Many people think of museums as dusty, static, boring places. They’re where you go if you want to see old bones, old artifacts, and the odd diorama. They’re not living, breathing spaces where cultures come alive.
Enter the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center in Zuni, New Mexico, which has done its best to change that perception. According to Jim Enote, the museum’s executive director, this unique museum gives guests an opportunity to join the Zuni community’s conversation — and experience an organization whose groundbreaking work is shaking up the field of contemporary museology.
The original idea for a Zuni museum took shape in the 1960s and ‘70s, when the tribe decided it needed an attraction to foster tourism and economic development. While a museum committee was able to earn grants to hire architects and plan a museum, lack of funds for building cut the project short at least twice, according to Enote, who has been involved since the very beginning.
“In the 1980s, a group of us said, ‘Why don’t we just do it ourselves?’” Enote remembered. “We discussed the notion of what a museum really is. It’s not just a building. And we asked ourselves, ‘What if we built this to serve the Zuni community?’ Tourism is important, but culture is very important too.
“A museum should help us understand why we are the way we are, so our museum should be by Zunis for Zunis,” he continued. “Our mission is to serve our Zuni community with programs and exhibits that help us to reflect on our past and are relevant to our current and future interests.”
In 1992, the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center was incorporated as a not-for-profit organization. It began in one room, with exhibitions about Zuni life, from farming, cooking, and traditional foods to veterans issues. Then it moved to its current home, a former trading post built in 1910.
For the local Zuni community, the museum and heritage center is what Enote called a “contact zone,” a place that mediates knowledge systems. This is critical, he noted, because Zuni youth are growing up in a world learning knowledge systems that are non-Zuni.
“We live in a world with multiple knowledge systems,” he explained. “Here, young people can come, ask questions and be exposed to the unique Zuni way of looking at the world. The schools do a good job, and parents do their best, but there are sometimes gaps. Our role is to fill in these spaces, to create an enabling environment to understand the Zuni world.”
The museum staff also is dedicated to mirroring the way Zuni people traditionally access knowledge. In other words, if someone comes to the museum with a question about sacred or ceremonial knowledge, that information will not be shared unless the person has been initiated into Zuni religious society. “When I went to college, professors told me that knowledge should be free and accessible to all,” Enote said. “That’s different from the Zuni system. So we’ve created a safe place to ask questions, while we also mirror Zuni ways of accessing and transferring knowledge. That’s very different from a conventional museum.”
Indeed, the A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center is a very different sort of museum. Enote commented that it has a special, almost cult-like following among museum experts and aficionados, similar to that of the Museum of Jurassic Technology in Culver City, California.
“We’re a remote community, yet our small museum is challenging the notion of what a museum is, and it’s changing museology on an international scale,” Enote said.
Enote described how Zuni elders recalled seeing, as children in the 1920s and ‘30s, large crates leaving the pueblo — crates filled with items from excavations. These items were dispersed around the world, and no one knew who had what. “So we wrote to museums everywhere, asking if they had Zuni items and what those items might be,” he said.
With the passing of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act in 1990, federally funded museums were required to be in touch with native communities. Many tribal museums first received stacks of catalogs with NAGPRA-related items, then floppy disks, then CDs, and more recently, online access to digitized catalogs.
“In the collection catalogs, we saw a lot of incorrect information and misidentified Zuni items,” Enote said. “We had to set the record straight. We talked with the Zuni community, and we gathered lots of contextual information about specific Zuni items in the collections. We compared what we we learned with specific museum-collection catalog descriptions, and the differences in the knowledge about our things were astonishing.”
The A:shiwi A:wan Museum and Heritage Center built a system that combined more than 10,000 Zuni items from a variety of different museums. The Zuni museum staff then could add commentary, audio recordings, and even video clips that could be shared, or not shared, with the holding museums.
“We also learned that museums use different systems for managing collections, which had a complete lack of inter-operability,” Enote remarked. “It was like Apple and IBM in the old days; they couldn’t exchange information. So we devised a way to build relationships and connections between the museums.
“This is huge, and it’s shaking up the museum world,” he said. “Many museums have huge anthropological, ethnographic, and archaeological collections, but they aren’t effectively sharing knowledge about those objects among museums — or, more importantly, with the source communities. So we are part of creating a movement, and we’re doing this work internationally. That’s one reason museum aficionados put us on their bucket lists, and it reinforces the idea that a museum should be a trend-setting place, where new thinking about science, technology, art, and new ideas come together and play an important role in the local community.”
While the museum is not a collections and research-based museum, it has substantial offerings in terms of exhibitions and programming. Particular highlights this fall include a selection of 1923 films about daily Zuni life, and the Zuni map-art collection, which challenges notions of what maps are.
“The map art recently returned from the American Museum of Natural History in New York City,” Enote said. “It’s a rare thing for a small tribal museum to have an exhibition at a world-class facility with 4 to 6 million visitors per year. And it will continue to travel; it’s a jump ball right now for where it goes next. Denver, Los Angeles, the Netherlands… there are a lot of requests.”
The collection comprises 32 oil, acrylic and watercolor paintings that tell unique, evocative stories about the Zuni world. Visitors will be able to view U.S. Geological Survey maps of the same areas and compare them to the artists’ renditions.
“We always had maps, but over the last 500 years, we’ve been remapped with names that are foreign to us,” Enote said. “Modern maps may even omit our presence. So these Zuni maps show that there are different ways of looking at the same thing, the same place. Guests will leave with this understanding, again, that there are different knowledge systems.”
It all goes back to the A:shiwi A:wan Museum’s role as a contact zone.
“Our first audience is the Zuni people, but visitors are always welcome,” Enote said. “Many tribal museums are ‘come learn about us,’ but our museum is designed to first serve us. That means visitors will feel like they’re getting a special experience of Zuni, one they wouldn’t get elsewhere. When they come here, they’ll find Zunis in silent conversation with the items, and in actual conversation with family members. Visitors perceive that, and they might become part of that conversation.”
This story was originally published September 18, 2014.