Many people recognize and collect Edward S. Curtis’ portraits of Native Americans and canyon and desert landscapes in America’s west, but his real intent was to document the lives of the indigenous tribes he spent nearly 30 years studying.
Epic in its breadth and depth, Curtis’ The North American Indian consists of 20 leather-bound volumes of ethnographic research, along with 723 portfolio photogravures depicting Native American life and culture west of the Missouri River.
Muskegon Museum of Art plans to tell the whole story of The North American Indian and show the entire body of work this summer for what it believes to be the first time.
More than a century ago, as a way to help fund the project, Curtis sold The North American Indian as a subscription to various libraries, museums, universities and wealthy collectors — even the King of England received a gift set.
The MMA is fortunate to have one of the sets and long held it for safekeeping on behalf of the Hackley Public Library. Although there is little documentation as to why, Hackley Public Library’s director Lulu Miller in 1908 signed up for a subscription.
“She had barely been in the job a year, and just decided to do it,” said MMA’s Executive Director Judith Hayner. “It was $3,000 (around $74,000 in today’s dollars) and something that was going to happen over time.”
The museum officially acquired the library’s set No. 70 in 2014, around the time Hayner got the idea to display all 723 portfolio photogravures, or fine art intaglio-printed photographs.
“We had done a couple of small shows of Curtis’ work a few years ago, and I was really struck by the interest of that,” she said. “Then I started realizing it was very, very likely that no one had put them all out before.”
Now, the museum has devoted nearly all of its galleries to its new exhibit, Edward S. Curtis: The North American Indian, with the goal of attracting a national audience and bringing large crowds to downtown Muskegon.
The intent is to shine a light on Native Americans’ rich cultural heritage through the work itself; explore Curtis’ life, influences, achievements and the controversies surrounding his work; and explain what drove Curtis on a desperate, decades-long quest to document a people he considered “a vanishing race.”
The exhibit includes all the volumes on display, original field recordings of Native music, historic objects from Curtis’ life, and examples of Native American cultural artifacts on loan from other museums.
Hayner called in help to organize the large undertaking. Guest Curator Ben Mitchell, who previously lived and worked at art institutions in several northwestern states, said he gave it serious thought before agreeing to take this project on, because of its sheer size.
While half of the photogravures are portraits on display throughout the museum, the main Walker A & B galleries feature more than 300 photogravures arranged thematically: families and children, people at work, men at war, the spiritual world, architecture, and many more.
More than 10,000 Native Americans participated through photographs and interviews, resulting in the 20 bound volumes with 5,000 pages of narrative text, 82 languages captured, at least 40,000 photographs, and 10,000 wax cylinder audio recordings.
There are another 2,200 photogravure prints bound in the books, but the photographs are just part of the story, Mitchell said. Curtis and his team, including journalists, anthropologists and interpreters, were gone for months and years at a time doing field research between 1907 and 1930.
The books record ceremonies, lists of genealogy and clan structure; tribal lore; traditions; arts; and details about food, housing, recreation and other customs. He also wrote biographical sketches of tribal leaders.
“These are the kinds of things that can sometimes get lost when people just focus on his great photographs,” Mitchell said. “The depth of his work often gets lost. To be surrounded by it will show the breadth of the scholarship.”
Both Hayner and Mitchell hope people will appreciate the historical value of The North American Indian and the huge undertaking that it was. They hope visitors simply come and experience it and make their own judgments.
“It’s a remarkable accomplishment,” Hayner said. “What he captured is unique and would not exist if it had not been for the work he did.”
In many ways, the exhibit is about history, and along with additional programming will help people understand the depth and richness of early 20th-century Native American culture, how strong it is today and how lucky we are it has persisted, Mitchell said.
“As a social issue, the belief at the time was that Indian culture would completely disappear,” Mitchell added. “What we can be celebrating is that he was wrong. Indian culture today, this exhibit reminds us, is a vibrant part of the complex fabric that we call the United States.”
Edward S. Curtis: The North American Indian
Muskegon Museum of Art
296 W. Webster Ave., Muskegon
May 11-Sept. 10
Opening reception: May 11, 5:30-8 p.m.
muskegonartmuseum.org, (231) 720-2570