On March 30, 1989, A Time of Gathering: Native Heritage in Washington State opens at the Burke Museum in Seattle. The exhibit was originated by the 1989 Washington Centennial Commission and its Lasting Legacy Committee as part of the celebration of Washington's statehood centennial. The committee chose the Burke Museum to host the exhibit, marking the first time the Burke formally collaborated with Washington tribes in developing an exhibit. Robin K. Wright (b. 1949), the museum's new Curator of Native American Art, and Roberta Haines of the Colville Confederated Tribes curated A Time of Gathering. They worked with exhibit manager Patricia Cosgrove (b. 1955), museum and committee staff, and a Native American Advisory Board to identify artifacts and artwork and develop text describing tribal history and contemporary Native communities. Wright will continue to work with tribes and the advisory board on issues arising from passage of the Native American Graves and Repatriation Act in 1990 and on future museum exhibits. She will also work to develop and maintain relationships with scholars, tribal members, and the general public around the museum's collections.
Planning for the Centennial
In 1985, the 1989 Washington Centennial Commission was formed by the state legislature to plan for the 100th anniversary of Washington becoming a state. In turn, the commission established a citizens' committee, the Lasting Legacy Committee, one of whose priorities was "an exhibit focusing on the first inhabitants of the region now known as Washington ..." ("Welcome Statement," 11). Working for the committee, Patricia Cosgrove developed the prospectus for the exhibit and began raising funds for it. In 1986, the Lasting Legacy Committee chose the Thomas Burke Memorial Washington State Museum (later renamed The Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture), located on the University of Washington campus in Seattle, to host the exhibit.
A team of people came together to develop A Time of Gathering. Patricia Cosgrove was hired by the Burke as exhibit manager for A Time of Gathering, and she coordinated the exhibit staff and continued raising funds to support the exhibit. The Burke Museum had just hired a new Curator of Native American Art, Robin Wright, who was well-suited to curate the exhibition. Wright had studied with Bill Holm (b. 1925), University of Washington art history professor, as an undergraduate and graduate student. Through him, she learned a model for collaborating with artists, elders, and other Native people to learn about art, artifacts, and related cultural practices. Roberta Haines, a member of the Moses Band of the Wenatchee Tribe of the Colville Confederated Tribes, co-curated the exhibit with Wright, and Cecile Maxwell (later Hansen), chair of the Duwamish Tribe, served as protocol officer.
Working with Area Tribes
The Lasting Legacy Committee's mandate included a requirement to work with the state's tribes in developing the exhibit. While individual curators and scholars had worked with Native Americans before, there had not been a formal relationship between tribes and non-tribal museums in Washington, or at most museums in the United States, before this exhibit.
In April 1987, the exhibition curators had their first meeting with the Native American Advisory Board (sometimes referred to as the Native Advisory Board). Made up of representatives from tribal museums around the state, the board provided guidance regarding sensitive subjects. The membership of the board varied over time, but included Vivian Adams (Yakama), Greg Arnold (Makah), Linda Day (Swinomish), Leonard Forsman (Suquamish), Kaye Hale (Lakes Band of the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation), Vi Hilbert (Upper Skagit), Charles Sigo (Suquamish), Nile Thompson (representing the Steilacoom Tribal Museum), and Agnes Tulee (Yakama).
Following discussions by the advisory board that resulted in selecting the name A Time of Gathering in November 1987, exhibit organizers began reaching out to tribal members around the state. Protocol officer Cecile Maxwell informed tribal governments about the exhibit and developed cultural contacts. Curators Wright and Haines went out to meet with tribal members. Presenting slideshows to groups, they explained the exhibit's purpose, sought guidance on what objects and ideas should be included, and identified people who could advise them on the exhibit's written content. According to Wright, "The sharing of slides and information at grassroots gatherings resulted in the alteration and improvement of the content of the exhibit in response to the feelings of the Native people of the state" ("Introduction," 18).Wright wrote in the exhibit catalog that, "Perhaps the most striking realization that I gained from this experience is the extent to which there has been a wide gap between the academic/museum/institutional world and the experience of Native people living both on reservations and in urban settings" ("Introduction," 18). She reflected on the types of information she was able to gain from traditional academic research in libraries and museums and the knowledge she gained from individual conversations, noting that the institutional research "does not reveal the meaning that these objects had for the original makers and still have for their descendants" ("Introduction," 18).
The advisory board helped the curators sort out some of the difficult questions that arose regarding the display of objects. Wright explained several such circumstances in the catalog: the inclusion of a sweat lodge as suggested by Martin Louis, a Colville elder; the exclusion of several pieces of clothing because one or more of them were likely stolen from the grave of Chief Moses, a leader of a band of the Wenatchee Tribe; and the establishment of criteria for including photographs in which religious objects are visible.
The organizers and advisory board saw the exhibit as an opportunity to address the lack of accurate and complete information about Washington's tribes. One of the advisers, Vivian Adams, wrote about the effect of this lack:
"Through this exhibit we sought to dispel the stereotyped images of Native people that may have been learned from stories of early settlers, from incomplete history books, or from movies and television. This stereotyped image is one of the Plains people -- warriors in splendid feather and buckskin finery. In reality, all of Washington's bands and tribes have characteristics unique to their environments, and most are considered especially peaceful societies" ("Welcome Statement," 12).
It was also a primary goal to convey a sense of the contemporary life and art of the state's tribes.A Time of Gathering
The exhibition, which opened on March 30 in Washington's centennial year of 1989, was laid out in three sections, with artifacts, art, and text panels used to tell the stories of the state's tribes. The first area, the Intertribal Welcome, featured 35 panels, one for each tribe that participated. Each panel had the tribe's name, logo, and a statement written by that tribe.Visitors then moved into the historical section, which was divided into Eastern and Western sides, split down the middle in the same way the state is cleaved by the Cascade Mountains. The Eastern side featured elements of Columbia Plateau tribes' economic, social, and spiritual lives. A life-size tule-mat lodge showed how local resources were used, and there was also a scene of fishermen dipnetting at Celilo Falls and a sweat lodge. The Western side had a cedar-plank house like those found in the forested landscape west of the mountains. A Quileute sealing canoe and a Saukâ€‘Suiattle shovel-nosed canoe rested on a beach.
Both sides had cases displaying artifacts used for hunting, fishing, and trade; items made with beadwork and skins; and basketry. Both also included text panels telling about important events in Native history, such as diseases that swept through Native communities in waves and killed a devastating number of people and the boarding schools many Native children were forced to attend.The third section, the Masterpiece Gallery, showcased fine art. Some of the objects were created well before first contact with non-Native people in the eighteenth century. Others demonstrated the influx of new materials and other influences from non-Native explorers, fur traders, and settlers. The exhibit also included more-recently-created items, including several commissioned specifically for A Time of Gathering, such as a cast-glass sculpture by Martin Oliver, Caroline Orr's painting "Omak Encampment, 1988," and Greg Colfax's "Wild Man of the Woods" mask.
Legacy, Honors, and Continuing EffortsThe legacy of A Time of Gathering extended well beyond the exhibit's closing in October 1989. The Native American Advisory Board continued to meet monthly with museum staff. In addition to discussing museum collections and exhibitions, the Burke sought the board's assistance in implementing the requirements of the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA). The 1990 federal law required museums to inventory the Native American cultural items, including human remains and sacred objects, in their collections and consult with tribes about the treatment, repatriation, and disposition of those items. Wright remarked in an interview that the relationship was mutually beneficial: Tribal members learned about what objects are held in the museum's collections and museum staff learned information about the objects that can only be gained from oral histories shared by tribal members.
In 2015, Seattle Mayor Ed Murray honored Robin Wright for her work with a Mayor's Arts Award. She was recognized as a "Cultural Ambassador" for a career spent sharing art history and culture with the community. Over that career, Wright built upon her experiences as Bill Holm's student and preparing A Time of Gathering as she worked to open up the museum's collections to tribal members and scholars for study, increasing both Native people's knowledge of pieces in the collections and curators' understanding of the artists who made those pieces and the cultural context in which they were created. Over the decades she continued to cultivate strong relationships with Northwest tribes and to help educate non-Native people in historical and contemporary Native American art and culture.To ensure that those efforts would continue into the future, in 2003 Wright helped establish, and became director of, the Bill Holm Center for the Study of Northwest Coast Art. The center funds research by tribal members and other scholars in the Burke's collection and publishes books to share information about Northwest Coast Art. It also reaches out to the public with programs and a website, which includes a growing body of information about Washington's Coast Salish art. Often, art from British Columbia's First Nations and Alaska Natives is featured more prominently in public exhibitions, publications, and classes on Northwest Coast art. As of 2015 Wright continued working to increase awareness of the artistic traditions of the Coast Salish tribes of Western Washington.
The development of A Time of Gathering broke new ground in museum practices in 1989. It succeeded in sharing Washington tribes' rich and varied history and in demonstrating that the tribes continue to be vibrant communities. In many ways, however, the long-term influence it had on relationships, the sharing of knowledge, and program development has been even more important than the exhibit itself.