An interview with Gerald McMasterson, Deputy Director for Cultural Resources at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, DC.
Gerald McMasterson: I’m a Plains Cree from Saskatchewan. I’m imported…first round draft choice…”
TNV: Really…How long have you been at the Smithsonian?
GMcM: I’ve been here two years. Before that I spent almost 20 years at the Canadian Museum of Civilization. I ran the Contemporary Art program and was the Lead Curator of the First People’s Hall.
TNV: That’s a very prestigious museum. What have you been “drafted” to do at the Smithsonian?
GMcM: I was hired to be the Deputy Director for Cultural Resources. The Cultural Resources Center is our second building, located in Maryland. This is where a lot of the staff is located, and also the collections are going to be stored that are moving from New York. It includes ancient, “archeological” works, historical works, contemporary art, film and video, paper and photographic archives. That’s why it’s referred to as the “Cultural Resources Center.” In addition to that site in New York, the Gustave Heye Center, the Mall will be our third building, which we’re building right now on the Washington Mall. It’s on the South side of the Mall, just opposite the National Gallery, at the foot of the Capitol Hill, right next door to the National Air and Space Museum.
TNV: How is this museum going to be different?
GMcM: A lot of museums are devoted to the visiting public, so their programs are oriented to the public, which is extremely important. Our museum does that; but in addition, what this museum does is work with the Native communities across the Americas. So not only do the scholars, researchers and our various programs go into the field, they go into various Native communities. We approach the indigenous communities with the government to government relationship. As we are the Smithsonian Institution, we are US Federal government. We treat them as families and friends, as colleagues, as living peoples with a strong voice, with a strong tradition, with a vibrant contemporary life and in many cases, promising future.
There are lots of negative things, mind you. We know that. We’ve known that for a long time, but I think we have to celebrate our contributions. This museum is attempting to do that.
This is the only national museum devoted to the Native Americas. This is a distinct difference. Our museum director is Native American, a lot of our staff are Native American, our Board is a least 50% Native American. We have principles to follow in order to be able to sustain relationships and reach our goals.
TNV: How does that translate into every day action.
GMcM: A lot of museums position Native peoples in the past without any sense that we are still here. We’re alive, we have survived, we’re a living and dynamic and vital community. And, we’re diverse. We work with Native people speaking their own experiences, we try to be unfiltered. “Voice” is not just people speaking. It’s people’s attitudes, perspectives and views of the world. It’s about responsibility. Voice is authority. For too long, Native peoples haven’t been involved in these museums. They may be used in an advisory role, but there’s been very little authority. We are representing Native people, and Native peoples are representing themselves – telling the stories of who they are and how their histories and world views give them identity.
It is also important to us to represent that we are contemporary, we have inherited our past and we are passing it on to our children. These are ways that we try to aspire to present the Native “Voice.”
TNV: Are the collections going to be presented in a any unique way that you can reveal?
GMcM: When we started out, we set out a group of principles, for example: community. We are working with indigenous communities from across th Americas. We understand that their locality is important to their identity. Where they live, their land base-in some case some indigenous peoples live in urban areas, some have immigrated. Nonetheless, locality continues to be important to aboriginality. Vitality is another one that we try to instill in the exhibits – that our cultures are still alive and well – are strong and in some cases are tenuous. Modern day realities are part of it. But we have to celebrate that, so a powwow like the one we are going to be hosting next month will be an example of the vitality. And “Voices” are important as we mentioned, presenting first peoples in the first person. Although a museum view-point has to frame the presentations, we have to allow Native peoples to present themselves from their own perspectives, so we can see how they look at the world. This is how our museum will be different.
TNV: Is each tribe designing their own exhibition?
GMcM: All the communities and all our researchers and curators have worked together to develop the content. They gave the tribes a framework, an idea-for example, that we want to deal with philosophy or history or identity. Then we approached various Native peoples and said that we would like to work with you to help you present yourselves in this context. So, they set the agenda and the content and we helped facility that because of our knowledge of working in museums – How to create the exhibit, to work with the space, to achieve the desired visitor experience. The designs, content, and scripts are all seen for final approval by the Tribes.
TNV: Is there any special program for the Native person coming to the museum?
GMcM: Often I’ve heard it said that 99% of viewers to the museum will be non-Indian. What we find is that a majority of the Native people who come to the cultural center come to look at their ancestors through the objects that they made. So often we greet them in a very different way at the cultural resources center. This past week we had a group from the jungles of Brazil, the Tapirape Tribe. I believe the Cultural Resources Center will be sensed as an Indian place, a Native place, because that’s where that objects are, that’s where Indian people are really interested in coming-to see the objects, to see the archives, to talk about repatriation, to talk about various issues.
TNV: This seems like a ground breaking opportunity for the rest of the world to have exposure to Native America that’s reality. I think everyone is hoping that the museum can live up to those tenets it’s set forth – that it can realize the dreams and achieve the intended visitor experience.
GMcM: If we follow the principles that we have set out, I think we’ll be fine.