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Exhibit more than triples museum visits

Muskegon Museum of Art display documenting 82 major Native American tribes draws nearly 13,000 visitors in two months.

August 4, 2017
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Muskegon Museum of Art
The exhibit featuring the work of photographer and ethnologist Edward S. Curtis includes 723 photos, 20 bound volumes and several original field recordings of Native American music. Courtesy Muskegon Museum of Art

Anglo-American photographer and ethnologist Edward S. Curtis spent the first three decades of the 20th century taking photographs of Native Americans and recording their language, music and history.

An exhibit of his critically acclaimed — and controversial — magnum opus, “Edward S. Curtis: The North American Indian,” opened May 11 at the Muskegon Museum of Art, 296 W. Webster Ave. in Muskegon. It is the largest exhibition in the museum’s history and runs through Sept. 10.

The display includes 723 photographs, 20 bound volumes containing historical notes and 1,500 images, as well as several original field recordings of Native music. It also features objects from Curtis’ life and examples of artifacts found in his photos.

Judy Hayner, MMA director, said the reaction to the exhibit from all over the U.S. has been overwhelming.

“We knew there would be a response, but we had no idea how much,” she said. “We have people coming from Texas, Arkansas, the southern tip of Illinois,” as well as journalists, docents from the Smithsonian and college photography instructors.

“It is immersive, and we are seeing people that are coming back. There’s a lot to absorb, there’s a lot to see,” she said.

Between May 11 and when the Business Journal spoke to Hayner on July 24, “Edward S. Curtis: The North American Indian” drew 12,689 visitors from 37 states and 12 countries, compared to 3,787 visitors during the same period last year.

All told, the museum expects to top 20,000 visitors during the run of the exhibit, compared to 6,573 visitors from May 11 to Sept. 10, 2016, and 20,000 visitors in the entire 2016 fiscal year.

As of July 11, admissions revenue was up more than 800 percent from the same time last year.

“This is setting the largest run of attendance for us in recent history,” Hayner said.

She said the museum owns one of 222 identical sets of “The North American Indian” collection Curtis produced between 1908 and 1930. Curtis was hired by J.P. Morgan, along with an assistant, a journalist and an anthropologist, to produce a series on Native Americans west of the Missouri River.

After completing his work, poverty eventually forced Curtis to sell off the rights, and he died in obscurity in 1952.

Part of the collection was stashed in the basement of a bookstore in Boston and rediscovered in 1972. MMA acquired the set in this exhibit from Muskegon’s Hackley Public Library.

“It’s been here since ’76 and is part of our permanent collection,” Hayner said. “Since the ’70s, there have been four or five exhibitions of it, but not on this scale.

“All Curtis exhibitions tend to cherry-pick images — the most famous or artistic pieces or an exhibition on the women. What’s unique is nobody has put this much out at one time.”

Hayner said half the images are portraits and the rest are meant to depict families and children, housing, clothing, food, recreation, ceremonies and daily life — but many experts object to the way Curtis approached the project.

“We did a wonderful panel program one night with some Native American scholars talking about how they see this work,” Hayner said. “Some of the criticism is it’s overly romanticized, stereotyped or that he posed people.”

Detroit-based art critic Sarah Rose Sharp, who writes for Hyperallergic, said in a review of the exhibit, “A Critical Understanding of Edward Curtis’s Photos of Native American Culture,” that Curtis, in staging the photos — with period-inaccurate props and costumes — reinforced “white notions of Native American appearances and culture.”

Other observers noted Curtis leaned on the idea of a vanishing race of “noble savages” instead of depicting a complex and diverse people adapting to Western society, as the federal government took their land and denied their rights.

Larry Romanelli, tribal chief of the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians in Manistee, served as an advisor to MMA as they planned the exhibit and spoke on the collection at the museum July 20.

Although his tribe is not represented in the exhibit, being too far east, he told Sharp in an interview that the work preserved history that would otherwise have been lost, and therefore he views the exhibit in a positive light.

Hayner agrees.

“The work he did, not just in the photographs, but in those books, was taking down the music, language and culture of 82 major tribes and 117 named Native American groups in those 20 volumes,” she said. “He did the ethnology. If he hadn’t done what he did, some of that culture and language would be gone.”

She said MMA spent $300,000 from 22 donors to produce the exhibit, and the planning took three years.

“We had to design and build tables, new frames, new maps, new glass for the frames on the walls, new pedestals so it would have a uniform look throughout the museum.

“We also did a significant national advertising campaign, hired additional staff and a new guest curator.”

The expense and effort have been worth it to Hayner, who will retire this fall after 14 years in the director’s seat.

“People see the humanity represented on our walls, and it’s stunning and humbling,” she said. “People are leaving here with a different feeling about Native Americans. They did not disappear.”

To highlight Michigan tribes during the exhibit, MMA partnered with the Little River Band of Ottawa Indians, the Lakeshore Museum Center & Michigan’s Heritage Park, VisitMuskegon.org, Muskegon County and the Lakeshore Art Festival to host a series of events, including artifact displays, a powwow, cooking demonstrations and a showing of Anne Makepeace’s documentary on Curtis’s work, “Coming to Light.”

It’s too soon to tell what economic impact the exhibit has had in the county, but Hayner said she is hearing hotels and restaurants are getting business from out-of-town visitors.

Mostly, she wants the exhibit to influence the way people see Native Americans today.

“I really hope and firmly believe the next time you hear about the protests at Standing Rock, you’re going to think differently about them,” she said. “It’s going to be more real, more relevant to understand that it’s land sacred to the native tribes fighting for it. They should be listened to.

“You can’t walk away from this without understanding the humanity of the people on these walls.”

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