The Metropolitan Museum Is Finally Displaying Native Art in Its American Wing

The museum has announced that it will finally exhibit indigenous works in their “appropriate geographic context.”
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A painted shield from Charles and Valerie Diker’s promised gift to the Met. (Photo: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

A painted shield from Charles and Valerie Diker’s promised gift to the Met. (Photo: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

The Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York announced last week that, for the first time in its 147-year history, it will display a major collection of Native-American art in its American wing.

The museum reported the curatorial change in a press release on Thursday. The new collection was promised as a gift by longtime Native-American art collectors Charles and Valerie Diker. The 91 new works, which include a painted shield by the Hunkpapa Lakota artist Joseph No Two Horns and a jar by the Hopi-Tewa potter Nampeyo, will be displayed in the American wing for a year starting in October of 2018. The exhibition “mar[ks] The Met’s curatorial decision to display art from the first Americans within its appropriate geographic context,” the release states.

The museum currently displays the bulk of its indigenous art in the Art of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas; Musical Instruments; and Modern and Contemporary galleries. That categorization can confuse visitors who stop by the American wing to see indigenous art, says Sylvia Yount, the curator in charge of the American wing. “They go through and expect to see Native American work here,” she told the New York Times. “Because often where they come from, indigenous art is part of the narrative of a nation’s art, in a way that it’s not in the United States. We’re really behind the curve.”

A dress and belt with an Awl case, a shoulder bag, and a dance mask from the Dikers’ promised gift. (Photos: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

A dress and belt with an Awl case, a shoulder bag, and a dance mask from the Dikers’ promised gift. (Photos: Courtesy of the Metropolitan Museum of Art)

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Already, three pieces of the Dikers’ previously gifted works to the Met—a Haudenosaunee pouch, a Pomo basket, and a San Ildefonso Pueblo jar—are on display in the American wing, beside works by non-Native artists.

By incorporating the 91 gifted objects in 2018, the Met will follow other New York museums that have re-organized their American displays to include more indigenous, African-American, and immigrant art: Last year, both the Newark Museum and the Brooklyn Museum changed their permanent collections to include more Native-American artists in their American spaces.

But it’s fitting that a promised gift from the Dikers has swayed the Met to re-evaluate its own American wing: The collectors have long advocated for displaying Native-American art in the same fashion as non-Native artists. In their exhibit “First American Art: The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection of American Indian Art” at the National Museum of the American Indian, the Dikers asked organizers to break ground by displaying their collection as artistic masterpieces, rather than as anthropological or ethnological artifacts. The 2015 touring exhibition “Indigenous Beauty: Masterworks of American Indian Art From the Diker Collection” showcased the works sparingly against deep purple walls, much like abstract expressionist paintings.

This Dikers also famouslyexhibit masterpieces by Native people next to those by non-Native people in their New York apartment, where they have removed the fireplaces to make room for more art. “We always felt that what we were collecting was American art,” Charles Diker told the New York Times of the Met’s decision to exhibit his art in the American wing. “And we always felt very strongly that it should be shown in that context.”

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