Cherokee stories from a Cherokee voice; Museum is updating exhibit

by Jan 4, 2024NEWS ka-no-he-da0 comments


One Feather Asst. Editor


CHEROKEE, N.C. – The Museum of the Cherokee People is currently working on updating its main exhibit – one that has been on display since 1998.  The Museum received a grant from the Henry Luce Foundation for $225,000 for the research and development aspects of the update to the area that will now be called the Main Gallery as opposed to the permanent exhibit.

The current main exhibit closed officially on Dec. 29, 2023.  A temporary exhibit is set to open in March 2024 as the Main Gallery is being developed.

Dakota Brown, Museum director of education, said, “The reason why we’re calling the new space the Main Gallery is because we want to take away this idea that it’s something permanent. Shana and I both have a foot in the history world and history is constantly evolving and changing. The way that we look at it is constantly evolving and changing. So, it’s important for us to make sure that we can pivot if we need to pivot and we can update things when they need to be updated – that we can do things that are timely when we need to do those things. So, calling it a Main Gallery kind of releases us from that permanence of an exhibit. That is a new idea in museums. In 1998, when this exhibit went up, the idea that it was meant to last, that it was permanently built, that it was permanently there was important for that time and man, they meant it.”

She added, “Removing that word, ‘permanent’, from the way that we’re approaching the exhibit design is really important for the strategy that we’re taking moving forward. We want to do yearly assessments of the exhibit, just making sure that there’s not information that’s changed since the exhibits have been written, or interpretation needs to be updated, or maybe there’s a piece we’ve got in our collection that we really want to showcase. The other thing is that for the objects and object care, the idea of having a permanent exhibit can be really hard on those objects. There was quite a few objects that we removed during ‘Disruption’ that we removed for conservation purposes. So, it wasn’t necessarily funerary, it wasn’t necessarily ceremonial, they sometimes were in desperate need of conservation.”

Shana Bushyhead Condill, Museum executive director, commented, “What we’re discovering is that our story is compelling. People are really supportive of the strategy that we’re taking, the idea that we want to protect and care for our objects in a way that isn’t mainstream museum…that we are thinking a lot about the best way that we can care for and protect our objects as Cherokee people. That is something that more and more museum institutions are open to. I think foundations are interested in exploring that with us.”

Rather than a straight linear format to the Museum, the new Main Gallery will be theme-based Brown noted.  “Then we’re going to probably have timelines within those themes. People learn all kinds of different ways and sometimes people need that timeline to help orient them to what we’re talking about when we’re talking about it. So, I think having timelines within a theme allows us to be able to explore a lot more, a variety of points of time and different themes that we’ve experienced in our community. For instance, boarding school might be a theme and we can explore the different times within that theme.”

Condill commented, “The other theme that comes up constantly is place. The fact that we’re on our ancestral homeland is incredibly important and it affects everything we do.”

“That’s the piece that the Luce Foundation finds compelling. We are going to tell our story ourselves. It’s not typical. We have stacks of books about Cherokee people from non-Cherokee scholars. For us, that’s one of our goals since I arrived is to try to build up that scholarship of Cherokee history from Cherokee perspectives, adding that lens to our story.”

Brown said, “I think that creating pride within the community is telling stories that haven’t been told before. One of the things that I love about seeing Cherokee folks get into history is the types of history that they focus on is much different than a non-Native perspective.”

“I think being able to uplift those stories and uplift the people that are a part of those stories in a way that shows the Cherokee people’s perspective, shows pride in the way that we were innovative and the way that we moved throughout different hurdles in our history is really, really important to me.”

She said breaking down preconceived notions is a challenge.  “Stereotypes are what they come here with most of the time. So, being able to break down those barriers…most Americans don’t have a base level understanding of who Native people are, in general, and especially who Cherokee people are. There is just so much misinformation out there. So, when we have visitors coming in, being able to hopefully break down those stereotypes and make them question some of the things that they think they know about Cherokee people and position them to hopefully think in a way and understand us a little more than they have before.”

Brown noted that their staff has been working on the research and development of the new Main Gallery since 2022.  “We have had community meetings. We have done a creatives committee meeting, which was one of the first things we started with. Since then, we’ve done archival trips. We’ve had our interns helping us process all that archival information and try to locate sources to find what those themes are going to be and to find those center narratives that we want to talk about. We also have been doing community outreach as well.”

“We do have a research plan that we are working through. We’ll enter the next phase of the research plan in the Spring. So that’s going to be when we start to develop those narratives, develop those main topics that we’re going to be focusing on.”

Currently, there isn’t a set date for the opening of the Main Gallery.