Museum Musings: Cultural Appropriation

One day, long ago in the quickly receding time past, I ventured across town to IKEA. This expedition always includes a light breakfast with free coffee care of my IKEA family card, perusing the store for whatever I might need that day, followed by a stroll through the neighboring so-called outlet mall.

During that particular excursion, I was stopped by the displays in the Alina by Angel de la Guarda store. This is a women’s clothing store specializing in barely-there swimwear with shops in Peru, Argentina, Uruguay, Spain, and the two in outlet malls here (https://en.adgswimwear.com/). The small shop’s windows were peopled by slender clothed female mannequins sporting feathered headdresses – a mixture of styles taken from the iconic Plains tribes of the American West and also indigenous peoples of South America.

I was taken aback by the blatant use/abuse of traditional headwear of indigenous peoples in the storefront and the displays in the store. Cultural appropriation has been one of the topics bandied about by the politically correct for quite a while. In fact, the Oxford English Dictionary added “cultural appropriation” in 2017, defining it as “the unacknowledged or inappropriate adoption of the practices, customs, or aesthetics of one social or ethnic group by members of another (typically dominant) community or society.” Put more simply, it is borrowing from someone else’s culture without permission and without acknowledgement of their history. Cultural appropriation has infinite complexities and gray areas, it is of increasing relevance in today’s out-of-control world.

The national conversation on cultural appropriation was sparked a few years ago when an American teen wore a qipao, a Chinese-style dress to her prom. A fury of criticism and discussion followed the publicizing of her dress choice. More recently, the CDC tastelessly used a Chinese textile on the cover of an important report, reinforcing the wrong stereotype that COVID-19 is a Chinese flu.

The example of this young lady’s misplaced fashion sense and the local store’s use of indigenous headwear exposes the conundrums of cultural appropriation, cultural inspiration, and cultural appreciation.  In the early twentieth century, Asian immigrants working in the United States faced extreme persecution. The feather headdresses are worn by Native American leaders as symbols of respect and honor. The histories of discrimination in both communities is ignored by transforming their trappings into the realm of popular culture. Perhaps equally significant in these two instances, is the hyper-sexualization of Native American and Chinese women which is promoted.

Mixed into the discussion is the on-going conversation of colonization/decolonization. Decolonization has been characterized as the “hierarchical, outmoded thinking, privileging one group over one another in explicit and implicit ways” (Baldwin).  Concepts key to this term are oppression, exploitation, and systematic biases that are so ingrained we often can’t see their true impact. We are becoming more and more aware that the insidious consequences of European colonialism continue the devaluation of histories and cultures.

All of these concepts, especially decolonization, are applied more and more often to museums and their collecting and exhibiting activities. And more museums are taking the challenge seriously, from diversifying their staffs to conveying well-rounded, representative stories. Museums, after all, have been trusted community organizations that use their power to be safe third spaces. Now is the time to replace prejudicial misconceptions and narratives of opposition with accounts of strength and opportunities, which have all too often not been preserved or presented.

Museums are also responding to the call to join forces with and encourage collaboration with members of source communities, to obtain interpretations and meanings from the people whose stories they are trying to present. Such relationships bring expertise and, perhaps more importantly, perspectives, ways of looking at events and objects that may be different from those working in the museum. They promote new voices inside the museum.

My work has often put me in the position of a broker, a person representing\presenting aspects of other’s cultural heritage to the public. With a academic background of a folklorist, I always sought out community experts to guide my interpretive directions, to contribute their voices. I worked first with immigrant communities to build a grass-roots museum from the ground up. Along the way, I worked in an eastern Oklahoma town, guiding the reestablishment of a museum representing the predominant tribe in the area. Tribal members contributed their input and shaped new, permanent exhibits; this experience paved the way for my next stop. There, to lead the development of archaeology and ethnography exhibits at a state natural history museum I assembled a Native American advisory team (really two teams) to add to the process. They brought points of view which added to the end product in a way that could have not been achieved any other way. I am grateful for all that I learned from those with whom I worked.

In the last thirty years, superficial clichés, such as “build bridges” and “celebrate culture,” have been tossed around. Cultural appropriation with decolonization added to the mix have long been the work of museums, many of which delve into the interactions and exchanges between people. Today, more than ever, inclusion, understanding, and sharing are necessary to achieve our joint goals.

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