The Implications of an Object

Cultural Material Acquisition and Exhibition at the Moab Museum

Tara Beresh, Curatorial and Collections Manager, Moab Museum

Museums worldwide have been criticized for the controversial display of indigenous objects. In years past, the Moab Museum showcased prehistoric ancestral objects such as ceramics, basketry, projectile points, and sandals. Some visitors admired these objects, inquiring: How old is this? Who made it? Did they live here in Moab? Other visitors avoided the space because of the presence of these objects.

It is important to remember that while many ancestral objects are thousands of years old, they are tied to ancestral people whose descendants are very much alive, residing in Moab and across the North American Southwest. Often, the descendants of ancestral Native Americans have unique cultural understandings about these objects. They can articulate from oral tradition the sacredness of an object and have legitimate concerns about how their ancestor’s belongings are treated. Some Native teachings mark the presence of ancestral objects as not only offensive, but physically and spiritually harmful. It is also widely known that most artifacts on display at museums have been acquired by either systematic archaeological removal, or wholesale looting. For cultural groups who believe that ancestral sites are living spaces, it is easy to see how grievances may be felt from bearing witness to objects taken from ancestral lands. Individuals from local Native American tribes, such as Navajo, Ute, and Paiute, have expressed their avoidance of many museums for this reason.

So how or why does the Moab Museum have these artifacts? There are a variety of ways museums come into the care of cultural materials. In the mid-1800s, direct trade between early settlers and the Navajo and Ute was common. In this way, locals came to possess contemporary (now historic) Native American wares. However, with the passing of time it also became a trend for non-indigenous communities to scour the canyons, dotted with
ancient cliff dwellings, for “treasure” reminiscent of Richard Wetherill’s encounter with Mesa Verde in 1888.

Finding valuable pots, baskets, and other ancient relics provided early families with a means to trade for food, medical services, and other necessities, especially during hard times. Moab’s first “Doc” J.W. Williams came to acquire many ancestral objects in this way. He would later contribute this private collection to the National Park Service and Moab’s museum.

J.W. William’s display of artifacts in his drug store on the corner of Main Street and 1st North in Moab. Williams was Moab’s first physician. He began practicing in 1896 and was semi-retired by the 1920s. Among his many interests was collecting ancestral and contemporary Native American wares, which he displayed in his drug store, one of the many businesses that kept him busy in his retirement.

While historic items were directly traded to white emigrants, it is far more likely that artifact, or “pot-hunting” escapades have long been the primary contributor to the marketing of prehispanic ancestral goods, freely collected and bartered for until the passing of prohibitive laws in 1906, 1966, and 1978.

Unfortunately, the passing of these laws has not completely halted artifact collecting. To that point, the casual pocketing of a single ceramic piece (currently a legitimate problem) is not only illegal but culturally inappropriate. Some private collections have ended up in museums by the good intentions of those who inherited them, however, often lacking any contextual information. Alternately, not all cultural remains have been obtained illegally. Some objects originate from known sites on public lands that have been scientifically documented and collected to preserve and prevent loss due to theft. Still, the fact remains that they have been removed from living spaces that are sacred to the descendants of our region’s First People.

The Moab Museum’s Collection contains indigenous artifacts, such as these pottery fragments, from unknown sources and unknown localities that have been donated over the past several decades. The illegal and culturally disrespectful practice of pocketing pottery fragments continues to be a significant problem.

The presence of indigenous artifacts in a museum setting, without consultation with local tribes, alongside speculative and often inaccurate signage can be a source of contention for regional Native communities. Today, museums often managed by non-Native Americans are seeking new ways to share the diverse stories of their region, while honoring the variety of cultures that our history comprises. Approaching this task will require that to the best of our ability, we tell full truths about our region’s history instead of glossing over the parts that paint Euro-Americans in a bad light.

During the remodel for the reimagined Moab Museum, consultations were conducted between trustees, staff, and members of the Ute and Hopi tribes to hear authentic perspectives on telling Native stories in the new galleries. The Museum recorded valuable teachings that will help guide the installation of a First People exhibit, as well as incorporate Native voices throughout the region’s complex historical timeline.

The Museum will be particularly mindful when approaching these exhibits; ancestral objects considered for loan by other agencies have been carefully reviewed. Interpretive text for these objects is derived from tribal consultations and reviewed prior to display by tribal members for accurate representation. The Museum also adopted a Land Acknowledgement Statement in Fall 2020, which will be displayed in the exhibit space. The Moab Museum will continue to consult with and build relationships with regional tribes with the intention of cultivating a positive space that makes all cultures feel welcome.