Decolonizing the Exhibition: Contemporary Inuit Prints and Drawings from the Edward J. Guarino Collection

Sarah Sense Weaving Water

Pitaloosie Saila Strange Ladies, 2006

Vassar College’s Art History program has been known for its progressive contemporary art programs, but for this experiment interdisciplinary efforts were called for. In fact, the Art department was not the one to call for this experiment – the Native American Studies department did the majority of the preparatory work under Professor McGlennen. It took two years, but the class, Decolonizing the Exhibition, was a huge success; pulling from the Art History department many of its students. In its novelty the exhibition held a panel for students inside and outside the class to hear from the forces that put the exhibition together. One panelist was McGlennen herself; another, Edward Guarino, a collector of Indigenous art and friend of Vassar; third, a student: Pilar Jefferson; and lastly, Sarah Sense, a Native American artist.

All four panelists explained the goals of the course as related to the art/museum world, as well as the education world. The panelists expressed their concerns that they had never learned about the contemporary Native American art movement in their Art History educations and when they came into contact with Indigenous art in the museum it tended to focus on older generations in an anthropological manner.

The way this exhibition was executed – through the Native American Studies department instead of the Art department – allowed for a new approach to contemporary Indigenous art installation. Jefferson and McGlennen both explained the limitations and challenges of such an exhibition, especially in a museum, where traditionally Indigenous art is displayed in an anthropological manner, stopping right around the 20th century – as if Indigenous art died out, as if Indigenous people died out. This tradition of displaying only older generations of Indigenous art and artifacts in art museums reinforces the colonialist view that Indigenous people died out when the Europeans came.

McGlennen and her students stressed this problem in their working on the exhibition, in hopes that they could destroy this traditional view of Indigenous art. They picked contemporary art because it was so rare in the art museum and it exemplifies the struggles that Indigenous people encounter, sometimes the same problems as older generations, often compounded with new problems. They also expressed interest in being as true to the artists in their wall labels as possible because none of the students were Indigenous themselves. They began each label with a quote from an Indigenous person, always conscious of their job as allies.

The most important theme in this exhibition was the idea of “the story.” It seemed to all four panelists that Indigenous art sought to tell, express, or continue a story. Sense and McGlennen, both Native American, agreed with this idea; Sense many times told a story herself in hopes to explain her art to the students. McGlennen stressed, though, that the exhibition’s purpose was not to simply display the art in a non-anthropological way, but to help display the art without adding America into the story. Even if America affected the story, the story was never about America.

Object Biographies and the Developments of Classical Archaeology

Classical archaeology does not have the most reputable status in the history of archaeology; it has overlooked much of ancient Greek society because of its preoccupation with the treasures of the elite. Looters and treasure-seekers have given the discipline a bad name, as have the biased analyses of looking to prove myths and the narrow aesthetic focus on monuments. Over the past forty years, though, Sofia Voutsaki argues that much has changed for the better. Voutsaki states that the “Great Divide” between classical archaeology and other forms of archaeology, such as prehistoric and medieval archaeology, is closing; classical archaeology is no longer only “concerned mostly with high culture, monumental temples, artistic masterpieces and urban elites.”[1]

Classical archaeology has come a long way from its origins in pillaging, but there are still several short-comings in the archaeological log. Classical archaeology could be charged with breeding carelessness within its own field: “There is a tendency for well-known objects of high aesthetic merit to lose their archaeological and cultural contexts when placed in the broad narrative of Greek art history.”[2] Take for example the Polyphemus amphora from Eleusis[3] – it is given precedence in major art history books for being a classic 7th century BCE style funerary vase, and yet it is rarely mentioned that this is a child’s coffin.[4] By placing the object in the larger context of art history the vase has lost much of its human significance; classical archaeologists only analyze the vase for style, form, and function to give the piece meaning within the pre-determined chronological spectrum of vases. Studies of this kind, however, ignore the social meanings of the artifact, a problem object biographies try to correct.

Object biography “seeks to narrate the accrual of social meanings over the lifespan of an artifact. The approach is attractive for its narrative structure and post-processual emphasis on the active nature of material culture.”[5] Object biographies confirm classical archaeology’s growth in the last 40 years. Not only does this academic practice seek to use its knowledge for more than classifying objects into art historical categories, it seeks to understand every aspect of society within its cultural context; classical archaeology has moved past mere cultural historical study and has begun to emphasize post-processual investigation.

The culture history approach creates a normative model of culture that ignores the processes of change over time.[6] The processual approach addresses these processes, but again is normative and ignores individual agency. Post-processual approaches, such as object biography, strive to explain the importance of non-material factors in society. However, one approach is not more important than the other instead they should be built on top of each other to gain a complete understanding of human culture. Classical archaeology’s ability to address all three of these approaches proves that it has transitioned from treasure hunting to new humanistic approaches to better understand all aspects of Ancient Greek culture.

[1] Voutaki, Sofia Pg. 21

[2] Langdon, Susan. Pg. 579

[3] 3-p55-medium 3-p54-medium

[4] Langdon, Susan. Pg. 579

[5] Langdon, Susan. Pg. 579

[6] Ashmore, Wendy. Pg. 40


Images from:



Ashmore, Wendy. Sharer, Robert. Discovering Our Past: A brief introduction to Archaeology.      The McGraw-Hill Companies, Inc; New York, New York. 2014.

Langdon, Susan. “Beyond the Grave: Biographies from Early Greece.” American Journal             of Archaeology. Vol. 105, No.4. Oct., 2001. Archaeological Institute of America.     <>

Voutaki, Sofia. “Greek Archaeology: theoretical developments over the last 40 years.”      TMA jaargang Mediterrane Archeologie No. 40. 2008. Pg. 21-28.             <            over_the_last_40_years# >

Living with Ruins, The Greek Dark Ages


Imagine living in a mud brick house in complete poverty and walking past colossal stone ruins every day on your way to the watering hole, in the Mediterranean around 900 BCE the small rural tribes did just that. Seeing these gigantic structures, extremely foreign, and never knowing where they came from strained the small tribes’ understanding to the point where they designed myths to help explain. They believed that the monumental structures were created by a great race before them that had died out. They did not believe humans like themselves had the strength (or technology) to build such massive architecture. This idea is called ethnocentrism and will be explained in greater depth later.

The historical period between 1200 and 900 BCE has been labeled the “Greek Dark Ages” or (more precisely) the Submycenaean Period. After the Mycenaean Palaces fell, because of multiple devastating factors (such as war, bronze drought, water drought, and the destruction of trade routes), civilization thinned out. Without the Palace structure as anchor, the city’s urban center rapidly decentralized and the population settled in small groups, building mud brick houses. The time of monumental architecture was over and, soon, forgotten.

Civilization in the Mediterranean practically started over again. History was lost, writing was lost, and technology was lost. Faced with the ruins of such monumental architecture as the Lion Gate at Mycenae[1] and the “Cyclopean” walls at Tiryns[2] the people of the Submycenaean and Early Geometric Periods came up with a way of understanding that modern archaeologists would call “ethnocentric.”

Ethnocentrism is cultural bias. Ethnocentrism entails judging the practices of another culture using the standards and values of one’s own society. Everyone is susceptible to ethnocentrism; being aware is the only way to fight it.

People of the Submycenaean Period called the time before them the “Heroic Age” because they judged the ruins to be too grand for humans of their day to build. In this case they are being ethnocentric because they judged the race before them to be incapable to build such structures, unless they had superhuman abilities. They attributed the structures to a race before them, a race of heroes and monsters, long extinct. Hence, the gigantic walls at Tiryns were called “Cyclopean” because only a Cyclopes could have lifted bricks so large.

Although most of us do not live in mud brick houses and walk past monumental ruins (if only we did!) on our way to town, ethnocentrism still exists. What we need to understand as a whole is that past cultures were not LESS civilized then our own, nor MORE civilized. We, as archaeologists, need to analyze civilizations using an open mind, logic, and unbiased data.


Further Reading:

Neer, Richard T. Greek Art and Archaeology, A New History, c. 2500-c.150 BCE. Thames &        Hudson. New York, New York. 2012.

Fitton, J. Lesley. The Discovery of the Greek Bronze Age. Harvard University Press. Cambridge, MA. 1996.



Youn Fruneau @

Youn Fruneau @



Doucin & L. Lalait @ whc.

Doucin & L. Lalait @ whc.