Published: August 22, 2022

Andrew W. Mellon Connecting Communities to Collections Program

Michelle Brownlee, Collections Assistant, Gantz Family Collections Center

Alert

New grant supports collaborative action with Native American communities.

Three people stand around a table motioning to each other over a table with cultural materials displayed, including pottery, baskets, and beaded items.

Starting in 2022, the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has provided one million dollars in funding to connect indigenous communities in the US with their collections held at the Field Museum (#MellonConnections). The program aims to build on and expand previous collaborative work at the museum during the creation of the new permanent Native American exhibition Native Truths: Our Voices, Our Stories.

There are three elements to the #MellonConnections program:

  • Early Career Fellowships

  • Loans to local tribal institutions.

  • Collaborative visits and knowledge exchanges

As the museum field is shifting to provide a space to uplift and prioritize traditional methods of collections care, it is imperative that organizations like the Field Museum work to assist in the development of the careers of those who have access to such knowledge and are looking to enter into the museum field, specifically in the area of Collections Management. While the Native Truths exhibition project gave us the opportunity to seek out additional staff who have been able to create culturally competent methods for collaborating with indigenous communities to develop respectful collections care methods, we are looking to give back to the communities who have shared so much through the initiatives of this grant. 

Career development

Early career fellowships are intended for people with Associate’s, Bachelor’s, or Master’s degrees who are interested in working in museums. We are particularly interested in applicants of Native American heritage who are recent graduates from Tribal Colleges and Universities (TCUs) and Native American-Serving Nontribal Institutions (NASNTI).

Mellon funding will permit the museum to host two Fellows each year. Those selected will receive paid hands-on training in curation, collections management and registration, and item care, with support for relocation expenses and conference attendance at the annual meeting of the Association of Tribal Archives, Libraries, and Museums (ATALM). We hope that this additional funding reduces the hesitancy to relocate to Chicago. 

The particular focus of work for each Fellow will be improving the care, documentation, and community connection to a particular area of the North American collection with which they have an affiliation. We will support the Fellows with assistance in early career development.

Early Career Fellows for North American Anthropology Application

Collaborative loans

Loans to tribal institutions are intended to reduce long-standing barriers for descendant communities who want to see their stuff. We have already run a trial program of collaborative loans with the Chicago area-based Trickster Cultural Center, and this program is now on its second rotation. We are seeking to expand this program to more tribal institutions in the Midwest in order to keep direct, lively connections between the museum and these communities. We have funding for consultation on item selection, item transport, and humidity-controlled display cases for interested institutions.

Collaborative visits and knowledge exchanges

Learning is a two-way street in which museum staff and descendant communities work together to interpret and care for collection items. Communities can teach museum collections staff about specific items, specific item types, and specific cultural approaches to collections care. Museum staff can share their knowledge with communities about collections documentation, care, and conservation treatment. A major aim of the Museum’s future collaborative program is to ensure the continued two-way exchange of information between Indigenous communities and the Museum, both inside and outside the Museum. We hope to do this in three main ways.

Collaborative Care

We want to improve the care of the Native collections at the Field Museum through partnership with community member(s) who are knowledgeable in the traditional care of particular items. Dialogues with museum staff have focused on tangible or physical aspects of collections, such as materials, how things are made, indigenous repair methods, past restorations, residues, and evidence of use, as well as intangible aspects of collections, including contextual information regarding original uses, meaning and significance, associated stories and memories, and culturally appropriate storage and use. Funding for travel, accommodation, and expenses is provided along with an honorarium to allow community knowledge keeper(s) to come to Chicago for collaborative care activities.

Site Visits

The second type of knowledge exchange will be based on Field Museum staff visits to Native institutions, community centers, and museums. Museum staff can answer questions for the community and provide expertise directly in situ. Staff will also be able to learn directly from communities in the communities’ own space. It is expected that most visits will be completed in about three working days.

Workshops

The final type of knowledge exchange will be structured as an in-house, three day, eight-person workshop each year. Workshops will be designed to present useful information to attendees on topics such as pesticide mitigation, conservation, collections topics (e.g., cleaning and restoring materials such as feathers and leather), photography, and making storage housing. Travel, per diem, and honoraria will be provided for workshop participants.

Staff On the Project

Jamie Kelly - Head of Anthropology Collections

JP Brown - Senior Conservator, Anthropology Collections

Erin Murphy - Conservator, Anthropology Collections

J. Kae Good Bear - Conservation Cultural Liaison, Anthropology Collections

Emily Starck - Assistant Collections Manager, Anthropology Collections

Michelle Brownlee - Collections Assistant, Anthropology Collections

Eli Suzukovich III - Research Scientist, North American Anthropology