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"Seeing Indians"

“Expanding cultural competencies for interpreting American Indian subject matter in museums through cognitive perspective taking” a NEA grant project

"Seeing American Indians" occurred in the changing “jewel box” area of the Irene Helen Jones Parks Gallery of Art as temporary exhibit site in spring 2017 at the Autry Museum of the American West.

Along with my co-investigator, Occidental College Assistant Professor of Cognitive Science, Aleksandra Sherman, we hosted an exhibit of six Edward S. Curtis portrait photographs of American Indian peoples. We collaborated with 60 volunteer participants in museum-based research. Volunteer participants were asked a series of questions about the portraits while wearing sensor devices.
NEA grant description: To support cognitive perspective taking research conducted with viewers of American Indian material culture in museum and lab settings. Behavioral, eye-tracking, and physiological data will be collected to demonstrate that perspective taking expands appreciation for American Indian art by affecting perceptual and emotional responses. Research will be conducted with undergraduates at Occidental College and with volunteers at the Autry Museum of the American West with the aim of enhancing visual competencies and deepening cultural interpretation. Our work will contribute to the growing literature on the importance of arts to values of citizenship, human rights and social justice.

Our aim was to enhance the museum visitor experience by helping museums gain a better understanding of how to present American Indian history and culture to the public.

In tandem with the Autry exhibit, we have selected 30 Curtis portraits to utilize in a lab setting with students. These photos were selected with the following criteria in mind: regional diversity, gender balance, age variance, traditional and contemporary dress and a range of emotional expressions.

Research findings from our study will significantly contribute to educational programming in the arts and museums. Biased and narrow framing of distinct minority groups inhibit the educational goals of museums in reaching diverse audiences. We aim to increase understanding of American Indian culture through the arts and in doing so, enhance the educational experience of all viewers.

Our project will bridge the arts and sciences by employing converging methodologies: experimental laboratory studies and naturalistic, but controlled experimentation in a museum setting. This interdisciplinary approach is of essential to both museum studies and the cognitive sciences, particularly because of the scarcity of experimental approaches occurring outside the laboratory, and the scarcity of museum studies drawing on experimental research.

2017 lecture with Co-researcher Aleksandra Sherman - “Science Meets the Museum: Seeing American Indians.” Works in Progress, Autry Museum of the American West, Los Angeles, CA.

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