Our Stories, Our Lives

Behold the Power of Objects

Museums have long used objects to reach and teach, and to draw their audiences closer. When the Harbor Springs Area Historical Society was presented with the opportunity to display a large private collection of Native artifacts last year, we jumped at the chance.

This extensive collection includes bead work, quill work, regalia, tools and carved household items which anchor our project, “Anishnaabek Art: Gift of the Great Lakes.” While the beauty and intricacy of the objects is immediately apparent, the real power lies in their stories. The items serve as an invitation for the viewer to come closer, lean in and listen to the voices of the objects.

Quill Box with wolf. Artist: Arnold Shawanoo Walker

Quill Box with wolf. Artist: Arnold Shawanoo Walker

To represent these voices, our collaborator Eric Hemenway from the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians (LTBB Odawa) crafted the stories of his people for our exhibit. Drawing connections between the natural resources used in the art (birch, black ash, sweet grass) with the Odawas’ struggles to remain in their homeland, Hemenway provided the stories that complement these powerful objects. Additionally, we have hosted traditional artists Yvonne Walker-Keshick and Daniel Chingwa who shared their stories with our audiences.

Anishnaabek Art Gallery, Harbor Springs History Museum

Anishnaabek Art Gallery, Harbor Springs History Museum.

As with many projects, however, there are outcomes that are completely unexpected. Take one museum visitor, a college student from Chicago who was interning at the Field Museum of Natural History. While visiting the Anishnaabek Art exhibit earlier this year, she asked a few questions from her professional perspective. How did we interpret Native history? How did we represent an authentic voice? As the visit continued, however, she shared that her interest also had a personal angle: as an adopted child, she had not been raised with her Native heritage. Now an enrolled member of the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, she was eagerly immersing herself in the culture.

For her, exploring our exhibit of Native art was a powerfully personal experience.

While we hope that all of our museum visitors connect with the objects and the stories that are part of our exhibit, we are particularly grateful for this one visitor and the power these objects held for her.

Mary Cummings is the executive director of the Harbor Springs Area Historical Society in Harbor Springs, MI. “Anishnaabek Art: Gift of the Great Lakes” is a collaborative project with the Little Traverse Bay Bands of Odawa Indians, Department of Records and Archives. The exhibit will be on display at the Harbor Springs History Museum through May 2016. For more information, visit www.HarborSpringsHistory.org

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