Portland Art Museum leaders apologized Monday and said they were revising policies after an employee told an Indigenous woman she was not allowed to wear a traditional woven baby carrier while visiting an exhibit of Native American art on Saturday.
A visitor services employee walked up to the woman Saturday afternoon inside the Dakota Modern: The Art of Oscar Howe exhibit to say that she had to take off her baby carrier, which violated the museum’s no-backpacks policy.
The mother refused. She left the museum and shared a photo of herself later that day on Facebook wearing the baby carrier inside the exhibit. Both she and the baby are smiling.
“The Portland Art Museum - where being Indigenous is cool as long (as) you are part of the exhibit and not actually practicing your culture,” the woman wrote alongside the photo. “The irony: we were at an Indigenous art exhibit. Racism is alive and well in these walls.”
The woman did not immediately respond to inquiries Monday from The Oregonian/OregonLive.
The Portland Art Museum commented on the woman’s post around noon Monday to apologize, then posted a public apology on its Instagram and Twitter shortly before 5:30 p.m.
“We deeply apologize for causing harm,” the museum’s Facebook comment stated. “We are heartbroken that you and your family had a negative experience at the museum, especially in an exhibition celebrating Native American art.”
Kathleen Ash-Milby, the Portland Art Museum’s curator of Native American Art, said the incident further destabilized an already fraught relationship between Indigenous people and art institutions. She confirmed that the Portland Art Museum has several traditional woven baby carriers in its collection of Native American art.
“The relationship between Native people and museums has not always been an easy one,” Ash-Milby said. “We are really working hard to build our relationships with our local Native constituents and I think this makes us all really sad that it happened and it could be setting us back in those relationships.”
The Portland Art Museum currently bans backpacks – or anything worn on the back – for several reasons, including that people have accidentally backed into pieces of art and other visitors while wearing one, or have carried weapons into the museum, said Brian Ferriso, the museum’s director and chief curator.
But the Saturday incident was an example of the policy being enforced too rigidly, Ferriso and Ash-Milby said. Ferriso did not say whether the employee was reprimanded.
Portland Art Museum leaders had a meeting on Sunday about the incident and gathered with staff on Monday to discuss what happened. They are currently reviewing their policies to allow more flexibility and to prevent a similar situation from happening again, said museum spokesperson Ian Gillingham.
“We’re trying to change the institution here and what we’re really trying to do is not be defensive and change the policies where they need to be changed,” Gillingham said. “That joyous picture of a baby in a baby carrier should have stayed joyous.”
Lead Photo: Artist Oscar Howe’s response to curator Jeanne Snodgrass, who rejected his submission to the 1958 Philbrook Indian Annual art competition by saying his submission was a “fine painting–but not Indian.” His fiery response helped shape the way we look at contemporary Indigenous art. Photo by Jarrette Werk / Underscore News / Report For America