Voices Growing Louder: Native American History Told Their Way

One of the main struggles facing museums today is determining the best way to represent different cultures when creating an exhibit. As more museums shift to include different community stories, this becomes a challenge to create an accurate depiction of the culture. One solution has been including members of the community to work with the curator in a collaboration to present the culture as it wants to present itself to the public. This allows the voices of the whole community to shine through the exhibit and connect with the museum goer. On the theme of voices, the Penn Museum opened a new long-term interactive exhibition in 2014 that will be opened for the next five years. Native American Voices: The People- Here and Now looks to dispel stereotypes and tell the powerful stories of success from the people themselves.

Native American Voices presents four exhibition themes on contemporary topics that hold importance to Native Americans today. Local Nations, Sacred Places, Continuing Celebration, and New Initiatives all weave together to form overarching ideas of many modern problems at Native Americans face today. It encourages to leave preconceptions behind to develop a new understand of Native Americans through their own voices. It also promotes activism within the Native American community in reclaiming their identity.

Lucy Fowler Williams PhD is the Associate Curator and Jeremy A. Sabloff Senior Keeper of American Collections and creator of Native American Voices. 


Lucy Fowler Williams Ph.D. created this exhibition in conjunction with more than 80 Native Americans (all of which are given credit on the website) along with four Native American women as lead content advisers. The variety of backgrounds of these community leaders all have one aspect in common; they are activist in the reclaiming of Native American identity. Identity is a major issue addressed in the exhibition through the video interactive discussing the loss of language and the struggle to revive a culture when it was almost eradicated.


One aspect of the exhibit incorporates a multimedia platform to display pieces of modern art alongside oral histories from the artist. On the website, they include highlights of a film including 25 interviews with Native American artist, activists, scholars, and youth in their home communities. The exhibition makes it clear Natives Americans still have a voice in modern society and they are getting louder. There are four multimedia towers that presents these orals histories. This engages the visitor to join the conversation of the exhibition. Not only does the exhibition include these interactive towers, it has touch pads for the object cases that allows to visitor to learn more information on the objects on display. Those objects include projectile points believed to be 11,000 years old to modern art pieces created for the exhibition. During the time of exhibition, there will be rotations of the objects from the vast number of Native American objects from the Penn Museum’s collection.

Here is a view of the exhibition showing the oral history towers and the object touch pads. Notice behind the headpiece is a circle of benches promoting visitors to engage in conversation.  

One of the highlights of these videos is the clip entitled Postindian Warrior: Creating a New Consciousness in Native America. Throughout the duration of this class, the idea of consciousness keeps appearing in the majority of each topic. What makes this different from those past discussions is not only who but how it is presented. The Native American culture thrived on the oral tradition, to past down stories from mouth to mouth in order to teach the new generation. This video emphases this important cultural tradition by tell the information like a story. A powerful moment occurs within the short clip that brings into question the idea of rejecting Native American histories of absence and domination with focusing on the active presence they have today.

When creating an exhibition of this magnitude, museums have to reach out to the cultural they are presenting in order to show and gain support of the community. By inviting respected authority figures and share their voices to a larger audience, it creates a living discussion with the walls of the institution. It helps break down difficult issues like identity into manageable ways the public can not only understand but join the discussion. These connections to the community will make the exhibition stand out and bring in new audience members to the museum who felt their history was told from an outsider perspective. It also acts a way of changing the long-standing misconceptions and narratives that perpetuated through the decades. Native American Voices successfully blends community with professionalism to create a richly collaborated exhibition that promotes social activism with history in an engaging way.

Photo Credit:

Feature Image: http://arts4nevada.org/events/brewery-arts-center/2013/red-thunder-native-american-dance

Lucy Fowler Williams: http://www.upenn.edu/pennnews/current/peopleofpenn/lucy-fowler-williams

Exhibition Layout: http://www.penn.museum/sites/nativeamericanvoices/exhibition.php

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