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‘Disruption’ is just the start of a shift in storytelling at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian

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Lilly Knoepp | BPR News
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"Matrilineage" from Luzene Hill, Eastern Band of Cherokee Indians, is part of "Disruption" at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian.

There’s a long and deep history of museums across the United States and elsewhere unethically collecting and showing art and artifacts from other cultures. It might surprise some to learn that until recently there were also culturally sensitive artifacts on display at the Museum of the Cherokee Indian on the Qualla Boundary, some of which are of questionable origin.

“For a long time, people would donate things to us that were Native,” said Shana Bushyhead Condill, the museum’s executive director. “How these objects even came out of the ground in the first place, that’s not a great story. We don’t love that our graves were dug up and these objects removed. But how do we correct that? That’s our job today.”

The public exhibition of the museum’s collection hasn’t changed in 25 years. As the museum assesses and reimagines its collection, it has removed dozens of objects. In their place, the museum invited more than three dozen Eastern Band of Cherokee and Cherokee Nation artists to contribute a range of contemporary creations as an “art intervention”— ceramics, paintings, carvings, sculpture and multimedia.

The replacement works of “Disruption” are threaded into the rest of the permanent collection exhibition for the next year. The museum also plans to build an off-site space to archive artifacts and allow tribal members to view sensitive collections. Condill said she hopes the intervention, titled “Disruption,” is just the beginning of a shift in how the museum shares the stories of Cherokee people.

“When I was starting my career, we were sort of raising our hands and, like, ‘Hey, what if we were at the table as we’re talking about telling our story?’” Condill said. “Now there are so many of us that there’s no doubt we’re going to be the ones telling our own story.”

Matt Peiken, BPR’s first full-time arts journalist, has spent his entire career covering arts and culture.