Multimillion-dollar project to update, restore and conserve historic hall at American Natural History Museum

Marsha Lederman, The Globe and Mail
September 25, 2017

"The Hall of Northwest Coast Indians is the American Museum of Natural History's oldest hall. A centrepiece on the New York museum's main floor, it is a treasure trove of totem poles, masks, rattles and other objects – most of them from Indigenous peoples in Canada.

On Monday, the museum announced a multiyear, multimillion-dollar project to update, restore and conserve the hall and enrich the interpretation of its exhibits. Representatives from the Haida, Kwakwaka'wakw, Nuu-chah-nulth and Tlingit communities were to be in New York for the announcement.

"We've been talking about this possibility ever since I arrived at the museum in 2001," said Peter Whiteley, the museum's curator of North American ethnology, in the division of anthropology, in an interview with The Globe and Mail. "This hall, while it did have some cosmetic changes in the late fifties and early sixties, is pretty much the same as it was in 1910, so we are absolutely thrilled that this is happening."

The renovation will see a number of items currently on display come down, with other pieces brought in from the museum's collection – all done in consultation with First Nations.

The hall, which opened in 1899, is a museum highlight and a top tourist destination, but it was also a game changer in the field of anthropology, with its revolutionary approach by anthropologist Franz Boas. This is where Boas made his argument for cultural relativism in museum interpretations of Indigenous cultures – with objects from each nation viewed within the context of that nation's particular culture. Boas grouped the works by nation rather than chronology or function. So you don't find a hodgepodge of spoons or masks from different communities grouped in one case. Crucially, this was a challenge to the prevailing approach of representing societies in evolutionary terms – on a trajectory from "primitive" to "advanced."

"It's an absolutely iconic hall in the history of anthropology – in the history of American intellectual life," Whiteley said."

More here