This year, a Wagner College Intermediate Learning Community combined classes in art history (Museum Studies, taught by Dr. Sarah Scott) and anthropology (North American Archaeology, taught by Dr. Celeste Gagnon) to learn about museum ethics through hands-on study of an archaeological collection. The results of the ILC’s studies are on display in the Horrmann Library’s Spotlight Gallery in an exhibition entitled, “What is Slackwater? Prehistoric Native Americans, Archaeology, and Ethics of Material Culture Display.”
Students made several trips to New York City museums whose missions are the display of Native American material culture. They developed their knowledge of the museum exhibition methodologies behind this fascinating and sometimes problematic category of objects.
They also took part in the cataloguing of a collection of artifacts from an archaeological dig known as the Slackwater Site, in Pennsylvania’s Lancaster County, on loan from the State Museum of Pennsylvania. The exhibit on display here represents a number of topics developed through the students’ research projects that reflect ideas and concerns investigated during the semester.
One group looked at the process of archaeological excavation. This group examined how a site is investigated, beginning with the initial research phase, obtaining of permits, primary survey, through the actual digging process, artifact recovery and analysis and record keeping.
Bridging this topic with that of Eastern Woodland Culture was another group of students that worked on how the materials from an excavation are reassembled in the process of reconstruction. Reconstructing a site is essential for interpreting the excavated remains and gleaning information from them about the culture or civilization that originally inhabited the site. Students collected important artifacts from three specific houses to display in the Spotlight Gallery, illustrating how the reconstruction process facilitates understanding of particular dwellings’ functions in their original context.
The most common artifact type found at Slackwater was ceramics. However, chipped stone, beads, pipes and organic materials were also excavated. Students interested in these particular artifact types have illustrated how an understanding of the manufacture, use and symbolic meaning of these objects help to advance our understanding of the culture that created them.
Another group of students then developed research projects on how the Slackwater site fits into the larger Shenks Ferry archaeological horizon, and ultimately the even broader group of cultural developments in Eastern Woodland Native American civilization.
The exhibition of Native American material culture is sometimes problematic, as the students have learned from museum trips and class readings. Objects are frequently purchased, looted or, in some cases, even excavated through unethical channels, only to appear in museums. Although not all objects of Native American origin are acquired through unethical channels, the display of such objects is sometimes problematic. Issues of cultural patrimony, museum display theory and national laws relating to the exhibition of Native American culture are thus an important part of the class’s research agenda as well. Particularly engaging is the involvement of contemporary artists with Native American heritage.