The Metropolitan Museum of Art has incomplete provenance information for 85% of the 139 Native American objects loaned or gifted to the museum by Charles and Valerie Diker, according to a report published today, April 25, by ProPublica. The Dikers hold a vast collection of Native American art and have donated to The Met since 1993. Their 2017 gift of 91 Native American objects sparked a newfound emphasis on Native art at the New York City institution and prompted the museum to hire its first curator of Native American Art in 2020.
In 2017, The Met also announced it would display the works in its American wing for the first time (before that, Native art was exhibited in the Art of Africa, Oceania, and the Americas department). The newly acquired collection went on view in 2018 and is still showcased in an ongoing exhibition titled Art of Native America: The Charles and Valerie Diker Collection. Charles Diker has served as an honorary trustee of the museum since 2018.
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The ProPublica investigation parsed through online records of 139 Diker gifts to discover that the vast majority had underdeveloped historical records — a sign those works may be stolen or fake. The findings also illuminate discrepancies between the objects’ descriptions in museum labels and online materials and the historical realities that contextualized their origin and acquisition into museum collections.
The report also alleges that The Met did not tell Native communities about the new gifts in a timely fashion. Under the 1990 Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act (NAGPRA), federally funded museums have six months to notify and consult tribes when they acquire a sacred or funerary object. (A joint ProPublica and NBC News project launched in January found that museums held over 100,000 Native American remains, a direct violation of NAGPRA.) Today’s report notes that NAGPRA does not mandate this requirement for loaned artworks, which comprise many of the Diker collection objects at The Met.
The investigation highlights one such object: a quiver and arrows set displayed at The Met in 2019. The museum lists the object’s culture as “Apache.” The report alleges this characterization “shows a lack of due diligence” in consulting with Native communities. “If Met curators had contacted any of those tribes, they might have learned which group created the items,” the report reads. NAGPRA representative Ramon Riley of Arizona’s White Mountain Apache Tribe stated he believes the arrows are a funerary object, which would require them to be reported.
ProPublica also details the history surrounding the quivers, which were excluded from the object’s museum label. It explains the brutality of US Army General William Tecumseh Sherman’s military campaign against the Apache people in the 1870s. It also talks about the Smithsonian’s request that Sherman delivers “specimens” to the Washington, DC, institution. Those objects were then distributed to other museums. The Met has since removed the object from view, citing cultural sensitivity, according to ProPublica.
Other objects showcase provenance gaps, even when that information is available. The history of an 1870s Alutiiq mask, for example, lists the only whereabouts of the object before 2003 as “The Horner Family, Mill Valley, CA.” The pillaging of Alutiiq objects, especially in the late 1800s, is well documented and can be traced through 2008, when the Dikers purchased the mask. The theft of these objects is also tied to a century of massacre, abuse, and cultural erasure. The Met’s object description does not mention this, instead explaining the artwork’s spiritual significance. (The label also adds that early 20th-century modernists were “drawn to the bold simplicity of such works.”)
The Met acquired the mask in 2017 but notified the Alutiiq Tribe of Old Harbor only last year. The report states that The Met sent notices to 63 tribes in September 2022, after ProPublica inquired about some of the Diker collection objects.
In an email to Hyperallergic, a spokesperson for The Met wrote: “The exceptional works by Native American and Indigenous artists included in the Diker Collection have helped transform The Met’s conventional narratives of American art and culture, and encouraged more inclusion and celebration of creative expressions from communities whose voices and artistic practices have long been marginalized and ignored.”
“Our goal is to continue to work collaboratively and in support of Native American and Indigenous communities, while foregrounding their perspectives relevant to the collections currently in our care,” the spokesperson continued. “We are proud of the progress we have made, and we recognize there is still much work to do. The Met is dedicated to the continuous work that NAGPRA requires, most importantly strengthening relationships with source communities, hosting consultations and community visits, reviewing and supporting potential repatriations, and developing opportunities for collaborative partnerships.”
In an Opinion piece published on Hyperallergic in April 19, The Met’s first Curator of Native American Art Patricia Marroquin Norby outlines the complexities of repatriating Native objects and delves into The Met’s increased focus on Native American art and communities. She also states that the Diker collection has “already been well-researched and exhibited at numerous institutions nationwide including the Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian, the Seattle Art Museum, and the Amon Carter Museum of American Art.”
“More important, but less visible to the public, were the much-needed collaborations with Native American source communities regarding the items currently in The Met’s care,” Norby writes. “Some tribes seek repatriation, while others favor a co-stewardship approach or prefer that works remain at the museum. Community needs are diverse, yet very specific.”
Charles and Valerie Diker told ProPublica they had assessed “all available information relating to provenance” before acquiring their Native American works. “For nearly 50 years, inspiring appreciation for the arts of Native America has been our greatest passion,” they added. Hyperallergic was unable to reach the Dikers for comment.