In a little side gallery at the Museum of Fine Arts right now, there’s a thing — a monstrous, silver-plated, hideous-in-every-way thing — called the “Progress Vase,” but really, there’s nothing about it that isn’t regressive in one way or another. From its garish, glinty, high-baroque stylings to its declaration of what “progress” actually is, it’s a monument to terrible old ideas, perfectly embalmed.
It was made in 1875 by local silversmiths Reed & Barton as a centerpiece of the 1876 Centennial International Exhibition in Philadelphia. Being a product of its time is its only excuse. A plinth on its left represents the 19th century with a bucolic scene of ladies in long gowns, their children lolling on the lawn, reading peacefully; it invokes the enlightened civility of high-Classicism, complete with Roman laurels. On its right, you’ll find the 15th century, where bare-chested Native Americans — a description of the day describes them, absurdly, as “Aztecs” — either perch on a wild horse or clutch a spear and a shield (which looks vaguely Pacific-Islander), clearly in violent pursuit of something, or someone.
Whatever high craftsmanship it represents, it’s artless in its implication: that “progress” is not only toward something, but away from something else. Its description calls the Native American figures “primitive . . . savage . . . thinking of nothing but war.” Never mind, I suppose, that the bulk of the savagery of colonial conquest came from the conquerors, with their wholesale genocidal agenda. That’s the little detail that “progress” often leaves out.
So what on earth is it doing here, in an enlightened contemporary institution where public education is paramount? The answer is: Exactly what it should be. Like at the Centennial exhibition, the vase is a centerpiece — now in “Collecting Stories: Native American Art,” the first of three extended exhibitions in which the museum dives deeply into an under-explored trove of its Art of the Americas collections. Unlike at the Centennial, the vase’s ungainly, cringe-inducing presence here is exactly the point (“We’re responsible for telling the full story, however painful or uncomfortable it may be,” said co-curator Layla Bermeo).
All around it, indigenous objects from the MFA collection are arrayed with pointed intent, and none so much as the biil, a traditional Navajo dress, that faces the vase with a subtle, unmistakably confrontational pose. Its elegant beauty — simple red and black, cinched at the waist with a beaded belt — emanates a quiet sense of defiance, squared up to the horror show across the room. Made by the contemporary weaver D.Y. Begay, it seems to say: “As if.”
There’s a strange symmetry here, a bad spirit the museum appears to want to exorcise: The vase was showcased the very same year the MFA opened as an intended hub of enlightenment in 1876, and almost one and a half centuries later, they couldn’t be further apart. Unlike everything else in the show, the vase was acquired very recently, in 2015, and “Collecting Stories” seems made almost entirely for it. It’s both a touchstone for the show itself — a relic of the outdated thinking the museum wants to leave behind — and a pivot point for the MFA to move forward. It is, to me, an explicit mea culpa: We’ve done too little, for too long. That changes now.
That’s a lot to put on a pocket-size show, perhaps — funded by the Henry Luce Foundation, the series was conceived as a “laboratory,” Bermeo told me, to dust off and rethink neglected portions of the museum’s collection — but let not its size be the measure of its ambitions. MFA director Matthew Teitelbaum called the exhibition, which was co-curated by Dennis Carr, the MFA’s curator of American decorative arts, an opportunity for the museum to “change the dialogue around our Art of the Americas collection, including the museum’s responsibility and obligation to create a platform around Native American art.” Indeed, it seems a clear-eyed corrective, right down to something as perfunctory as the labels, which in most cases are twinned: with words from an “expert,” who in some cases collected the piece, and then more from Native American sources that situate the piece in its use and social role.
There’s no small amount of pushback here: The presentation of a sketch by George Catlin, renowned for his portraits of Native American chiefs (and for his lengthy orations on noble savagery, never mind what his subjects might have said or thought), flips the subject from observed to observer. “I beseech you, shake off the base fetters of the Bad Spirit which bind you hand and foot, and turn your feet from the crooked war-path into the path that leads to peace,” reads a quote from Keokuk, the subject of a small Catlin portrait here; the artist himself is notably silent.
The show reads almost as a confessional. Albert Bierstadt’s “Indians Near Fort Laramie,” a painting from 1859, is a bizarrely flat pastiche, looking entirely like a worn-out cliché — which strikes me as the point. Meanwhile, what might be dubious acquisitions by missionaries on conversion sorties are presented with clear-eyed frankness (“That the Sioux Indians are cunning, the pale-faced American knows too well . . . ,” reads a comment from Rev. Herbert Probert, who donated a headpiece on view here). The museum’s wavering commitment to indigenous culture throughout much of the 20th century is aired out just as clearly: One vitrine puts on view a selection of woven baskets and hats the MFA long ago shipped out to other museums. For this show, they had to borrow them back.
It feels like an owning up, which seems about right. One thing “Collecting Stories” makes clear is that the MFA’s commitment to Native American culture has been a far from sustained thing. (Teitelbaum prefers the term “episodic.”) Bermeo said that in researching the show, she couldn’t always tell how an object had ended up in the collection at all. (“Some questions we can’t answer, and we’re trying to be clear about that,” she said.)
“Between World War I and the 1970s, the presence of Native American art was nearly, if not completely, non-existent,” wrote Gerald R. Ward, the museum’s senior curator of American decorative arts emeritus, in a 2010 catalog on the MFA’s history of presenting Native American culture, made for the opening of the Art of the Americas Wing that year.
The MFA’s history here was typical of American institutions: A late-19th-century craze for acquiring Native American objects made it a foundational element of the new museum, though it petered out in the early 20th century as Modernism took hold. The MFA’s interest, like many others’, waned; the collection, with no clear trajectory or narrative, languished largely out of sight.
Not long after, the MFA quietly started giving pieces of its collection away. Some of those objects have made their way back to a vitrine in “Collecting Stories,” alongside some of the things the museum decided to keep. Bermeo puzzled over their similarity: a pair of woven women’s caps, almost identical — one kept, the other dispatched, the archives a blank on when or why. She points to a phrase blown up on the wall that underscores the abrupt, arbitrary-seeming nature of the museum’s shift: “The storage has been further relieved by disposal of objects clearly not needed for the collection,” taken from the museum’s 1922 annual report. Well then. At least we know where things stood.
And while Ward wrote of a “renaissance” in the museum’s engagement with Native American culture in recent years — the Art of the Americas Wing integrated indigenous culture into the display — the MFA seems to me to remain a bit of a laggard. Nearby, the Peabody Essex Museum has been a pioneer in its engagement with Native American culture, creating not just exhibitions in close consultation with indigenous groups but programs and fellowships to help advance scholarship in the field among Native American communities (it announced a $1.3 million grant from the Mellon Foundation for its fellowship program earlier this month).
In many of the western states, deep engagement that knits historical indigenous culture to its contemporary manifestations is flourishing; museums like the Heard Museum in Phoenix or the Denver Art Museum, like PEM, are standing back to let Native Americans lead the discussion on how their culture should be displayed, gradually dismantling the idea of indigenous culture as the province of anthropological artifact — culture under glass.
And apologia in this realm are indeed becoming the norm: Look no further than the Metropolitan Museum of New York’s recently opened “Art of Native America,” a promised gift of 116 objects spanning nearly 2,000 years, which it has framed as its own reset button. “The art of the indigenous peoples of North America [has] not been prioritized in the spaces” of the museum’s American wing, Ned Blackhawk, a Yale historian and a member of the Te-Moak tribe of the Western Shoshone, says in a video on the museum’s website. He calls the show “the beginning of a major if not radical reorientation of not just the Met but other American museums’ commitments to seeing past a limiting vision of what it means to call something American art.”
That would be nice. The MFA seems to know it has some catching up to do, and is working to acknowledge the gap, however modestly, with an implicit promise to do better. First on the list? On March 3, the museum will host a symposium with Emily Burns, an assistant professor of History at Auburn University; Heather Leavell, director and curator of the Cyrus E. Dallin Art Museum in Arlington; and Jami Powell, the Hood Museum’s curator of Native American Art — a position the MFA doesn’t have (it brought in indigenous curators to consult on its Native North American Gallery as well as “Collecting Stories”). The symposium’s subject? “Appeal to the Great Spirit,” the Cyrus Dallin bronze sculpture that has adorned the museum’s front lawn since 1912, around the same time its Native American collection started to leave the building.
To me it’s a bizarrely prominent symbol for a museum whose commitment to Native American culture has, historically, been spotty: an indigenous chief astride a horse, arms outstretched to the heavens in a classic, cliched victim’s pose. It’s complicated: Dallin, who was white, was reportedly an advocate for Native American rights in his day, a critic of the genocide and marginalization that indigenous people had suffered for centuries. But in a text in the exhibition accompanying a miniature of the piece, Powell, who is a citizen of the Osage Nation, praises the artist’s skill while chafing with “the inaccurate message that it continues to convey to broader publics, particular as the most visible representation of American Indians at the MFA.”
There’s a lot to unpack there. And in March, unpack it they will. But if “Collecting Stories” is a baby step, then addressing that sculpture — its prominence and the story it tells — is the giant leap. And it may be too much, too soon, but I’ll just say it: Let Native Americans determine the fate of “Appeal to the Great Spirit.” That, frankly, would be progress.
COLLECTING STORIES: NATIVE AMERICAN ART
At the Museum of Fine Arts until March 10. 617-267-9300, www.mfa.org
Murray Whyte can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @TheMurrayWhyte