Ron Hamilton, a leading Nuu-chah-nulth artist, has been appointed a co-curator of a renovations project at the American Museum of Natural History in New York City. (photo curtesy of AMNH/D. Finnin)
A renowned Nuu-chah-nulth artist has officially been given a rather prestigious position with a famous museum in New York City.
Ron Hamilton, whose Indigenous name is Haa’yuups, has been appointed as a co-curator for a massive project being undertaken by the American Museum of Natural History. Hamilton, a member of the Hupacasath First Nation, will be heavily involved with the museum’s project to update and restore its historic Northwest Coast Hall.
The American Museum of Natural History, which was founded in 1869 and has 45 permanent exhibit halls, is considered one of the world’s most distinguished scientific, educational and cultural institutions. The museum’s Northwest Coast Hall, which opened in 1877, is its oldest cultural gallery. Hamilton said museum officials have talked about updating the hall for a very long time.
“They’ve now gotten to the point where they are doing it,” he said.
The massive renovation project is expected to be completed in 2020, in time for the museum’s 150th anniversary celebrations.
“To be given the task of deconstructing it and then reconstructing it is truly amazing,” Hamilton said. “It’s a massive responsibility. It’s going to be fun and it has been fun.”
Hamilton was officially appointed as the co-curator of the project about two weeks ago. But for more than a year now he has made several trips from his Vancouver Island home to the Big Apple to discuss project details with museum officials. He anticipates he’ll have to make as many as 10 more trips to New York City – he’s not sure how long each visit will last – during the course of the project.
Hamilton’s work, however, will be rather time-consuming. The Northwest Coast Hall has more than 10,000 artifacts, many of which are not currently on display.
“We have to identity materials that are going to go into the new exhibit,” he said. “And we have to look at as much of the existing collection as possible with a thought of whether it will go into the new one.”
And that is not something that can be accomplished overnight.
“To do that will take a very long time,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton will be working alongside Peter Whiteley, who is the other co-curator of the museum’s renovation project. Whiteley is also currently the museum’s curator of North American Ethnology.
“With the reimagining of the Hall, our goal is to present the art and material culture of the Pacific Northwest in a way that highlights the ideas, voices, and perspectives past and present behind these wonderful historical pieces,” Whiteley said in a news release officially announcing Hamilton’s appointment. “I eagerly look forward to partnering with Haa’yuups to achieve that goal as we work to create a modern exhibition hall that can serve as a new exemplar and transcend the boundaries that have too often divided museums and native communities. We want the hall to be a welcoming home for all First Nations/Native Americans, where material culture serves as a portal into understanding the complexities and depths of native ideas and art-forms.”
No doubt numerous back-and-forth discussions will be had on various pieces.
“Some items are interesting but they might not be attractive or visually appealing,” Hamilton said.
Hamilton anticipates he will thoroughly enjoy his work.
“I love looking at the stuff my ancestors made,” he said. “There’s a great deal of that stuff there.”
With each artifact he examines Hamilton also takes the time to try and put himself in other’s shoes.
“I love looking at old stuff and walking back in the minds of people who made it,” he said. “I love speculating and looking at old material and knowing this was highly intelligent focused people who were exposing their thoughts. For me it’s a joy to look at that stuff.
Hamilton will be bringing his work home with him, so to speak. Though museum artifacts will all remain in New York City he’ll be thinking about and working on the renovation project from home.
“I’ll be doing work at home for sure,” he said. “Since we began the process over a year ago I’ve been thinking about the things we need to do.”
One thing that Hamilton is hoping to accomplish is to put Indigenous people in a better light.
“When people think of Indigenous people the litany of words that come to describe them are not necessarily flattering,” he said.
He’s hoping those who visit the museum in the future will be describing Indigenous people with words such as intelligent.
“I want them to think truly gifted, intelligent skilled people made that,” he said of those who will be observing artifacts in the renovated museum.
Hamilton, 69, has been considered a leading Indigenous artist, scholar and historian for more than three decades now. He has previously worked with officials from the National Museum of the American Indian in Washington, D.C., London’s British Museum, Paris’ Musee de l’Homme and Mexico’s Museo Nacional de Antropologia.