New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art announced in May that it would be installing a bronze plaque to recognise and honour the indigenous people of the island of Manhattan, where the gallery is located. The Met, which is one of the city’s most visited museums, said that it wanted to acknowledge the prior existence of Lenapehoking, the traditional home of the Lenape people, before Western settlers began to inhabit the area. The plaque has now gone up and is on show to visitors to the gallery who access it from its main entrance on Fifth Avenue.
The plaque has been designed to reflect years of consultation with specialists on the subject of indigenous art and representation. The wording of the plaque has been etched in bronze and reflects the historical fact that the art museum is located in Lenapehoking, an historic trading place for generations of Native Americans, including the Lenape community, who, the plaque reads, continue to reside on the island. The text continues to say that the Met respectfully acknowledges and honour all of the Indigenous communities in America for their ongoing relationships with the area. The plaque also says that such relationships are fundamental to the region because of its past but also will continue to be important in the future.
A Commitment in Art
According to the Met’s management team, the newly erected plaque demonstrates the gallery’s commitment to honouring contemporary artists and communities from Indigenous American backgrounds. This is a policy that is also reflected by the first major rotation of pieces on display in the Met’s major indigenous collection. Known as the Art of Native America: the Diker Collection, this group of artworks has been reorganised to better reflect the contribution to art that such communities have made and continue to make.
This is an ongoing installation that has led to an expansion in the gallery’s native arts programme, one that is run by Patricia Marroquin Norby, the museum’s inaugural Native American art curator. Marroquin Norby’s curatorship of the Diker Collection is further backed up by another exhibition in the Met which features interpretive texts written by indigenous historians and tribal elders from a variety of communities that were encountered by Karl Bodmer, a Swiss-French explorer and printmaker of the 19th century.
Daniel Weiss, who serves as the President and CEO at the Met, said that the plaque – and the wider work the museum was doing on its indigenous art collections – acknowledged the important part the gallery was playing in forging and maintaining what he called ‘respectful relationships’ with the wider community of indigenous people. “The plaque also serves as a meaningful reminder to everyone who enters the gallery’s doors,” he said, “of the legacy and the history of the island on which the Met now sits.”
Acknowledgements and Historical Contexts
Following this acknowledgement of the history of the area in the Upper East Side next to Central Park where the Met is sited, the gallery is also looking to perform a similar task for the Met Cloisters, situated in the north of Manhattan. Specialising in European art and architecture from the Romanesque and Gothic periods, this museum is sited close to the Lenape trails, meaning that a site-specific acknowledgement for this location may be more appropriate rather than replicating the sentiment expressed in the first plaque. Furthermore, the caves just below Spuyten Duyvil are in the vicinity of the Met Cloisters, which is by far the most extensive surviving evidence of the historic habitation of Manhattan Island prior to western settlers arriving. This makes the site one of particular interest to both historians and indigenous communities.
According to historical records of the time, the Lenape people first encountered Europeans when the Italian explorer, Giovanni da Verrazano, came to Manhattan Island in 1542. Back then, in the region of 15,000 members of this particular indigenous community were living in what would now be called New York City. Although it did not happen immediately, Lenape people were pushed off the most desirable land, especially Manhattan, in a long process, much of which – but not all – took place after the formation of the United States.
Essentially, indigenous communities, like the Lenape people, were forced westward as colonial expansion took place. In the end, Lenape communities were forcibly resettled by the US government in places as diverse as Kansas, Missouri and Indiana. Some even found their way to Canada, principally Ontario. For many who still live in such communities, for such a globally renowned art museum to acknowledge the legacy of the land it stands on is something of a step forwards. Many see it as a way such institutions can not merely publicly acknowledge former wrongdoing but of changing internal cultures such that more is understood of the relationships between indigenous communities and modern-day America.
A Wider Movement?
More and more people within the art and museum worlds have noted that US institutions have been going out of their way to acknowledge their histories and how they’ve often interplayed with indigenous communities. The New Museum, a contemporary art gallery also located in Manhattan, recently acknowledged that it, too, is sited on the former homeland of the indigenous Lenape people, for example. The Art Institute of Chicago has also stated it is located in the former homelands of the Ojibwe, Odawa, and Potawatomi people.
These acknowledgements are reflected in the Met’s move. As a statement that the gallery put out said, simply installing a plaque on a building is not, on its own, enough. “Even more meaningful [than the plaque]… is the Met’s renewed commitment to pursue substantive collaborations with diverse Indigenous communities,” it said. The statement went on to add that the Met would ‘actively embody’ the museum’s collective acknowledgement of the past and to put in train social change that would extend beyond it doors.
About the author – Manuel Charr
Manuel Charr is a journalist working in the arts and cultural sectors. With a background in marketing, Manuel is drawn to arts organizations which are prepared to try inventive ways to reach new audiences.