About this Project

An ambitious collaboration that brings together anthropologists, visual artists, curators, scholars of historic preservation, lawyers specializing in indigenous rights, and tribal elders from across North America, the Open Fields project (2017–2019) is helping to redefine the concept of “natural history.”

Museums that display Native artifacts are increasingly compelled to reconsider curatorial and conservation practices that do not adequately reflect indigenous peoples’ understanding of their own heritage. As these museums look to the future, how should they present Native material culture in ways that are culturally appropriate and stimulating to both the general public and Native populations? And what normative frameworks would help assess and, if necessary, adjudicate indigenous people’s ethical, legal, and religious claims to the cultural property currently held in these museums?

The site and subject of this crucial inquiry is Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History, which houses one of the world’s largest collections of Native American artifacts and is committed to renovating its famed Hall of Native North Americans (“Great Hall”). “The Neubauer Collegium continues to be an important venue for inspiration and guidance as the Field Museum plans for the wholesale revision of the public presentation of its Native American collections,” said Richard Lariviere, President and CEO of the Field Museum. “This is hard, intellectual, and impactful work—a perfect task to be engaged with the Neubauer Collegium.”

Through a series of open-ended discussions at the Neubauer Collegium and the Field Museum, the Open Fields project has convened scholars, practitioners, and indigenous leaders representing a wide range of perspectives. The participants have come together to pursue two large-scale, overlapping goals: articulating a vision for the future of ethnographic museology and updating antiquated methods of conserving and preserving indigenous material culture. In both contexts, substantive engagement with indigenous people supports an epochal shift from a period in which natural history collections were regarded as objects of scientific inquiry toward one in which they may prompt cross-cultural encounters with increasingly diverse publics.

The project’s first event, a multi-site conference organized by Jessica Stockholder in October 2015, examined how form, symbolic meaning, and social norms interact in art and law, particularly as they relate to First Nations artwork. Over the course of two days, a group of artists, scholars, and lawyers gathered at the Neubauer Collegium, the Field Museum, the Smart Museum of Art, and the Kavi Gupta Gallery for wide-ranging discussions and exhibition tours. One of the presenters was Anna Tsouhlarakis, a multimedia artist whose work pushes viewers to confront and rethink their cultural expectations when encountering Native art. Tsouhlarakis returned to the Neubauer Collegium a year later for a solo exhibition titled She Made for Her. Presented as part of the Open Fields project, the show included three large-scale sculptures made from scrap materials sold by the furniture store IKEA. Audio recordings of Native women responding to the enigmatic works challenged traditional notions of critical authority while asserting the validity of Native aesthetic experience.

The Field Museum opened two exhibitions in the fall of 2016 that, like She Made for Her, showcase contemporary Native American art. Drawing on Tradition enlivens the Great Hall with Kanza artist Chris Pappan’s inventive take on nineteenth-century “ledger art,” featuring pencil drawings of iconic images on ledger paper, often playfully distorted to suggest public misperceptions of Native culture. Full Circle/Omani Wakan pairs Lakota artist Rhonda Holy Bear’s intricately carved and beaded figures with materials she selected from the permanent collection, completing a “sacred journey” that began with Holy Bear’s childhood trips to the museum.

By creating space for Pappan and Holy Bear to honor the past while exploring new forms of creative expression, these exhibitions suggest a viable path forward for curators at natural history museums. “When we realize that Native peoples are not just the objects of ethnographic inquiry, but are audiences and contributors to the ongoing stories of these collections, all of a sudden the Field Museum itself takes on a very different layer of meaning and importance,” said Anthropology professor Justin Richland.

Field Museum curator Alaka Wali, who has partnered closely with Richland as a Visiting Fellow, believes the project has fostered productive dialogue among stakeholders with distinct perspectives and interests. “Open Fields has contributed to the intellectual and theoretical foundations for the renovation by creating a neutral space for open discussion,” Wali said. She also credited the project for helping her and her colleagues secure a Mellon Foundation grant that will enable the Field Museum to implement plans for the renovation and community engagement.

Resources from the Neubauer Collegium, leveraged with external funding from the Guggenheim Foundation and the McCormick Family Foundation, have also enabled the Open Fields research team to collect and study ethnographic data related to the Pappan and Holy Bear exhibitions. At a series of workshops in the summer and fall of 2017, the team shared their initial findings with museum professionals, indigenous artists, tribal leaders, and scholars. Employing recent methodological innovations in linguistic and visual anthropology, participants supplemented their review of traditional observational data with video and audio recordings collected during the planning, production, and installation stages. These efforts helped the research team identify promising strategies for curating and conserving Native artifacts on a broad scale. They also confirmed strong interest in the approach adopted for the Pappan and Holy Bear exhibitions.

Ongoing discussions with tribal elders, museum professionals, and ethnohistorians are advancing the team’s understanding of their findings and helping the Field Museum identify the goals and imperatives for its Great Hall renovation, currently underway.

News

Chicago’s Field Museum Announces Plans to Revamp Native American Hall

October 30, 2018

“The challenge is to bring out our spectacular collections, but contextualize them in a way that connects the past to the present and the continuity of the Native American experience,” said Neubauer Collegium Visiting Fellow Alaka Wali, curator of North American anthropology at the Field Museum and a collaborator on the Open Fields project.

Jessica Stockholder and Robert Davidson Collaborate in Austin

September 7, 2018

The two renowned artists, who collaborated on the Neubauer Collegium Open Fields project, are extending their partnership this fall with interrelated exhibitions in Austin, Texas.

Alaka Wali on “Beyond Bollywood”

August 16, 2017

The new "Beyond Bollywood" exhibition at the Field Museum is "the first exhibit of its kind to really concentrate on Indo-Americans, as opposed to Indians in America," Visiting Fellow Alaka Wali tells the Chicago Tribune.

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