Seeing Race at the Mashnatucket Pequot Museum

During the summer of 2010, I had one of the strongest “museum moments” I have ever experienced, and it was a painful one. I was interning at a museum in Connecticut, and every week the other interns and I would load into a van and drive to another museum around New England. We would speak with staff members, tour their sites, and then come back together as a group and discuss. It was a great set up, and a really wonderful way for this Iowa girl to see a different part of the country.

One week, we visited the Mashnatucket Pequot Museum and Research Center. The museum is owned and run by the Mashnatucket Pequot Tribal Nation and opened its doors to the public in 1998. The museum “brings to life the story of the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation, and serves as a major resource on the history of the Tribe, the histories and cultures of other tribes, and the region’s natural history.”[1]

 Image

Photo from Pequot Museum

One piece of the museum’s permanent exhibits is a portrait gallery, “Tribal Nation”, containing photographs and oral histories from members of the Mashnatucket Pequot Tribal Nation. It probably should have been a simple, lovely visual tour of the members of their Nation. As you walked around, you saw men, women, and children who visually had nothing in common with each other. There people with hair, skin, eyes, and facial features in almost every variation imaginable.

For me, it was a very painful learning moment. I realized that I had been equating race with culture. My perception from back in the Midwest, incorrect though it was, was that people who were Native have tan skin, long facial features, and dark brown or black hair. I would even say that, prior to seeing the exhibit, I thought that Native People were their own race. It is not an idea that I am proud that I had, and I am sad that it took me as long as it did to realize the difference. The exhibit worked to break down this perception by highlighting the stereotypes we frequently encounter, and for me it was extremely effective.

What that exhibition made me realize was that I too was guilty of creating specific places for specific groups of people in my head, and thus in the society around myself. Reading the essays by James Baldwin made me think about how I shaped this perception, and the ways that it is perpetuated through the culture where I live.

Baldwin’s first essay, “Letter to my Nephew”, is heartbreaking. My first reaction to reading as he warned his nephew that “you have been told where you could go and what you could do (and how you could do it) and where you could live and whom you could marry” was denial, exactly as Baldwin says happens. “I know your countrymen do not agree with me about this, and I hear them saying, ‘You exaggerate.’” [2] It is unthinkable for me that this could have happened, and I find myself wishing I could deny that it still does. I know better, especially in light of things like the murder of Treyvon Martin, and I know that this is still a reality for diverse groups around the United States.

Reading these essays and recalling my visit to Mashnatucket Pequot, I find myself wishing I had a “good” way of creating change, of eliminating the problems Baldwin identified in the 1960’s that still exist today. Perhaps taking this class is a good start. I hope that I come out the other end more willing to open my eyes and more able find a way to create positive change, especially in the museums I work in.  I think exhibitions like “Tribal Nation”, exhibits that challenge our way of thinking and show us where the perceptions we carry come from, are an excellent way to start. I hope that I was not the only visitor to their museum who saw the error in their thinking and sought (and continues to seek) to rectify it.

[1] Mashnatucket Pequot Museum, “About the Museum” http://www.pequotmuseum.org/Home/GeneralInformation/AbouttheMuseum.htm.

[2] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time, (New York: Vintage International, 1993) 7-8.

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