that Native Americans had their own civilization, society, and technology—they were not uncivilized or savage. Furthermore, these exhibit usually have 3-D depiction of a Native American scene (a diorama). These dioramas support the belittling stereotypes about Native Americans and takes away from the value and history of the art by guessing about how that culture lived.


Therefore, the root of the problems facing Native American art comes from the way it is presented in schools and museums. Museums are being ethnographic by only displaying native art from prior to the 20th century while schools teach little about Native American art and history. Thus, both institutions create a population with little appreciation for such an important part of our history. Only with better education and awareness about Native American art can our society learn about the complete American past.


Image 1:

Image 2:

Read More:





Dona Sebastiana: A Window into the Past

While Frederick R. Barnard coined the phrase “a picture is worth a thousand words,” it was mostly likely Aby Warbury whose ideas lead to the creation of that phrase. After moving to Italy to learn about art, Aby Warbury (a German boy) quickly realized that art was more than just an image for aesthetic appeal. Rather, art was created to illustrate the memories of past societies. In other words, Warbury believed that art represents a window into past societies.

In a presentation given by Italian anthropologist, Carlos Severi, I learned about the affects that the arrival of the Spanish had on the indigenous people in New Mexico. Not only did the Spaniards impose their social and political systems, they slowly forced the native people to convert to Catholicism. Franciscan priests lived in the indigenous villages, teaching the natives about Spanish Catholicism. Over time, these native people began to forget their own religion and started to accept this new religion. However, by 1828, the Franciscan clergy left these villages and returned to Spain—leaving the indigenous people with a new religion that they didn’t fully understand and an old religion that they had forgotten.


Without priests to guide them, the indigenous people started to piece together a new religion: a mixture of Spanish Christianity and their old religion. This new religion, now known as the Penitente Brotherhood, was much darker than Christianity and focused on death rather than on redemption and light. Sacrifice, flagellation, and reenactments of Jesus crucifixion were all elements of Penitente Brotherhood. However, at the forefront of this new religion was Dona Sebastiana, the angel of death. Donna Sebastiana is usually depicted as a skeleton with long brown hair riding in a cart carrying arrows. Every year, she would ‘shoot’ one villager with an arrow, which meant that that villager was chosen to give up his life for his religion (in other words, he would become a martyr). It is believed that Dona Sebastiana is derived from the Christian Saint, St. Sebastian who died after being shot by arrows. This shows how the indigenous people were attempting to recreate the religion left by the Franciscans; however, because the Franciscans left before the indigenous people had fully understood and knew the religion, these dark modifications arose from the piecing together of the two religions.


This dark, death orientated religion arose only after the Franciscans left the Native Americans to make sense of an unfamiliar religion. Without guidance, these people pieced together what they remembered from their native religion and what they had been taught by the Spanish. While the rituals and figures of this religion are hard to understand, the context of the time period and the events leading up to development of the religion help us see into the memory of the indigenous people of the time. This idea, then, goes hand in hand with Aby Warburg beliefs on art. By analyzing and contextualizing images like Dona Sebastiana, we have a picture of what these indigenous societies were like back in the 1800s. Images of Dona Sebastiana act as a window into the thoughts and beliefs of the indigenous people.


Image 1:

Image 2:

Extra Reading:

The Secrets Revealed in Lab Work

What comes to mind when you think of archaeology? Do you think of the archaeologist who seeks to learn and preserve the past—the archaeologist who sees a broken glass bottle as treasure? Or do you think of the stereotypical archaeologist who digs up mummies and gold? Regardless of which you picture, you think of the archaeologist as working in the field. Rarely do people picture archaeologists in the lab. What does archaeological lab work really entail? How do archeologists find out information about artifacts? I didn’t know what to expect when I went to my lab work, but I was excited to find out.

When I walked into the lab, there was a long table with two boxes full of plastic bags in the center of the room. I sat down and took a peek at the contents of the boxes—from my quick glance, I saw bags full of pottery, bones, and broken glass. My professor walked in and told us that our task was to sort and organize artifacts from a site in Annapolis, Maryland. And with those instructions, my first archaeological lab work began.


The first bag I grabbed contained many different buttons. There appeared to be different types of buttons—some were white and shiny while others were rusty and black. After separating the buttons into categories based on appearance, we determined that there were six plastic buttons, eight glass buttons, two metal buttons, and two oyster-shell buttons. One of the metal buttons had an emblem on it—and with some research, my professor determined it was military button from the Civil War period. Thus, we could conclude that soldiers must have been in the area—but for what? Were soldiers just passing through the local tavern? Or was a solider returning home after battle? This question is left hanging until more research is done.


My group sorted about twenty bags of artifacts—some containing rusty nails others with pieces of glass. My two favorite artifacts were the broken pottery pieces and the animal bones. By looking at the material and color, we could sort the pottery pieces into types and estimate the time period it came from. Some of the pottery was white-ware while other pieces were buckley ware and others earthenware. Similarly, by closely looking at the bones, I sorted them into bird, reptile, mammal, and fish bones (with help of course). By working with my professor, I was able to see difference in each type of animal bone. For example, mammal bones are thick and dense while bird bones are mostly thin and hollow. Understanding these differences helped bring me one step closer to being an animal bone expert!


While fieldwork might provide an exciting adventure, it is in the lab that artifacts’ secrets are uncovered. In the lab, archaeologists can learn about the change of artifacts over time, their importance, and their relevance in history. Simply stated, it is in the lab where the past is revealed.






Ashmore, Wendy and Robert J. Sharer. Discovering Our Past: A Brief Introduction to Archaeology. New York: McGraw- Hill, 2012. Print.

Image 1:

Image 2:

Image 3:

The Evolution of Archaeology

When you think of archaeology, what comes to mind—treasure, gold, ancient mummies, lost civilizations? While this is not what modern archaeology is (despite the many stereotypes surrounding the field), it is how archaeology began. Evolving from both curiosity and greed, archaeology has blossomed, though only recently in the 19th century, into a widespread discipline of discovering and preserving the past. Thus, compared to most scientific fields, archaeology is still relatively young and developing.

Before the Renaissances of the 14th-17th centuries, there was little interest in learning about the past. People, like the Romans, were only interested in collecting artifacts or finding treasure. During the time of the Roman Empire, regions in the Mediterranean were looted and destroyed in search of artifacts to beautify palaces. However, as more discoveries were made, some wanted to look past monetary values and learn about the past cultures. For example, in the 15th century B.C., King Thutmose IV of Egypt ordered the excavation and restoration of the Great Sphinx. Once completed, he left a stone tablet, known as the Dream Stele, so that others could understand and learn from his discovery. This as well as other excavations set the groundwork for what would eventually become archaeological research.

pic 1

However, as the number of archaeological finds grew, so did the number of interpretations of past. Evidence began to disprove the long-held view of the Old Testament creation story. However, disliking this, most simply ignored evidence that was brought to light. It was not until Charles Lyell’s work (about TWO centuries later) that the theological view of creation was successfully rejected. Lyell proposed the theory of uniformitarianism, stating that the processes in place today are the same ones from the past. Along with Lyell’s theory, human tools, dating back from far longer than 6,000 years (the estimated age of earth according to the Old Testament), were discovered with extinct animals. With that, the search for link between the past and present civilization of Europe began.

pic 2

By the 19th century, archaeology was becoming a professional discipline. People became full-time archaeologists, using facts rather than speculation to understand the past. Archaeologists began using models to put together puzzle pieces of the past. The first well-known model was the three-age system—the belief that civilizations developed gradually through the Stone Age, the Bronze Age, and the Iron Age. However, this model could not be applied to the Americas (which lacked historical record). Thus, archaeologists began using the unilinear cultural evolution model—which stated that civilizations were barbaric before transforming into a civilization. Yet, with this model came a great deal of ethnocentrism—the belief that your way of life is the best way of life. Simply stated, this model was bias. Because archaeology developed in a Western culture, it centered around the idea that Western culture was superior in evolutionary development. However, modern archaeologists now recognize the dangers of their own bias and try to eliminate it from their work.

What began treasure hunting has developed into a complex field that works to fight ethnocentrism, preserve past culture, and learn ways to better the future. That is archaeology.




Ashmore, Wendy, and Robert J. Sharer. Discovering Our Past: A Brief Introduction to Archaeology. New York: McGraw- Hill, 2012. Print.

Image 1:

Image 2:

Further Reading: