Learning from NMAI

7:05 PM Posted by Steven Lubar
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I invited a former colleague from the Smithsonian, Ann Silverman, to visit us at Belmont. Ann had worked for me at the American History Museum, and then spent several years at the National Museum of the American Indian. I hoped that her NMAI perspective – and her willingness to say just what she thinks – would be useful to us as we gathered stories. After all, the NMAI spent a decade figuring out how to overcome the long history of anthropologists and ethnographers who would take a community’s stories and leave, and while I didn’t think that we what we were doing was in that category, inviting an outsider who might call me on it seemed useful.

And indeed, Ann’s first question was how we were different from generations of anthropologists who showed up in native villages and stole their stories. What had we learned from the NMAI’s processes of letting communities tell their own stories? In what way were we serving the communities we were studying?

Good questions, and something we’d thought some about, but perhaps not enough. One answer might be that we’re invited in. But of course, not everyone invited us in; the county council did, and while that’s a reasonable answer, it does mean we should be aware of the relationships of county government and people we’re talking to. Another answer: we’re not digging, we’re only gathering the stories people we talk to want to tell. We’re not looking for family secrets; we want to let individuals tell the stories we want to tell. (An anthropologist or historian might say that we’ve gone too far in this direction; we’re only getting the commonly shared folklore.)

But most important, I think, is that we’re not taking the stories with us; we’re leaving them here, letting them serve as connections between local communities, and as a way for visitors to understand the communities on their own terms. We’ve been granted access because of our county and academic connections, and we’re putting that to use for the community and for those who might come and visit later.
Ann was satisfied with our work, I think. And I think her former colleagues at the NMAI would have approved, as well.