Museums are everywhere in our communities. I thought a lot about that on our recent trip through Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Texas, as we visited a number of wonderful museums and reflected on others we have recently visited.

Museums started a couple of thousand years ago, as European communities began to accumulate surpluses of wealth, and used those surpluses either for religious or decorative purposes.  Governments, religious organizations, and even prosperous businesspeople collected pieces of art that went beyond utilitarian, daily usage.  In many cases, famous artisans were invited to live with the monarchs and wealthy businessmen, producing amazing works for both their patrons and for other purchasers.

The collections grew, and in some communities there arose dedicated structures to house and display these collections. In some cases, the collections were embedded into the community, and in other cases they were isolated and carefully preserved.  Throughout Rome, for example, one can see fountains and statues created several hundred years ago by the government and the Roman Catholic Church.  The artwork found in the Vatican is breathtaking, focusing on a narrow element of western culture.

Museums strive to gather the “best of the best” for their collections.  A piece of art that is labeled “museum-quality” has a recognition that it is among the best of its type.  Artists constantly strive to produce the best that they are able, and for the gifted and very talented the recognition of skill is bestowed by museum acquisition.

And the spread of museums has moved worldwide.  It is estimate that over half a million museums of all types and sizes are currently operating in the world.  They range from the very large, such as the Smithsonian in Washington D.C., the Louvre in Paris, and the British Museum in London, to small and very local museums such as the wonderful Copper Museum in Clarkdale, Arizona.

The purposes of museums are centered on conserving history and providing education to new generations.  Both purposes are important, as the items and stories contained in museums helps carry culture from one generation to the next.  Knowing our ancestral past, whether a hundred years, a thousand years, or even ten thousand years in the past, helps give each of us perspective, and gives us guideposts toward an unknowable and uncertain future.

The Native Americans carry forward their culture through storytelling.  They tell stories with song, dance, regalia, pictographs, petroglyphs, and other means to celebrate their rich heritage, teaching their young the beliefs, values, and attitudes that form the culture specific to each tribe and pueblo.  This is a vital function for the continuation of culture.  Museums are the European attempt at storytelling, displaying art and giving narrative descriptions of the circumstances around that art.

The very best museums bring the stories alive, as we recently saw with the Indian Market at the Heard Museum in Phoenix.  They hosted two days of Native American artists and their works, demonstrations, cultural ceremonies, music, food, and celebration of Native American art.  This annual event fits wonderfully with the Heard Museum’s mission, as they tell the stories of the Native Americans and the cultural disruptions and sometimes devastation brought about by their interface with European (new American) culture.

We have seen similar successes at museums like the Museum of Northern Arizona in Flagstaff, hosting a two day Zuni Carver market, the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture in Santa Fe, and the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center in Albuquerque.  Each of these museums tells a part of the story of the southwestern Native American peoples, adding threads to that rich tapestry.

Every time I visit one of these museums, I learn more about the daily lives of Native Americans.  Some are famous artists like Lucy Lewis and Margaret Tafoya, but many are just ordinary people like me.  I learn more of how they interacted with a sometimes harsh natural surroundings, struggling to find water and to grow crops.  I learn more of how they lived in daily harmony with Mother Nature, carefully taking what they needed for life and honoring Mother Nature for the blessings they received.  I learn more of their family live, and how important the extended family is to the Native American culture.  And yes, I learn more of the dramatic changes brought about to their culture as it collided with the new American culture from Europe, rarely beneficial to the Native Americans.

But above all, I have learned to understand the Native Americans as individuals, people with dreams, hopes, struggles, and daily lives.  I have had a chance to glimpse the world from their perspective.  Above all, I have had a chance to build friendships with many people throughout the Southwest, talking, laughing, sharing stories and meals, and becoming a part of each other’s lives.  Some are artists, and I marvel at their level of skill, and some are ordinary Native Americans traveling the journey of life.  I treasure each and every one of them, and I appreciate the role of museums for giving me a basic educations and rough understanding of the background and history of these proud peoples.

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