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Peabody Museum Opens New Native American Poetry Playlist

As Cambridge celebrated Indigenous People’s Day earlier this week, the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology added a new piece to their first floor Native American galleries: the Native American Poets Playlist. The installation, which opened on Oct. 1, is an effort co-sponsored by the Harvard University Native American Program and the Woodberry Poetry Room and a new idea that features the contemporary poetic voices of Native Americans with historic artifacts.

The playlist consists of eight contemporary poems by indigenous poets drawn from the anthology “New Poets of Native Nations,” edited by Heid E. Erdrich. Museum visitors are encouraged to check out an audio device and listen to the poems, each read aloud by its respective poet. The playlist will be available at the museum until Nov. 30.

Polly Hubbard, the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnology Education Department Manager, created the concept of a poetry playlist for the museum visitor’s experience. She was first inspired to push the museum to celebrate Indigenous People’s Day in a contemporary way after reading a newspaper article about Cambridge officially celebrating Indigenous People’s Day rather than what was Columbus Day just over two years ago. Her initial idea was to create an exhibit, but she quickly realized it was not feasible for the timeframe, opting instead to refresh what was already in the museum. Hubbard noted how Native American history is oral history.

“It would make total sense to bring in this contemporary orality back to this space — and we have it in some little spaces in the more up to date exhibits — but we don’t have the emotional life through these poetic arts,” Hubbard said.

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The Peabody Museum first agreed to the idea in December 2017, and the project became an experiment. Hubbard said she began by looking through the poems from the Woodberry Poetry Room. Because she was searching for contemporary voices, Shelley Lowe, Executive Director of the Harvard University Native American Program, and Zoe Eddy of the Wendat/Huron peoples, a graduate student at the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences, recommended an anthology from which Hubbord eventually selected the poems. Lowe and Eddy also served on the poem selection committee.

Throughout the compilation process, the selection committee received constant feedback from indigenous communities and additional support from museum staff. Eddy saw this playlist as a much-needed critical intervention in the museum world, which has historically overlooked minority perspectives. She noted the playlist speaks to the existence of art movements within contemporary native communities.

“People assume we’re either relics of the past or that we’re static, inertia-filled beings of the present,” Eddy said.

The curators wanted to create an ebb and flow of emotion with the poems, which showcase a range of voices young and old. One poem in the playlist is in the Ojibwe language, followed by an English translation. Margaret Noodin, poet and Associate Professor of English and American Indian Studies at the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee, said she had never presented poetry aurally in a museum before.

“For me, the most important thing about the playlist is that our languages are alive and that we’re able to have voice,” she said.

The artists and curators of the playlist hope that people begin to think more about the spaces they occupy, and that museum visitors that step inside will want to hear more.

“The Native Indigenous voice on this continent can really help people feel anchored in place. Whether it’s part of your heritage or whether it’s not, to know this space differently is something people can benefit from,” Noodin said.

The playlist acts not so much as a trial run but as proof that spoken poetry can have a role in museum spaces. By implementing the unconventional, the Peabody Museum has created an exhibition not only to be be seen but also understood, critiqued, and praised. 2019 marks the International Year of Indigenous Languages, and, by then, Hubbard hopes to develop another project based on the feedback from this playlist for the Peabody Museum.

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