CHICAGO – The Art Institute of Chicago has indefinitely postponed a major pottery exhibit just weeks before it was due to open, citing concerns that the culture and voices of indigenous people aren’t adequately represented.
Native American scholars against the scheduled opening said that much of the Mimbres pottery pledged to the Art Institute by one Chicago collector had come from ancestral gravesites.
“It’s not art,” said Patty Loew, director of Northwestern University’s Center for Native American and Indigenous Research. “If someone dug up your great-grandmother’s grave and pulled out a wedding ring or something that had been buried with her, would you feel comfortable having that item on display?”
“Worlds Within: Mimbres Pottery of the Ancient Southwest” was scheduled to begin May 26. The exhibit displays about 70 pieces of pottery from the Mimbres people. The pottery was created around A.D. 1100 in present-day southwestern New Mexico.
James Rondeau, the Art Institute’s president and director, said that as the show’s opening neared, it became obvious that more work needed to be done to include Native American voices in the project.
“The principal thing that we have not accomplished is to have an aligned indigenous perspective, scholarly and curatorial, with the project,” he said. “And I think that ultimately for us has been the crucial realization that our ability to reflect back what we were learning needed to be done in multiple voices, not just our voice.”
Kati Murphy, the museum’s executive director of public affairs, said the delay came after officials conducted a Native American scholar’s day meeting in December. The scholars gave the museum feedback about the need to collaborate with “Native American nations who hold connections to the Mimbres people, including Pueblo leadership,” Murphy said. The present-day Pueblos are the people believed to include descendants of the Mimbres.
The meeting was the first official discussion that included the scholars and “was part of (the) larger process that led to our decision,” she said.
Heather Miller, Chicago’s American Indian Center executive, said she advised the museum that this issue touches a nerve and that the museum’s decision to delay the opening is wonderful.
“Members of the (scholar’s day group) were very adamant that this was not a good idea for them to move forward with,” said Miller, one of the scholars. “Now I feel great that our concerns and our issues were actually addressed by this institution.”
The postponement of the exhibit comes after the museum revamped displays of African Art in February.