Museum Sovereignty Fellowship
From Patricia Wenstrup, Project Fellow
In the fall of 2021 I was a fellow at the Smithsonian Arctic Studies Center. During my fellowship I worked with Dawn Biddison, a museum specialist. One of the most exciting aspects of our work together was learning about how the Arctic Studies Center is working to reimagine what a museum is. We considered how can a physical space, like a museum, can find new ways to engage with people outside of the museum setting.
One example of how the Arctic Studies Center is doing this is the Conversations series. The Conversations series is an online webinar hosted by the Smithsonian and the Inuit Arts Foundation. Each webinar features a panel of Inuit artists that discuss the issues they face while creating their work. It was incredible to spend time listening to the artists talk about cultural sovereignty and how it is linked to concerns like environmental agency, political borders and intergenerational trauma. It was also wonderful to hear the artists speak about how cultural practice is a form of resiliency and joy. In addition to learning about—and from— the webinars, I spent time with Dawn learning about how the Arctic Studies Center operates. Each week I had a chance to ask her questions and discuss museum practices with her.
This experience was invaluable to me. First, the fellowship allowed me to spend time listening to contemporary Indigenous artists speak. Hearing people discuss work that they’re passionate about is life-affirming. Hearing artists speak enthusiastically about how their creative work and Indigeneity is intertwined was doubly so. Additionally, the fellowship helped me with my educational goals. Currently I’m a MFA student working on a degree in poetry. My thesis work examines ekphrasis, or the link between visual art and poetry that responds to it. Part of my thesis considers the role museums play in enabling, or limiting, access to Indigenous art. While working with Dawn I had the chance to further my understanding about how museum practices, colonialism and Indigenization shape current museum environments. Through these conversations, and through hearing the stories shared during the Conversations webinars, I learned that issues of colonization and Indigenization in curated spaces are more nuanced than I initially thought. I learned new ways of thinking about how museum spaces can facilitate encounters between the items they curate and the people who visit. It was an extremely rewarding experience full of joy and connection. I’m excited to bring the lessons I learned during this fellowship into my future studies and work. Thank you for this amazing opportunity.