Displaying art while respecting its culture

There is a lot more involved in hanging art objects in a museum than simply banging a nail in the wall. And in the case of some objects, ceremony and respect is called for.

For instance, the Minneapolis Institute of Arts recently installed a Native American shield into one of its galleries, made by Plains Indian Humped-Wolf.

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Shields were used in battle by Plains men for protection. This protection was primarily supplied by the power of the images appearing on its surface, which came to the owner through a visionary experience. Before creating this shield, Humped-Wolf received a vision of a bull buffalo preparing himself for battle. The green band on its upper left section symbolizes Spring, the time for warfare. The black zig-zag lines drawn over the green band represent the paths of bullets deflected by the shield.

Image and text courtesy of the Minneapolis Institute of Arts

According to curator Joe Horse Capture, many traditional Native Americans feel that, while shields are not considered communally sacred, they do have a spiritual power that protected the owner. Shields could compete for power if they “see” each other.

I learned about this sensitivity about 20 years ago when I was interning with my mentor and good friend, Evan Maurer (former director of the MIA). We were working on the exhibition, Visions of the People: A Pictorial History of Plains Indian Life, at the time. We were talking with traditional folks out West and the topic of the shields came up. They confirmed the associated spiritual power of these objects, and how they can become jealous and competitive of each other. We later talked to my father (who was a curator for the Plains Indian Museum and later National Museum of the American Indian), who also confirmed it.

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MIA Joe Horse Capture stands next to Bull Lodge’s shield, from when it was featured in the exhibition From Our Ancestors: Art of the White Clay People

As it happens, there is already another shield located in the same gallery, made by Bull Lodge. So to prevent the two shields from competing with one another, MIA’s Bill Skodje covers Bull Lodge’s shield while the new addition is installed.

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Photo by Joe Horse Capture

Once Bull Lodge’s shield is temporarily covered, Humped-Wolf’s shield is brought into the gallery. With this method, they can’t “see” each other.

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Photo by Joe Horse Capture

Humped-Wolf’s shield is brought into its case, with Bull Lodge’s shield on the right side of the gallery.

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Photo by Joe Horse Capture

Humped-Wolf’s shield is installed in the case in a place where the two shields cannot “see” each other when the cover is removed from Bull Lodge’s shield.

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Photo by Joe Horse Capture

Horse Capture says these easy steps insure that the objects remain “happy”, and Native American cultural traditions are honored.

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