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JR Henneman has been trying to square something for a significant part of her career as an art curator.
She grew up on a farm and ranch in north-central Montana, then lived and studied abroad with an academic focus on 19th-century European and American art.
“When I started my position at the Denver Art Museum in 2016, I worked to familiarize myself with its Western American art collection. And much of what I saw looked exotic in a way that had nothing to do with my lived experience of the West,” said Henneman, now director and curator of the museum’s Petrie Institute of Western American Art.
The collection brought to mind a troubling aspect of the art she studied in Europe, particularly French Orientalism from the 1800s, with its tendency to over-exoticize and stereotype cultures and communities in regions like North Africa and the Middle East.
“So I had real questions about what I was seeing,” Henneman said. “What is Western American art? Why and how does it look the way it does? What, if anything, does Orientalism have to do with art of the American West?”
That line of thinking informed her curation of a recent exhibition “Near East to Far West: Fictions of French and American Colonialism,” on view through May 29. Henneman sought to bring more context to a body of historical works that demonstrate immense artistic skill but are also highly problematic depictions of people and cultures. Her hope was to inspire museum visitors to ask questions about what they’re viewing and be curious about the artwork’s context.
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But this reconsideration of how to exhibit art, making the museum experience more active than passive for visitors, isn’t just happening in the galleries displaying “Near East to Far West.” It’s been happening throughout DAM, in special exhibitions and within its permanent collections. It’s also happening at cultural institutions worldwide as museum leaders, curators and conservators grapple with how art is collected and exhibited amid a global reckoning over representation, equity and rightful ownership of precious artifacts.
And as curatorial staff weigh how to build exhibitions with more cultural awareness, many, including the Denver Art Museum, are also taking a look at what’s in their permanent collections, archives and storage. In some cases, museums have returned looted objects to their rightful owners or have begun to reconsider the way art and artifacts are handled and interpreted.
At DAM, “Near East to Far West” is running concurrently with another show, “Speaking with Light: Contemporary Indigenous Photography,” intended to elevate Indigenous artistic voices and viewpoints. And on Sunday, the Denver Art Museum’s Arts of Africa, Oceania, Modern and Contemporary Art collections will return to public view, with much of the work re-installed thematically rather than by region or chronology.
Andy Sinclair, a museum spokeswoman, said the timing of the exhibitions is “definitely intentional.”
Curators, curatorial assistants, interpretive specialists, learning and engagement specialists, project managers, gallery designers and exhibition creators work closely, she said. “It’s a multidisciplinary effort to create exhibitions that are in dialogue with each other, and that bring up conversations and narratives that are relevant.”
“A big question with a lot of different answers”
“Near East to Far West” is “very much about the colonial gaze,” Henneman said.
In her curatorial process, she was interested in highlighting how these two seemingly disparate bodies of work have a key commonality, “a shared context of colonial expansion” — France invaded Algeria in the 1800s as the U.S. government was forcibly pushing westward.
There’s also a direct link to American artists studying in France, Henneman said.
She doesn’t think these artworks should be locked away in storage due to their problematic aspects. Rather, she wanted to find a way to display them and invite discussions about them, “while also acknowledging the harmful and often ongoing legacies of colonialism.”
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“How do we sensitively balance and constructively appreciate art histories, while also providing more of a critical lens and space for, in this case, Indigenous peoples to speak for themselves when often they were not given that opportunity?” she said.
Many paintings hanging on the “Near East to Far West” gallery walls show over-romanticized, stereotypical depictions of people and geographies that were, at that time, new to the artists. It’s a reflection of these artists’ direct observations, Henneman said, but it’s also their interpretation, influenced by their imagination, fantasies, biases and the big-city markets they created for back home. It’s OK to appreciate the work for its artistic skill and beauty, she said. But she also hopes visitors will look critically at the artists’ depictions of foreign cultures.
“[It] then becomes a self-reflective exercise about ourselves and our biases, and what we bring to these historical artworks and how they may or may not continue to inform, rightly or wrongly, the way we think about our world,” she said.
One way Henneman tried to cast a modern lens on these historical works was to invite contemporary artists into the conversation, having them reflect on what the historical paintings show, especially their depictions of people and cultures. Those recorded discussions are interwoven throughout the exhibition. She also commissioned contemporary Indigenous artists, including poet Jennifer Elise Foerster and filmmaker Steven Yazzie. They created a new mixed-media work in response to the exhibition, using the paintings as source material to inspire their process.
And because works like the ones displayed in “Near East to Far West” often feature subjects represented as the “other” — individuals who are rarely named and rarely had a say in their portrayal — DAM included “extensive community engagement” into the process of putting the show together, Henneman said. They held several focus groups, consulted with scholars and sought feedback from the museum’s Indigenous Community Advisory Council, a voluntary group that was formally established in 2019.
Bringing in community perspectives
Artist and educator Jan Jacobs serves as chair of the council and has worked with DAM in different capacities on and off since the ’80s.
Indigenous Community Advisory Council members participate when they have the time, Jacobs said, giving feedback on details like label copy, to help tell a fuller story about the people and places captured in the artwork. And to do that, they wanted to include diverse perspectives on the council: individuals of varying ages, people from different Native nations and Indigenous communities, and a variety of professional backgrounds.
“As the chairperson, I’m not the only voice that we have. We individually bring our voice,” said Jacobs, who is of Osage descent. “We sometimes make decisions, but we don’t do those lightly. We do that after we’ve had lots of conversations, and maybe we’ve even had conversations outside of the council with community members.”
She believes art museums are an important part of society, but they need to listen to community perspectives and bring appropriate context to historical artworks in order to be relevant and to get people in the door.
“We are an art museum, we’re not a history museum,” Jacobs said. “But that doesn’t mean that history isn’t interwoven in everything and cultures aren’t interwoven into everything on that floor.”
LEFT: A carved figure of the Yoruba Orisha Eshu lies on its side, with its head resting on a small pillow, in the art museum’s Conservation Lab. Conservators have been making repairs on it ahead of the museum returning its Arts in Africa collection to public view. Many of the artworks and artifacts haven’t been shown publicly since 2016. RIGHT: A cart carrying solutions and materials conservators use to preserve precious artworks and artifacts. (Stephanie Wolf, Special to The Colorado Sun)
TOP: A carved figure of the Yoruba Orisha Eshu lies on its side, with its head resting on a small pillow, in the art museum’s Conservation Lab. Conservators have been making repairs on it ahead of the museum returning its Arts in Africa collection to public view. Many of the artworks and artifacts haven’t been shown publicly since 2016. BOTTOM: A cart carrying solutions and materials conservators use to preserve precious artworks and artifacts. (Stephanie Wolf, Special to The Colorado Sun)
Dr. Patricia Marroquin Norby is the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s first curator of Native American Art in its history. It’s an institution with a long and troubled legacy when it comes to looted artwork. She recently made a plea for more nuance in conversations about repatriation in a Hyperallergic piece. For her, that means returning works that have been stolen, but just as important, “a commitment to long-term relationships with source communities.”
“As a woman of Purépecha descent, I understand feeling marginalized. I also understand the simultaneous sense of connection and loss toward items that embody cultural ties to my maternal ancestral community on view in museums,” she wrote. “For many Indigenous peoples, museums can awaken inner tensions and traumatic histories.”
In her writing, she said she’s found that, across cultures, people consistently have shown a “desire for a say in how and if works are publicly presented, and how they are cared for.”
Denver-based visual and performance artist Gregg Deal, who is a member of the Pyramid Lake Paiute Tribe, said discussions around museums’ practices happening on this scale have been “a long time coming.”
We are an art museum, we’re not a history museum. But that doesn’t mean that history isn’t interwoven in everything and cultures aren’t interwoven into everything on that floor.
— Jan Jacobs, artist and educator
He appreciates how museums in Denver and elsewhere are more often reconsidering how they curate, exhibit and collect work. But he also has concerns about labor being shifted to people of color, putting the onus on these communities to bring the cultural context to exhibitions and artwork.
“That brings into question level of compensation, authority, respectability and consideration that’s happening in those discussions,” said Deal, who is the keynote speaker for the American Alliance of Museums Annual Meetup and MuseumExpo in Denver this month, during which these topics will be very much a part of the conversation.
“Museums in general are built under the concept of Western culture and under the concept of consumer culture, and within the bounds of those principles, there is and has been traditionally a lot of othering, dehumanization, and a sense of white supremacy,” he said in an interview in late April. “I think that there’s a lot of blind spots, cultural blind spots, that even the most educated person, even the most community-minded person is going to come across.”
Deal would also like to see a federal law passed decades ago get some reconsideration. The Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990 was meant to state very clearly the ownership of sacred materials, human remains and funerary objects, and create a project for museums to repatriate those items back to descendants, tribes and Indigenous organizations.
“It’s underfunded, and some museums have the resources to handle a lot of those things and repatriating things back to communities, and some don’t,” Deal said. “But the burden of responsibility is often put onto Native communities and a lot of Native communities are just trying to take care of their people.”
Acquisition, curatorial practices are in a hot spotlight
Discussions urging repatriation have been occurring for some time among Western museums and nations. But in recent years, and particularly since the 2020 racial justice protests, followed by a swell of public pressure and media coverage, there’s been an escalation in dialogue and action: museums in Germany, Scotland and the U.S., among others, have pledged to or begun the process of repatriation.
ProPublica released an extensive reporting and data endeavor called The Repatriation Project, highlighting how U.S. museums still hold hundreds of thousands of Native remains despite NAGPRA. Hundreds of remains are still in the collections of Colorado museums.
The topic of ethical questions around Western museum collections and auction houses even captured the attention of television show host John Oliver last fall. He aired a 34-minute segment during an October episode of his HBO series “Last Week Tonight,” speaking at length about museums’ reluctance to repatriate stolen pieces, how some sacred items sit indefinitely in storage, and provenance, essentially the history of an artwork’s or artifact’s ownership.
At the center of his report was the British Museum, which has been reluctant to grant repeated repatriation requests, including ones from Greece, which has been demanding the return of the country’s Parthenon Marbles for decades.
“If I could impress one thing on you, it’s that when these objects end up in the West, we put them behind glass and we call them ‘art,’” Oliver said. “But in their home context, they can be much more.”
The Denver Art Museum also found itself in hot water recently.
Late last year, The Denver Post published an extensive, multipart investigation called “Looted: Stolen relics, laundered art and a Colorado scholar’s role in the illicit antiquities trade.” It exposed DAM’s ties to a Denver woman named Emma Bunker who was involved in the illicit antiquities trade and was a close friend of the indicted art dealer Douglas Latchford, whose dirty dealings to sell looted Cambodian works were publicly exposed in the Pandora Papers. According to The Denver Post investigation, Bunker aided the museum in acquiring looted pieces from Cambodia and Thailand.
After the Post series came out, the museum issued a statement claiming its curators and managers had been misled and are trying to right some wrongs. It said museum staff had been in touch with Cambodian officials in 2019 after Latchford’s federal indictment. The statement also said that researching the backstory of the works in its collection due to Bunker was at the top of staff’s to-do list.
“We will use funds contributed by friends and donors in memory of Emma Bunker after her passing to supplement our ongoing provenance work related to objects in the Asian art collection,” DAM director Christoph Heinrich said in the statement. “The wide-ranging impact of the Bunker family is reflected in their name being present in many ways in our collections. This is not a history that can or should be easily erased. It needs to be thoroughly researched and clearly and publicly explained.”
In March, the museum announced it had removed Bunker’s name from its Arts of Asia gallery and returned donated funds to her family.
As part of her conservation work on a carved figure of Eshu, a Yoruba deity, graduate intern Céline Wachsmuth has been giving him offerings every week, a small jar of cornmeal and curio objects like shiny wire or a bit of yarn. “As conservators, we worry a lot about the material, but also the spiritual aspects of the objects [are important too], and we try to make sure we’re respecting that because we work very intimately with them,” Wachsmuth said. (Stephanie Wolf, Special to The Colorado Sun)
Extra due diligence on provenance and permanent collections
Because of the increased local awareness and attention to how artworks end up in DAM’s collections, when the museum reopens its Arts of Africa gallery, “every object that is on view will be available on our website with as much provenance information as we know,” said John Lukavic, who leads the Native arts department.
Additionally, the museum now has a full-time provenance senior researcher “to help get as much knowledge that we have available for view, but also to then go deeper and seek out information that we did not have,” he said, adding that the individual stepping into the role has been at the museum for a few decades. The museum is also in the process of hiring an assistant provenance researcher.
DAM officially removed a Benin bronze plaque from its collection in May 2022 after obtaining new provenance records through the British Museum. Lukavic said museum staff have done initial outreach with the Nigerian government and representatives from Oba, the Kingdom of Benin — recently recognized as the rightful owners of Benin artifacts and therefore responsible for placement of repatriated pieces — to return the work home.
“There are historic practices in museums that certainly have benefited from colonialism. … And if we, as museums, truly want to welcome all of our community, we need to own up to these histories,” Lukavic said. “We also have to work together to not only ensure that they don’t happen anymore, but also to work for creative solutions where healing can actually occur.”
LEFT: A conservator’s workstation on April 11. Céline Wachsmuth has been doing very delicate repairs on a figure of the Yoruba Orisha Eshu. She’s testing different materials and solutions she can use to fix strands of cowrie shells. RIGHT: Gina Laurin, DAM’s associate director of conservation, uncovers a large carved mask from the museum’s Arts of Africa collection. Laurin said her team works closely with the curatorial staff to understand a work’s provenance and cultural significance as they take it into their care. (Stephanie Wolf, Special to The Colorado Sun)
TOP: A conservator’s workstation on April 11. Céline Wachsmuth has been doing very delicate repairs on a figure of the Yoruba Orisha Eshu. She’s testing different materials and solutions she can use to fix strands of cowrie shells. BOTTOM: Gina Laurin, DAM’s associate director of conservation, uncovers a large carved mask from the museum’s Arts of Africa collection. Laurin said her team works closely with the curatorial staff to understand a work’s provenance and cultural significance as they take it into their care. (Stephanie Wolf, Special to The Colorado Sun)
It’s not only the provenance of an artwork that requires constant evaluation, but also how the pieces in the collection are displayed. In terms of the Arts of Africa, which includes about 800 objects, this examination has been going on at least since 2016, Lukavic said.
When the re-installed gallery opens May 14, the artwork will be displayed by three central themes: the self, power and transformation, and manifestation.
Lukavic and his team worked virtually with Anderman Family Curatorial Fellow Adekunle Adeniji, who is pursuing his doctorate at Queen’s University at Kingston in Ontario, over the past year and a half: “He helped guide us through this whole process.”
There are historic practices in museums that certainly have benefited from colonialism. … And if we, as museums, truly want to welcome all of our community, we need to own up to these histories.
— John Lukavi, who leads the Native arts department at the Denver Art Museum
The reinstallation process was largely driven by current social climates. They wanted to incorporate contemporary artworks and artistic perspectives into the exhibit, as other museums have done.
One of the first things visitors will see in the gallery is a collection of wooden and carved ivory hair picks, accompanied by videos of present-day artists talking about Black hair and Black beauty both in a historical and contemporary context.
“We want people when they come to the museum, especially people from the local African American and African diasporic communities that are here, to feel seen, heard and valued,” he said.
Adeniji wanted visitors to see how diverse and dynamic African cultures are and wanted people to connect with the pieces on display, to see how they are “charged with power.”
“Seeing the artwork is not enough,” said Adeniji, who felt strongly about reinstalling the collection thematically.
“Something I feel is unique about African art, especially historical works, is that they are not art for art’s sake,” he said. “They are material culture that people used in their day-to-day lives… and most of them have deeper meanings. They’re not just objects you see and admire. And as the curator, I’m in a position to educate people, to help people see what’s the civilization of the makers of that work.”
Removing art from its place of origin results in “cultural loss”
Ayesha Fuentes, the Isaac Newton Trust Research Associate in Conservation at the University of Cambridge Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, wrote in a piece for Sapiens: “Conservators recognize that removing material heritage from the context in which it has been historically produced, maintained, or activated is itself an agent of deterioration, like strong light or a natural disaster.”
In an interview with The Colorado Sun, Fuentes explained that concept has long been recognized and there’s a name for this specific kind of cultural loss, dissociation. But she thinks the preservation of tangible cultural heritage is too often focused on the object itself, and the work of a conservator has been largely to ensure longevity of the physical existence with much less attention paid to the cultural context or function of an item.
“So we know that, and people know objects could go back to different places … but I don’t see people emptying their storerooms,” Fuentes said. “They’re not looking at their 500 drums and being like, ‘Which of these do we need to keep or how could these be more useful than just as silent musical instruments?’”
She’s not saying museums should go away. She feels a connection to the act of preserving material items, especially if it helps a community tell its own story.
“I like the idea that every one of these things is a vessel, there to facilitate the exchange, culture, stories, values and all of the things meant to be communicated,” Fuentes said. “To value only the vessel as material wealth and as cultural properties, which is absolutely how they’re protected by most museums, I just think if we reconsider that we have a lot to gain.”