Darienne Turner on How to Indigenize the Museum

The newly appointed curator of Indigenous Art at the Brooklyn Museum of Art shares her thoughts on what it means to decolonize arts institutions

BY Terence Trouillot AND Darienne Turner in Interviews | 04 JUL 23

 Terence Trouillot Firstly, congratulations on the new appointment at the Brooklyn Museum. You will be the institution’s inaugural curator of Indigenous Art: how does it feel? I know you don’t leave your post at the Baltimore Museum of Art [BMA] until August, but I’m curious to know your thoughts on coming to New York and joining such a reputable institution.

Darienne Turner I am so excited. I think it’s going to be amazing working with a team that’s really dedicated to thinking through different questions around representation within the museum. I will be sad to leave the BMA, but I am grateful to be able to stay on as a contract curator on a major project that I’m working on currently.

Darienne Turner headshot
Darienne Turner portrait, undated. Courtesy: Darienne Turner

I’m looking forward to the exhibitions scheduled in the near future at the Brooklyn Museum, and to thinking through ways to Indigenize the museum. To me, this means infusing Indigenous perspectives into the galleries. That encompasses a broad range of practices, including things like foregrounding Native worldviews while selecting artworks for an exhibition or using Indigenous languages in wall texts.

Something I’ve been grappling with in my curatorial practice is the issue of ‘decolonization’ – a hot term that people use in various interesting ways, but in the context of museums I really think that it centres the wrong audience. The word literally centres colonizers. But what really works against the colonial armature that encyclopaedic museums rest upon? For me that work happens through Indigenizing, through bringing in Indigenous artists and actually listening to what they have to say. I’m looking forward to doing that at the Brooklyn Museum.

TT I was reading up on your first show at the BMA in 2020 – ‘Stripes and Stars: Reclaiming Lakota Independence’ – and I was fascinated by the syncretic traditions that came out of the early reservation period for the Lakota people. Can you speak a little bit about this exhibition and the research that went into it?

DT One practice that’s key to the way I work as a curator is listening to the objects. The first thing I did when I joined the BMA was to go into the museum vault. I went through so many drawers and shelves of material. Have you ever been in a museum vault? It’s incredible; you go in with an idea of what you’ll find, having looked at the database, but when you open those drawers, worlds reveal themselves. In the BMA vault I came across a couple of objects that really caught my eye, and inspired the Lakota show: a child’s bonnet and boy’s vest that had bold American flags in their beadwork designs. These objects were conundrums for me. I asked myself, ‘Why would the Lakota people, at this moment of intense conflict with the US government, use the symbol of their oppressor on these objects?’ The question catapulted me into deep research into the history of the Lakota people, and the moment of their transition to the reservation in the late 19th century. Essentially what I arrived at, as indicated by scholarship in the field, was the knowledge that the Lakota people very intentionally leveraged patriotic images like the flag in order to make space for themselves to enact cultural practices that had been banned. So, luckily, the 4th of July aligned closely to the time of year that Sun Dance ceremonies were typically held: the Lakota people recognized an opportunity. They gathered together and did ‘patriotic’ activities like readings of the Declaration of Independence with the enactment of cultural practices that were outlawed, such as giveaways and puberty ceremonies, all taking place under the cover of the American flag. Listening to the stories of the objects is a big part of my practice, as is engaging with community. That’s something I’ve done for all my exhibitions – speaking with community members and listening to the stories they want to tell.

Stripes and Stars: Reclaiming Lakota Independence, exhibition view
'Stripes and Stars: Reclaiming Lakota Independence at the Baltimore Museum of Art', 2020–2021, installation view. Courtesy: Baltimore Museum of Art; photograph: Mitro Hood

TT I wonder if you could speak about some of the challenges you encountered at the BMA in terms of research for exhibitions, for instance. And what kind of challenges do you expect in your new position at the Brooklyn Museum?

DT The biggest challenge I confronted at the BMA was that Native representation had been sorely lacking for decades. Until I did the Lakota beadwork show, the last exhibition of Native art at the BMA was in 1993. For most of my lifetime, Native art hadn’t been given its own space on its own terms at the BMA. So, there was a lot of community engagement that had to happen. I needed to tell everyone, ‘Hey, we – Native people – exist. And the museum exists in service of Native communities.’ The BMA has a cultural property policy that allows bearers of Native culture to come in and engage with our objects in a ceremonial context. That reflects a new direction in the  field and other institutions are doing the same now. Building trust and interest were important undertakings.

There are stronger foundations in terms of community outreach at the Brooklyn Museum. The Museum has demonstrated a sustained commitment to Native communities through both its exhibition history and programming, so I get to build on already existing relationships. I’m very excited to walk through the museum vault with Native experts and culture bearers, to pull out drawers and open cabinets and take time with each object and listen to what they have to say.

TT I wonder if you could speak a little bit about your experience studying at Bard Graduate Center, where I know you studied medieval material culture, and notably not art history. Can you tell me a little bit about how that informs your curatorial practice today?

DT I split my time between studying Native material culture and medieval material culture. I wrote my thesis on medieval art and really thought about the ways that materials communicate messages. The big difference in studying material culture as opposed to art history is that it has an eye to the lived experience of objects – the stories that are housed within them and the relationships they have with the source community. While at the Bard Graduate Center, I studied at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York; we met weekly with curators to speak about their plans to re-envision their American art wing. This was before they did the Charles and Valerie Diker Collection installation [Art of Native America] and they were just playing around with ideas about what it means to bring Native artworks and put them in direct conversation with works by white artists that represent Natives.

TT Can you talk about what it means to be a kind of trailblazer in this field in some respects? I mean, not to say that there haven’t been curators of Indigenous Art that preceded you, but obviously you were the first full-time curator of Indigenous art at the BMA and now the first at the Brooklyn Museum. What does that mean to you and who are you looking to for inspiration?

Brooklyn museum exterior
'Studio 54: Night Magic' opening night at the Brooklyn Museum, 2020, exterior view. Courtesy: Cindy Ord/Getty Images

DT I always look to leaders in the field, because I’m not the first person to do this kind of work. I want to learn from experts and those whom I consider my elders that have been working in this colonial structure for so long. One of my mentors is heather ahtone – she is the senior curator at First Americans Museum in Oklahoma City. She has been foundational in supporting me and making me feel like there are other Native curators out there fighting the good fight, too. Everything I do is arm in arm with other leaders in the field and I’m so grateful for their camaraderie and companionship. For so many of us working in this field, we end up being the first – the first Native person, the first Native art curator in general – or we also often end up being the only: the only Native person working at an entire organization, the only ones curating Native art, etc. I work in an institution where there are no other Natives on staff. In light of that reality, I take seriously the ways in which my position enables me to support community, One piece of that is bringing additional Native experts into different roles.

In my case, I’m bringing in Elise Boulanger, who is Osage, to work as the curatorial research assistant for the exhibition I will continue to work on at the BMA. She’s brilliant, and she’s the future of the field. I see it as my responsibility to uplift people like that and help them feel comfortable and seen. It’s also important to recognize that the work of Indigenizing museums should not just fall to Native curators. We need non-Native partners to advance our mission, too. There are a lot of non-Native curators who have organized trailblazing exhibitions. Leila Grothe, the associate curator of contemporary art at the BMA, and I are working closely together for 2024 project and I would be dead the water without her. It’s important to be able to reach across the aisle and collaborate with curators of all backgrounds. Even though Leila curates contemporary art and is non-Native, she is deeply, deeply invested in the same things that I am as a Native curator. All these kinds of relationships and collaborations will feed into the work I do at Brooklyn Museum. My role is about building friendships and building trust and ensuring that audiences see Native art as something important and foundational to the work of museums. If I had to distil my role into one idea, it’s that it’s my responsibility to show folks that Native people are here today. These are vibrant communities, alive and creating art since time immemorial. They didn’t die off with the pilgrims, they’re here today. And they have many different things they want to share. What’s more: it’s not one group, this is a prismatic body of people, with many different beliefs and positions. That’s my message to non-Native and Native viewers alike.

Main image: 'Stripes and Stars: Reclaiming Lakota Independence at the Baltimore Museum of Art', 2020–2021, installation view. Courtesy: Baltimore Museum of Art; photograph: Mitro Hood

Terence Trouillot is senior editor of frieze. He lives in New York, USA.

Darienne Turner is an enrolled member of the Yurok Tribe of California, an art historian and
a museum professional, whose mission is to bring Indigenous art to new audiences and
interpret it in fresh and accessible ways. Turner currently serves as the assistant curator
of Indigenous art of the Americas at the Baltimore Museum of Art and is the first Native
person to ever hold such a role at the institution. She will join the Brooklyn Museum as its first full-time curator of Indigenous art in August 2023.