Artist Andrea Carlson on the unspoken history, unseen stories, and awkward moments behind her Mia project “Let: an act of reverse incorporation”

Andrea Carlson wasn’t sure the museum would go for it. After all, as she puts it, the participants and collaborators in Let: an act of reverse incorporation are “kicking in the front door of historic institutional power.”

Carlson, who grew up in Minnesota and now lives in Chicago, has long drawn on her Anishinaabe (Ojibwe), French, and Scandinavian heritage to investigate cultural consumption, history and identity, and the intrinsic power of storytelling. This summer, she enlisted volunteers to carry replicas of objects from Mia’s collection out the front door of the museum and (temporarily) bury them in the lawn of the adjacent Minneapolis College of Art and Design. A related series of commentaries from Twin Cities writers and storytellers, serving as alternative object labels, are now displayed throughout the galleries. And on November 10, at 6:30 p.m., she and a panel of her collaborators will present and discuss a film of the procession that took place this summer.

Here, in a Q&A, Carlson explains the practices and personal experiences of museums that inspired the project.

Carrying replicas of Mia objects during filming of the “Let” project on July 28.

The Let project contemplates the historical role of museums in collecting, preserving, and displaying objects—including some things never intended to be preserved or displayed. How did you approach that history?

The authority of museums to tell the stories of indigenous objects came from a history of cultural dominance. As empires expanded their domains, collecting objects from the indigenous inhabitants was seen as collecting for posterity in anticipation of cultural assimilation. The term “posterity” is important because colonial empires and their surrogates were buying futures in indigenous cultural scarcity and death.

This is part of the story of museums. I’m interested in the stories that accompany objects, and often these stories are very telling. They locate power within the object and sometimes they locate power within those who own or owned the object, such as the benefactor, monied collector, or the museum itself. Those all become part of the narrative of the object within the landscape of the museum. Take for example the article “A Man and His Mountain,” about the prized Jade Mountain in Mia’s collection—we honor those who have.

One of my collaborators, Sun Yung Shin, draws on the museum itself as an object—a shrine or monument. She cites the “Our History” story from Mia’s website and discusses the fact that when Mia was founded and built by “citizens of Minneapolis” in 1915, on indigenous soil, Native Americans were still denied citizenship and the right to vote in Minnesota.

Has it always seemed strange to you that museums display indigenous objects?

I don’t find it strange at all. When visitors are confronted with an unfamiliar object they might appreciate it on a formal level for its design or craftsmanship. Or, they might look to the wall plaque to give the object a context, to justify its foreignness, or give it value as an old or scarce thing. I do that myself. I walk past walls and walls of man-made, European paintings, and I look to the wall text to tell me why I must value the thing presented.

Sometimes I look for myself in the wall text and my story isn’t there. For example, the figurine America, made around 1745. The text says, “Here, ‘America’ is portrayed as a idealized semi-nude Native American woman, who is depicted in regal garb among some of her attributes, animals and plants native to the American continent.” Whose ideal? Not mine. She is an allegory. She is ideal to settlers because she is ripe for European husbandry, or child-bearing age, fertile like the bountiful land, noble and ready for a smooth transition of power.

Mia curator Jill Ahlberg Yohe, who oversees the museum's collection of Native American objects, buries a piece of replica art.

Participants in the “Let” project during filming inside Mia.

In the film, you let some of the objects return to the earth, by burying their replicas. How did that feel?

English is the language of thieves. It’s a very noun-based language—we love objects. On the other hand, Anishinaabemowin, or Ojibwe language, is a verb-based language. It’s all about the actions and relationships between things. I wanted this project to live on as a film because I wanted the work to be less about the replicas or the objects they reference, and more about this grand procession out of the museum, the act of putting things in the ground near the museum and the act of storytelling.

When we filmed, I was surprised that the solemn expression of solidarity I had imagined ended up being joyous. While filming the short procession out of the museum, I wasn’t very entertaining for the participants, and I was nervous that they might get bored. But they were talking, laughing, and reconnecting or making acquaintances with each other. It isn’t uncommon for me to find myself in situations where I’m, say, tying a shawl of fabric cow heads around one of my heroes, like [Native scholar] Ruth Voights. To engage my work as an accomplice means that you might have to get awkward. Luckily, Minneapolis is full of terrific minds, people who expect a level of awkwardness in their art participation.

What role do the labels play in the project, and what do you hope visitors take from them?

There is a will within the museum to do right by those represented within its collection and to include voices critical of the cultural power the institution has come to represent. The project’s title Let came about only after I considered the reciprocity between the participants and the museum. What is the museum allowing for, what are the participants willing to say? The museum ended up trusting us when I initially didn’t think they would.

In the end, the labels and voices of the participants are what make up the Let project. I know that this project will be followed by many more like it or in the spirit of it. The public wants to talk about race and gender. Collections organized around ethnography exist in a world that is ever more critical of the display and representation of race. The participants and collaborators in the Let project have strong voices and, with disarmingly personal and sympathetic language, they are kicking in the front door of historic institutional power. And Mia, with the help of the Carolyn Foundation, has supported it.

Mia curator Jill Ahlberg Yohe, who oversees the museum's Native American objects, buries a replica artwork.

Mia curator Jill Ahlberg Yohe, who oversees the museum’s Native American objects, buries a replica artwork.

Your work is in museums, you’ve collaborated with museums. What do you feel is the modern role and value of encyclopedic museums like Mia?

When you look across a gallery of objects in plexiglass boxes, it looks like a graveyard, a point that Sun Yung Shin makes in her narrative for the film. I think that some of the objects in the collection are sacred. Some people feel that things like drums, masks, and pipes house spirits, and that the spirits should be feasted, acknowledged, and allowed back into ceremonies. That really excites me. If the objects have to be out, let them out, enliven them.

But some things shouldn’t be out.

When I was a kid, I used to play around the Grand Mound near International Falls, Minnesota. I noticed the pits on the side of the mound where bodies and artifacts were dug up, and I knew, even then, that the bodies should return to the ground and rest in peace. I feel like graveyards shouldn’t be looted. Laws like the Native American Graves and Reparation Act (NAGPRA) are important and they reassure me that museums are doing their best to comply where grave looting, theft, and war spoils are concerned. Clearly, the British Museum needs to return the Elgin Marbles. Encyclopedic museums are in a strange negation period when it comes to their colonial past. Good luck to them.

My feelings are complicated. I watched videos of ISIS destroying objects and the ancient Syrian city of Palmyra. I remember seeing footage of the Iraqi National Museum after it was allowed to be looted. During World War II, European museums took to burying some of their objects during air raids and ground attacks to protect them and prevent them from being looted. This conversation is old and new. It has broken my heart over and over again. But within recurring conversations is where the museum’s role is, and it shouldn’t have a one-dimensional fix. I think the Let project respects Mia as a forum, and I hope that public access to the collection can be seen as more than passive viewing.