For decades now, New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art has placed authentic Native American art in the indigenous wing of its museum, beside works from Africa, Oceania and the Americas. Such placement of Native American art has become a recent issue, and the Met has finally decided to place these works in its wing of American art.
For years, art by Native Americans wasn’t typically included in museums, according to The Smithsonian. Instead, the works were valued not for their aesthetics, but for their ethnicity. As a result, these works were commonly placed in natural history museums as opposed to national art museums.
The location of such works often confuses international art enthusiasts.
“They go through and expect to see Native American work here,” American wing curator Sylvia Yount said to The New York Times. “Because often where they come from, indigenous art is part of the narrative of a nation’s art, in a way that it’s not in the United States. We’re really behind the curve.”
The Met’s decision to rearrange their American wing was made when Charles and Valerie Diker—owners of one of the largest country’s private collections of Native American art—donated 91 Native American pieces from various locations and time periods to the museum. Along with 20 other previous works donated by the Dikers, these pieces will be featured in a mass exhibition set to debut in 2018.
“We always felt that what we were collecting was American art. And we always felt very strongly that it should be shown in that context,” Charles Diker said to The New York Times.
One of the newly located pieces includes a jar created by the Hopi-Tewa potter, Nampeyo. Other pieces include an 18th century Tlingit dagger with a face-shaped hilt and a painted shield by Hunkpapa Lakota master Joseph No Two Horns from the Standing Rock reservation.
These works will now be shown beside the works of celebrated American artists, such as portraitist Gilbert Stuart and Jon Singer Sargent. The Met’s goal for the rearrangement is “to display art from the first Americans within its appropriate geographical context.”
Twenty pieces of Native American art from the Dikers have already been moved to the American wing, as they serve as a preview for the upcoming unveiling in 2018. The combination of pieces has already shown some interesting and new perspectives.
A John Trumbull painting of George Washington and his slave Billy Lee is now located next to an Iroquois pouch, drawing parallels between Native Americans and enslaved individuals. This relationship—which is shown by so many works in the updated American wing—is one of the many ways “to complicate the narrative,” Yount said.
Other museums such as the Denver Art Museum and Art Institute of Chicago have notable Native American art collections, but have yet to separate them from their ethnological ties. Although the Met’s inclusion of the Native American art in their American wing is a step forward, curators admit that there is still a long way to go until the value of the Native Americans’ art is given its justice.
Still, it’s nice to know that with the help of the Met and the Dikers, often-neglected cultures—like that of the Native Americans’—can finally be recognized in an artistic setting.