Penn Museum exhibit challenges misperceptions of Native Americans

The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape people are an active tribe from southern New Jersey, where they hold state recognition. Visitors hear stories of their challenges and successes as they preserve their culture in "Native American Voices: The People—Here and Now." Credit: Lucy Fowler Williams
The Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape people are an active tribe from southern New Jersey, where they hold state recognition. Visitors hear stories of their challenges and successes as they preserve their culture in “Native American Voices: The People—Here and Now.”
Credit: Lucy Fowler Williams

A placard at the front of Penn Museum’s new exhibition, “Native American Voices: The People—Here and Now,” poses the question, “What does it mean to be Native American?” The case above seems to answer that question in a very traditional, even stereotypical way: It contains an eagle feather war bonnet — a headdress straight out of every Hollywood western you’ve ever seen.

But step inside and you’ll discover a much more diverse view of who Native Americans are and were. The exhibition includes traditional artifacts alongside contemporary artworks, providing a far-reaching and stunningly varied look at the distinctive cultures of Native American people across multiple generations.

“As our title suggests, the goal of this exhibition is to transform your understanding of Native America today,” explained curator Lucy Fowler Williams at a preview of the exhibition last week. “We do so by focusing on Native American agency and activism through the work and voices of some of today’s most influential and visionary leaders across the country, and we do this against the backdrop of 300 remarkable objects in Penn Museum’s expansive Native American collection.”

Those objects range from tomahawks and buffalo robes to mixed-media installation pieces and lacrosse equipment. Items separated by thousands of years sit side-by-side in the display cases, offering an expanded perspective on the show’s four main themes: the local Lenape nations, the original inhabitants of the Delaware valley; the importance of land and sacred places for Native people today; celebrations and commemorations; and new initiatives in Native American health, economics and education. The objects are accompanied by interactive digital touchscreens with information and context for the items, all situated around a virtual campfire in the center of the room.

“I love that the history and the current situation and the art of the past and the present are all blended together,” said Tina Pierce Fragoso, coordinator of Native American recruitment at the University of Pennsylvania. A member of the Nanticoke Lenni-Lenape tribe of Bridgeton, N.J., Fragoso was one of the exhibition’s four main content advisors.

“I hope this exhibition helps people recognize that Native Americans are here every day,” Fragoso says. “They’re sitting beside you in your classrooms, they work in your office. I want this to change your perception of what you think a Native American is and invite you in to see our communities today.”

Native American Voices: The People—Here and Now
Now open
Penn Museum
3260 South St.
$10-$15, 215-898-4000


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