To See or Not To Be Seen? Changing Museum Practices

Opened March 2016

This exhibit is located at Brown University's Stephen Robert '62 Campus Center. See the Center's website for hours.

"To See or Not to be Seen?" was curated by Abby Muller '16 with Museum staff as part of her honors thesis.  Ms. Muller is gathering feedback for her paper.

Few museums can display all of their collections. The Haffenreffer Museum curates nearly one million objects, but only a small number can fit into our exhibition spaces on campus. Some are unwieldy or fragile. Others have complicated stories, and respect decides if and how they are displayed.

Not all objects were made to be seen in public, and the lines between private and public domains are sometimes unclear, especially when considering objects made by non-Western cultures. Should something made to be publicly displayed within a community be seen by outsiders? What about objects that were already meant to be viewed only by certain people or groups within a community?

One way to navigate these questions is to listen to more voices about these complicated objects. This trend towards inclusivity is extremely recent, and comes after many years of exclusion. Since the 1990s, the Haffenreffer has been having conversations about its collections. We have talked with Hopi representatives about the Katsina dolls displayed here, and a Bangwa delegation visited the Museum and discussed the Night Society mask. Museum-community relationships are always a work in progress, and they are always imperfect. But they are improving.

Sometimes, things mark restricted information without revealing it.

The anthropologist Robert Brain collected this mask in 1967, while working with the Bangwa people of highland Cameroon. Masks of the “Night Society” or Troh mark secrecy. The Troh is an organization responsible for adjudicating crimes and overseeing royal succession. Its members are assumed to have access to powerful ancestral and supernatural powers and to protect their communities from sorcery and treason. The activities and meetings of the Troh are off-limits to ordinary people, so their abstract masks are meant to cause fear. Placed on a path or in front of a building, they notify passersby that the Troh is meeting nearby, and that one should go no further. 

Not only do the masks mark secrets, they also hold them: the Troh declines to share about the deeper meanings of the masks and the specific activities of the Troh. These details remain carefully kept secrets.

Sometimes, people disagree about what should be represented.

Katsinam (kachinas/katsinas) are spirit-beings sacred to the Hopi people of northern Arizona, and tithu are the dolls that represent them. Young girls receive tithu to help teach them about the Katsinam. Nearly all Hopi agree that that Katsina friends, the masks used to embody Katsinam in sacred dances, should not be sold. However, Hopi artists carve tithu for sale to collectors. Different artists have different approaches to respecting their sacredness.

Wilson Tawaquaptewa (1873-1960), a Hopi leader and artist, carved these tithu [the three on the right of the photo] in ways that allowed him to avoid exploiting his knowledge of the Katsinam. The tithu he carved do not represent real Katsinam, but rather are inventions made by recombining traditional features in novel ways. That way, they satisfied the tourist market but respected the Katsinam.  

Manfred Susunkewa (b. 1940), like many other carvers, feels that the Katsinam need to be represented accurately and respectfully, even in the art market. He also feels that it is important to use traditional carving methods. Beginning in the 1970s, he revived the use of simple tools and natural pigments to create tithu like the ones displayed here [the two on theleft of the photo]. These dolls are meant to be hung on the wall, like the ones that Hopi girls receive during dances.

Sometimes, museums do not display objects at all.

Many communities believe some things cannot be explained without proper training, understood without belief, or seen by those not entitled to see them. Museums once displayed such cultural material regularly. Today, legal and ethical guidelines promote conversations about such materials and appropriate exhibition practices with descendant communities.  One such guideline is the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), which requires museums to report sacred objects in their collections to the tribes from which they came and, if asked, to return them.

Sometimes, those objects are claimed and repatriated. At other times, they remain in collections, taken care of by museum staff newly trained by Native American advisors in respectful ways of caring for them.  Among these materials are Haudenosaunee (Iroquois) Grandfathers (often called “False Face masks” by non-Iroquois). The Grand Council of the Haudenosaunee has requested that all Grandfathers remain unseen, unhandled, and uninterpreted outside of their communities.  The Haffenreffer's masks include ones from Canadian sources, not covered by NAGPRA. However, we honor the Grand Council's wishes and neither display nor provide research access to any of these masks without community approval.