Native American art will now be part of the Met's American Wing
Native American art will now be part of the Met's American Wing This elaborate dance mask (ca. 1900) with representations of a spirit, seal, fish, and bird held in a human hand, was made by a Yup’ik artist from Alaska and is part of a group of Native American artworks that will soon be integrated into the Metropolitan Museum’s American Wing. (Metropolitan Museum of Art/Paulo JC Nogueira/Wiki Commons)
Native American art will now be part of the Met's American Wing
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Where should Native American art be displayed? It’s a controversial question that has dogged the Metropolitan Museum in New York. Its answer, historically, has been to place it in a wing with other indigenous art from Africa, Oceania and the Americas. But that’s about to change, reports ArtNet’s Sarah Cascone, with the integration of nearly 100 newly donated works into the museum’s American Wing instead.

The move marks the first time Native American art will be displayed alongside artworks by those of European descent in the American Wing, Cascone reports. The decision was made when Charles and Valerie Diker, who own one of the country’s largest and most significant private collections of Native American art, donated 91 pieces of art from various places and periods to the Met. In a press release, the museum says that the new pieces will be displayed alongside 20 other previous donations by the Dikers with a “major exhibition” in 2018.

As The New York Times’ Grace Glueck wrote in 2004, the Dikers have long advocated for museums to consider Native American art alongside other American masterpieces like those of Rothko and Miro, whose work they also collect.

For years, art by Native Americans wasn’t typically included in art museums. Instead, pieces were considered for their ethnological not aesthetic merits and were shown in natural history museums.

“When Native American, Pacific, and African art and artifact is lumped in with natural history exhibits, it sends a message that these groups are a part of the “natural” world,” writes Katherine Abu Hadal for Indian Country Today. “That the art they produce is somehow less cultured and developed than the western art canon. It also sends the message that they are historical, an element of the romantic past, when in reality these peoples are alive and well, with many traditions intact and new traditions happening all the time.”

Even when Native American art is displayed in art museums, it is often segregated into its own section instead of being integrated with other American works - and many museum collections don’t include much historic or contemporary art from Native Americans at all. Sylvia Yount, a Metropolitan Museum curator in charge of the museum’s American Wing, tells The New York Times’ Randy Kennedy that visitors from other countries often wonder why Native American art is absent from the wing.

“They go through and expect to see Native American work here. 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.”

In the release the museum states that acquiring more Native American art is a top priority. Will the move prompt other museums to reconsider the context in which they display art? Perhaps. But even if it doesn’t, the chance to view Native American art in the American Wing at a major museum will make an impact.

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Why has it taken so long for Native American art to be included in American art wings of museums?
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  • GraceH-pla
    2/05/2018 - 06:07 p.m.

    This article informs readers of the context in which Native American art is traditionally viewed in the United States and proposes a change to the current situation. While this art is a distinct aspect of the creative history of our country, it often gets displayed in natural history museums rather than art museums. If it is, in fact, showcased in an art museum, Native American art usually resides alongside that of other indigenous cultures around the globe rather than with other American art done by artists of European ancestry. The fact that we, as a nation, continue to brush aside the origins of our country baffles me. Native American culture makes up a significant chunk of America's cultural identity, and I believe that it's our duty as citizens to recognize that. In order to generate awareness of the unfair lack of recognition Native American art receives, we must teach ourselves and others to look outside of our standard definition of what it means to be American, taking into account the story of our ancestors, whether they be natives or immigrants.

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